I’ve been reading the Steve Jobs biography over the past few weeks, not the more recent one, but the humongous bestseller from 2011. I guess the one that “dishes dirt” in comparison, but it strikes me as a reasonably honest take on a guy who was a brilliant, innovative designer and an awful manager.
The stories and anecdotes of his assholery are legion in the book. For every brave leap forward in technology, there are plenty of sidebars regarding tantrums, seasoned employees being told their months of work are “shit” (despite being a slight tweak from brilliance), and a dogged disrespect for the consumer. That last one isn’t mentioned once in the book. But anyone who’s lived through the computer age from the beginning, like I and millions of other have, knows that Apple has priced their computers extraordinarily high all along, not to mention their phones, under the guise that they are the best and everyone else is, indeed, “shit.” That arrogance was an overwhelmingly negative aspect of Jobs’ personality that he imprinted on his company and products. Jobs never cared about what people wanted – he cared about dictating to them what they should want, and having a real knack for then making them want these things.
I salute him for that. I never wanted an iPod Classic, but it became obvious when he put out the 160 GB model that I had to have one, as nothing else came near. Now? I just bought a refurbished 5th generation iPod Classic with a 256GB flash drive … off a Canadian dude on E Bay who appears to be a handful of people doing this. Because Apple has deemed streaming the way forward, when it isn’t, when it’s far from a universally usable, reasonable, complete alternative to playing owned files stored on a drive (and never will be). And they won’t make devices with this high a storage capacity. Because they don’t want it. Ergo, “we” don’t want it. What they want is what we want.
The company sucks in that respect: always has and always will. As much as Windows makes shit that often drives me insane (aspects of Windows 10 for the past few weeks as a fresh example), at least they take functionality into consideration. Or put it this way: I’ve been using Windows, particularly the Office programs, since their inception at every job I’ve ever been on, including ones where I used Macs that ran Apple version of Word and Excel. I guess that’s the difference between the two in my mind: Windows is for work, and Apple is for play.
As far as I’m concerned smartphones are all “play.” They’re toys. Very cool toys that can do a lot of fun and interesting things. But we’re adults, kids and teenagers playing with toys, electronic versions of rattles that little babies shake in their cribs. They have their place. If you try to criticize anyone who’s overly obsessed with their smartphone, you’ll get back, “You don’t understand its capabilities, there’s so much you can do with it, you’re just out of touch with the rest of us.”
And he’s probably right in that respect. Until you realize 99% of what the person is doing with the smartphone is pure self-absorption, a fiendish dedication to social media, feelings of abandonment when they’re not pinged with some sort of meaningless “like” or “thumbs up” after posting something, or more urgent texts that are the old world equivalent of people calling each other up and saying “whatcha’ doin’” and getting the response “oh nuthin’.” It’s not that I have an over-powering urge to be out of step with the majority; I have an over-powering urge not to be an astonishingly self-absorbed asshole.
No one’s saving mankind with a smartphone. It’s debatable whether or not they’re even doing anything constructive. But think about it. This culture didn’t fully exist until 2007, and at that time, it wasn’t as full-blown and insane to the point of distraction as it is now. Blackberries had been floating around the culture since the late 90’s, but mostly in a business/work context. I started getting tired of people far too wrapped up in their smartphones by 2008. People using phones on crowded city staircases during rush hour remains a huge pet peeve for me. I have to fight back the urge to slap the phone out of their hands and let them choose between an ugly confrontation or their phone. (I know they’d choose the phone.)
Bring it back to Steve Jobs. Reading his biography, I’m left with the concept that Jobs was dedicated to subtlety and an advanced state of being. He saw himself as refined, possibly the most refined person on the planet. If he wasn’t refined in a certain area, he’d invite the best people from those areas into his life and examine what they did, so he could sense the connections between their dedication to quality to what he was doing with computers and phones. He paid attention to everything: every detail of his life mattered.
Some might think the concept of millions of people being addicted to their smartphones would be heaven to Jobs, that they were using his product all the time, pouring billions of dollars into the company he created and thought he was a god for engineering this cultural shift. But if I’m reading this biography correctly, Jobs would be horrified with how people use smartphones now, basically as substitutes for life itself. The phone has become the axis around which the rest of people’s lives spin. Think I’m full of shit? Take away smartphone addicts’ phones, and they will literally have nothing to do, and possibly no mental wherewithal to pick up the thread and get back to living life without a device.
Which nobody wants. I don’t want it. I love my iPod, use it daily. I use my iPhone for occasional calls, email, apps and texts. I’d rather have a full-screen computer to get on the web. And I’d rather listen to music on the iPod. I’m not a photographer, but I can assure you if I had any interest, I’d want a camera, not the camera in an iPhone. These things were designed to complement our lives, not take them over and hold us hostage. That’s pretty much how I feel now with the iPod and Apple’s refusal to build larger flash drive players: beholden to a company who built the perfect portable device for music lovers, and then chose to cater to millions more who really don’t give a shit about music, save whatever grabbed them in their teenage years. And now they’re being told to stream. Not because it’s a great leap forward. Because Apple is now in collusion with record companies, who don’t want to get caught flat-footed a second time in the digital age. Taking into account data caps, incomplete musical selections and countless instances of streaming being ineffective to totally useless in public places … streaming is not the answer in terms of digital music.
And one device was never meant to rule them all. Particularly a god-damned glorified phone. Cast yourself back to life before cellphones (if you’re able) and imagine someone running the concept by you that one day people would be obsessed with phones they could carry around. It would have seemed laughable and trite. What kind of assholes would get hung up on such meaningless bullshit?
Well … us, apparently. And I hold Jobs accountable. Not for pushing the smartphone into this ridiculous stratosphere with his superior design and image building skills. For ramping up his core philosophy with every product: don’t ask the consumer what he wants, tell him what he wants. Dictate the terms of his life to him. It makes my head spin thinking how successful he was in putting this ruse over on so many millions of people. He got me, too! But not on the level of people I see stumbling around New York every day who are suffering from derangement of the senses. Anywhere from those who can probably be gently nudged back into the here and now, to those who are, for lack of a better description, mentally disabled.
For someone who went on a spiritual quest to India, started a company with a friend in a suburban garage, rebuilt his life from scratch a few times over and examined every inch of his life to make sure it met the high standards he held for himself … I’m having a hell of a time matching that image with that of millions of people who are so obsessed with phones that they’d rather film an event (like a concert) than be part of it and fully engaged in the moment. And don’t buy Bob Lefsetz’s bullshit that “young people are all about having experiences.” I’m not sold (on his statement, or his constant millennial ass-kissing). They’re all about recording and cataloging experience so they can immediately transmit the experience to their social media set, and have those people across the internet acknowledge what wonderful, well-rounded people they are. It’s artificial self-fulfillment via the positive reinforcement of others. Key moments in their lives don’t seem to exist unless they can be filmed and posted on a social media website of choice. The experience doesn’t seem real unless it can be documented on a smartphone. (Of course, this is a tag-team derangement of the senses via smartphone technology and the depraved influence of reality shows.)
Forget about generational or cultural differences: this is a warping of reality and how we’ve come to understand it over the course of centuries. Sure, I’ll catalog a lot of the key experiences of my life in places like this, but it’s what I want you to see, with a purpose. Not my whole life. Not anywhere near it. (Trust me, like your life, much of it is so boring and mundane that you don’t want or need to see it.) Plenty of people have turned out novels, and movies, and poems, and songs, through their experiences. I suspect if we could see the actual experiences that, say, Charles Dickens had that inspired him, if we got into a time machine, gave him a smartphone and taught him how to use it, all those great novels would vanish. It would have made more sense to him to film those things and just watch those clips endlessly. Rather than try to make sense of that experience through some type of art form.
I’m not seeing any art in undiluted reality as presented by someone filming with an iPhone. Even concerts look boring and sound like shit as portrayed on youtube. The same goes for personal experiences. Well, I’m wrong there. Kids filming skateboard stunts do look pretty cool. And guys testing theories, like what “shit hitting the fan” really looks like … these people are breaking down barriers. But the rest of it? Is this what Steve Jobs had in mind when he started pushing his creative genius in this direction? Something tells me that if a few knobs in front of him at a Dylan concert had sat there holding their smartphones aloft and filming the whole concert, he would have been furious. Rather than having the self-revelation that maybe he got shit wrong with how he wanted these things to work in people’s lives.
I’d tell you to read the Jobs biography, but maybe you can get by filming yourself with an iPhone reading it and sending it to all your friends, so you can show them just how smart you are.