Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve and the Holy of Holies

I never owned a Volkswagen Bug, but nearly 30 years ago I proudly bought (and still have a copy) of the "Compleat Idiot How to Keep Your Volkwagen Alive" guide, first published in 1969 by an aerospace industry 'dropout'. With its 'groovy-looking' and clear diagrams of repair tasks, the guide seemed to promise a better and simpler life amid the technology -- like the motor vehicle -- that we depend on for all the best of what we can do, but that also threatens (think, global warming) to destroy us. It said, 'there's another way.' We can have material things that serve us, instead of us having to live a 'rat race' existence where we feel enslaved to those things and an obsessive need to consume and constantly acquire more and more. It said, "small is better."

Until recently, I had never owned an Apple computer. But I always admired them. They also carried with them this promise -- one Steve Jobs credited in part to the influence on him of the Whole Earth Catalog -- of a better way to live. A way that did not mean we always had to pursue having lots of complex gadgets. One that said that it was possible to own things that were beautiful -- beautiful with an almost Japanese aesthetic that found beauty in the small and simple.

This is part of why so many of us seem to mourn so much at hearing of the death of this man who was, in fact, not someone most of us knew at all. He stood for something much beyond his actual deeds. He stood for that 'small is better' belief and aesthetic. His very life was a beacon of hope for America and its future. He embodied the possibility that the great and terrible rent that came upon this country in the 1960s amid the Vietnam war -- the split between Counterculture and Nixon's Silent Majority, a split that has grown into the current great gap between Red and Blue states -- could be healed. Rather than being in conflict, the goals of the Counterculture and of commerce could come together. This greatest success of American companies in our time -- this Apple -- showed that one could made piles of money by bringing Counterculture values to life. In a sense, Jobs was a modern-day priest, someone who appeared almost magically to be able to enter the Holy of Holies of our time, a place that would have destroyed an ordinary human with its beautiful and terrible power. Jobs could see clearly things that were obscured for the rest of us. The music world despaired of finding a way to distribute music on the Internet that could also allow money to be made. Jobs, on the other hand, saw a way to make it simple -- just sell the songs individually for $1 (minus a penny) each. It seems almost obvious in retropect, but only this 'priest' could both see it and pull together the resources to make it happen.

Jobs' greatest inheritor is Google, another company that has found fantastic financial success while pursuing a sense of higher values -- especially its famous "don't be evil" maxim -- as well as pursuing simplicity in the user experience. It remains to be seen what the future of these two great American companies is and whether they will continue to uphold their values. But as we approach this Yom Kippur, we can bring a hope -- a prayer -- not just for individual existences to prosper in the year (and years) ahead, but also a hope for the nation and the world: a hope that we will find a way towards a small-is-better prosperity in the model that this 'priest' (or prophet) modeled for us. A prosperity that does not mean destroying our planet. A prosperity where we can be truly satisfied with what we have. A prosperity where every person has the opportunity to live out his or her dreams. A prosperity that frees us from violence, homelessness and pain. A prosperity that does not forget the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

Tzom Kal.


Of course, there are other reasons we have so much emotion at Jobs' passing. First is how young Jobs was -- only 56. It shows that no matter how blessed a person might be in many parts or their life -- including the wealth needed to afford the very best of medical care -- many years are not guaranteed to any one of us (certainly, a theme with resonance on Yom Kippur).

I also feel like I _owe_ Jobs (or at least Apple computer). Apple has _taught_us so many things that we often paid them nothing for. For example, Apple taught me that a notebook computer was something I both _needed_ and could afford. I will never forget that group project session in 1993 when I was finishing up my first masters degree. Another student pulled his Powerbook 100 (see pic above) out of his bag and pulled up the group project we were all working on -- we finished it together right there and then in that student lounge instead of each having to go home (or to a computer lab) to work on our individual sections independently. It blew my mind and I knew I had to have one. I ended up buying an early IBM Thinkpad instead, a device that helped transform how I worked and thought. IBM got my money for that purchase -- not Apple -- but I never would have spent the money if the Powerbook 100 hadn't 'taught' me what its value could be. Similarly, the iPod and the iPhone taught us -- and other music device and smartphone manufacturers -- what was possible. We have all benefited tremendously. It is certainly true, however, that Apple rarely has invented anything new. I had an mp3 player by RIO before the iPod was ever released. But it never really worked right. Apple under Jobs has known how to take complicated technology and put it all together with data and media in ways that _seem_ simple -- or at least are experienced as simple by the user. They just work. They teach us how it is done.

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