Amid the spasm of media hype about Steve Jobs—I've heard people say he was our Edison, our Disney, and as important as JFK, that he shaped our lives, changed our lives, improved our lives—I want to offer a dissenting voice.
Now I have nothing against Jobs, who certainly was brilliant and highly creative, combining incredible business sense with a unique intuitive grasp of how people relate to gadgets. And I have nothing against computers, of which I've owned several and in front of which I spend far too much time; or against, for that matter, gadgets. I'm on my fifth mp3 player, which is packed to the gills with my favorite music.
But it is a sign of the incredible spiritual poverty of our time that gadgets like an iPhone or an iPod can be thought of as things that fundamentally change our lives, for they do not. They make for some conveniences and some pleasures, certainly, but conveniences and pleasures are not really the center of our lives; or if they are, that tells us something deeply sad in and of itself.
For example, now that I can carry 150 hours of music on a device slightly bigger than a fat credit card, do I understand the music any better? Do I appreciate it more than when I had to take an old LP out of cardboard sleeve, put it on the turntable, and place the needle on the grooves? Having all that glorious sound at my disposal, in three seconds to be able to choose from thousands of tracks of classical, jazz, new age, pop, or folk—does it make me love it more? Or just trivialize the experience so that I take it all for granted?
More important, far more important, now that I have a cell phone and can "reach out and touch" any of my contacts with a quick call or quicker text, do I care about any of them more deeply? Am I any better at keeping in touch with people I haven't talked to for awhile, or healing wounds from the past, or dealing with differences that arise within my family? Am I more honest about what I feel? More compassionate about other people's suffering? Any less likely to show off when I get an article published or gossip about some third party who both my phone pal and I dislike?
If you have a cell phone that takes videos, plays games, reads bar codes, provides instant maps to anywhere, and can use the half million or so apps available, are you a better person than you were before you got it? Any more able to handle questions of life and death, to face aging or illness, pain or disappointment? Is a world of terrorism and imperialism, environmental blight and staggering debt, hunger and poverty and sexual violence less frightening?
I heard all about "there's an app for that." Is there one for wisdom?
The answer, it seems to me, to just about every one of these questions is a resounding 'No.' And in just that sense our lives have been barely touched by anything Jobs did. They are the same as they have always been. Perhaps, in fact, they are a little worse: we are more distracted, less able to focus on what is important because we are too busy filling our mp3 players, surfing the web from our smart phones, or doing god knows what on our iPads. Having so much, we have too much. Having so much to do, we do too little that matters.
Is life easier with all these conveniences? In many ways, again, the answer is "not really." Because I have email and wireless connection, I can work anywhere, anytime. Gee, that's . . . really . . . great. Except now "time off" is virtually impossible. Because I can talk on the phone anywhere, people can be pissed off if I don't answer their calls. Because I have so much music available on my satellite radio (slogan: everything, all the time) I can switch stations until I find something I like instead of actually listening to something new and developing my taste. The machines replace our memories, our capacity to amuse ourselves if there are no batteries around, and our face-to-face engagements with other humans.
The essential tasks of life—how to be kind, good, and wise; how to control one's mind and order one's emotions and desires; how to connect to other people and other species with compassion—remain inescapably difficult and no machine can solve that. In a time when we are constantly offered things to "make life easier" it might do us good to remember, as Kierkegaard was fond of saying, that sometime what's needed is a little more difficulty.
Rest in peace, Steve Jobs, and thanks a lot for the toys. And now let's get back to the essential task of being better human beings.
10/12/2011 4:00:00 AM