Saturday, November 19, 2011

Why I Won't Miss Steve Jobs

Technology Under The Influence
October 7, 2011

By Brian Bentley

Steve Jobs introduces the Apple II computer in 1977

Steve Jobs died this past Wednesday, on October 5th. It was perhaps the longest, most protracted, analyzed and expected departure in cultural icon history. Jobs’ death was not a surprise, but still carried shock value. Like Kurt Cobain, he went out on top. It’s hard to think of another figure of his stature who died more at the peak of his game. In 1985, Jobs lost a power struggle with the board of directors at Apple, and was pushed out of the pioneering company he’d co-founded. By the late 90’s he was back as CEO and on a mission to radically reshape his legacy.

Job’s second career arc began with a technological big bang in 2001 when he introduced a cute little MP3 player called the iPod to an unsuspecting world dominated by CD’s. Nothing in the music business would ever be the same again, and neither would he. Steve Jobs’ ascendancy back up the mountain was truly a rags to riches to rags to riches story, and he became a very different man. The need to prove himself and dominate the competition was now the driving force in his life.

For years, Jobs had carefully cultivated his persona as the motorcycle riding, casual dressing, no-bullshit hater of corporate stuffiness. A bit of an enigma, he could be accessible and impossible to know. But with the iPod and later the iPhone, he morphed into something much bigger – the cool dude who came up with the cool gadgets that plugged the world in – and took media technology out of the house and into the street.

His inventions featured smooth interfaces and amazingly simple and practical designs that worked as nicely as they looked. People fell in love with these cuddly devices, integrating them into their lives like household pets. Anything with an i in front of it was an automatic purchase. The success and adulation turned Jobs into a tech god. Like Jesus, he was a man of the people, and like a rock star, he owned the stage. His passing at the age of 56 is a loss felt by his friends, family, co-workers and millions around the world.

But I won’t miss Steve Jobs at all. In fact, I’m glad he’s gone. Not dead, just gone, out of the picture, no longer a threat to burden us with another tech toy that promises convenience, but delivers complication and the obligation to upgrade every year. Jobs was like Owsley, the guy who mass-marketed LSD in the 60’s. He manufactured shiny gadgets that worked like drugs. They made us high and changed our thought processes. For awhile, they were mind expanding and a trip, but like any powerful hallucinogenic, people had trouble handling them with restraint.

After 9/11, overwhelmed Americans were in desperate need for diversion. Unable to control the outside world, we found comfort in the power to shape our own realities with computer phones and social networks that positioned each user as the center of their own universe.

Myspace gave the average Joe the opportunity to fashion himself as a celebrity and create a personal webpage just like a movie star, like one of the contestants on “Survivor,” the show that ruined network television. Handheld electronics just blew that concept up. Casual narcissism slid into blatant exhibitionism, as our private lives, photos, hobbies, tastes, opinions, and likes became something we were positive had to be shared with the world. Social networking created a culture of false intimacy, the meaningless accumulation of “friends” we barely know, and a cyberscape of talkers, not listeners, people who used and abused the medium to lose themselves in a babbling bubble of self-reference. Rate this “Dislike.”

By 2005, machines became our preferred, and eventually, our mandatory method of communication. Keyboards were the lifeline equivalent of old landline phones, and this seismic shift in how we interacted fostered a dependence bordering on enslavement – the direct brainchild of enablers like Steve Jobs.

Fortune Magazine once referred to him as “Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniac.” Last week, free software blogger Richard Stallman proclaimed, "Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.” A demanding and temperamental perfectionist, Jobs was ready and willing to not just sell technology, but push it like a dealer on a street corner. His obsession with presiding over a wired world meant giving us not just what he decided we should want, but what we couldn’t live without.

In 1949, an English writer named George Orwell published “1984,” the prophetic book about the evils of totalitariasm and manipulative social phenomena. In the mid-90’s, Ted Kaczynski (The Unabomber) authored a startlingly coherent manifesto addressing the erosion of human freedom necessitated by modern technology – but added a grisly footnote, sending over a dozen mail bombs that killed people. Thirty five years ago, DEVO, a punk rock band from Ohio, advanced the concept of “De-evolution,” a theory which states that instead of continuing to evolve, mankind has actually begun to regress, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.

Steve Jobs can’t take all the blame for the evils of technology. But there’s no denying that he was the spiritual leader of a movement that was about making huge bucks while putting enormous pressure on the consumer to keep up. I often wondered if Jobs cared much about the collateral damage that came from our blind rush to go digital, while we dumped analog media faster than an old girlfriend.

The hip notion is to celebrate the demise of the music industry (which was directly triggered by the iPod) because big, greedy record companies needed to go. Well big, greedy record companies were the only method musicians had to make a living. Once an artist could not sell a CD to pay his/her bills, the quality of music degraded. MP3’s were free on file sharing sites and changed the focus from albums to single songs. This lethal combination crippled not only most artist’s careers, but the entire music business. Had the legendary recording exec Ahmet Ertegun been born 30 years later, he’d be selling real estate now.

Jobs’ business was booming because of his uncanny knack for anticipating trends and seamlessly integrating production with marketing. He popularized the Smartphone when Apple introduced the first generation iPhone in 2007. The long lines that wrapped around every Best Buy the night before the iPhone went on sale were testimony to Jobs, and the cachet he had created for the Apple brand. Nobody stood in line for a Nokia. The Cult of Steve was all-encompassing. Online forums were clogged with the breathless faithful who hung on every morsel of new product info. On any given topic, there were deep-seated feelings of love, hate, worship, rejection, and self-recrimination. Some posters seemed to savor the abuse they got from Uncle Steve’s whims, like masochists longing to be victimized.

Apple has long been infamous for its proprietary strong-arm software tactics. A thorny issue was the company’s refusal to allow the Flash program onto its iPhone platform. Since many websites operate on Flash, iPhone customers were given the option to load up cheesy and unstable third-party applications, just to view what Droid customers could easily watch while speeding down a freeway. Jobs knew the issue was a hot enough political potato, that he wrote a five-page letter about the subject on his home page.

While some of his arguments have merit, they were basically misleading and dishonest in their smarmy “you can trust me,” tone. The real reason behind omitting Flash was simple. Like one of those Mafia wars that date back to ancient Sicily, Apple and Adobe, the creators of Flash, had been engaged in a petty, decades-long feud that began when the two fledgling companies were upstarts working out of competing garages in the Silicon Valley.

Jobs in 2010 with the iPad, his final creation

Last year, the iPad became the crown jewel in the Apple collection, igniting the world of tablets and revolutionizing yet another corner of the tech universe. Though competition has sprung up everywhere, 85% of all tablets sold today are iPads, and sales of tablets are one of the few positives in retail electronics.

While the iPad peaked, Steve Jobs’ health worsened. After years of battling pancreatic cancer, it was sad (if not expected) to hear the standard corporate line that everything was fine, that Steve’s condition was “robust.” In fact, the intractability that defined Jobs may have led to a needless early death. His decision to seek alternative treatment, when conventional medical solutions offered him a 90% chance at recovery, was symptomatic of his severe inability to relinquish control.

Cynics accused him of manipulating Apple stock prices by not divulging the truth and extent of his health problems. But as his traditional black turtleneck sagged, and his jeans grew more drawn in at the waist, it was clear that the spindly Jobs was losing the only battle he had left. Not only did the man defiantly dissipate before our eyes, but he died a hero of his time, the dude who made our world more fun.

Some folks reacted as if a President had been killed. Check that, no President would ever have been loved like Steve Jobs. The faithful were hard to miss as they clogged the doorways of Apple stores, candles in hand, ready to tell anyone with a camera or audio recorder how much Jobs meant to them. They bore a disturbing similarity to the idol worshipers who clogged Hollywood Boulevard a couple of years ago to walk in circles around the star for Michael Jackson. It was hard to watch the unrelenting hagiographic TV tributes to Jobs without immediately thinking of our all-or-nothing mentality, and how the overblown mourning was much like the gadgets he gave us. People just didn’t know when to quit.

I don’t begrudge Steve Jobs for his ambition or his thirst for privacy or even the manic way he ran his company like it was selling crack. I just hope we don’t see another guy like him for awhile. The world can’t handle a new visionary. The pace we are going is already much too fast. Instead of expanding the planet, technology has actually shrunk it, and reduced our real-world experiences, as we blow more and more of our spare time in front of various-sized TV sets.

Directors, who made films intended for the big screen, must watch their hard work streamed on smartphones. DVD sales are down 40%, as the movie biz adjusts to downloading, anticipating a blockbuster sequel to what whacked the music labels - devaluation and piracy. Disney Studios recently announced plans to pull a sizeable chunk of their newspaper print ads for new releases, and concentrate on promoting movies via Facebook and Twitter. The financially crippled L.A. Times recently said, “writers and book publishers will eventually see the value of any given manuscript reduced to zero,” as Kindle lowers the sale price of books, and digitization opens the door to rampant file sharing.

Newspapers should know. They gave their product away for free and wrote their own obituaries. I was having a conversation about this with a man in Hollywood who owns a newsstand. These days he makes more money selling cigarettes than Vanity Fair. Packaged media is in nearly as bad a shape. The enormous profit cycle that sprang from the days when consumers replaced vinyl albums with CD’s, and VHS tapes with DVD’s, is long gone. 3-D has been an enormous dud. Digital promises little sales growth. It may be the “dead end” sign at the end of the road for media formats. This week, Mike Lang, the CEO of Miramax said, “failure to attract consumers to cloud-based digital lockers could spell doom for the home entertainment industry.”

Some side effects of this new age are amusing to watch. There was the woman I saw at Home Depot, sobbing uncontrollably into her phone that someone had de-friended her on Facebook. A store supervisor came over to console her. Or the kid I heard about who was texting on his bicycle, ran a stop sign, got hit by a car, and continued to text while a cop demanded he drop the phone. Maybe next year, that kid will be behind the wheel of a car.

I talked to a grandmother who doesn’t get many visits from her grandkids anymore. Try explaining to an 80 year-old woman why a text is the same thing as a real conversation. A colleague told me that he preferred texting and Facebook because he could “control” his interaction better and not waste time. His logic seemed to consider people as objects to be shuffled about on a chess board to fit his liking. After all, time is precious when you have to check your e-mail and notifications on a half dozen accounts, three times a day. It’s no wonder most people haven’t read a book since they were assigned one for a class.

The ease of communication via text, e-mail, IM and Facebook messaging has made it easier to communicate a quick thought, arrange a meeting, or drop a short line to someone. Unfortunately, this convenience has become a crutch. It has shut us off from each other and from spontaneous interaction. We have become, in essence, more like computers and less like humans. This chilling effect could be described as “negative societal reinforcement.”

"Honey, I'm getting a text to landline message"

The New York Times ran a great piece called “Nobody Calls Anymore.” It says that in the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone – land line, mobile, voice mail and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.

Here’s an excerpt from the story that’s priceless.

“It’s at the point where when the phone does ring – and it’s not my mom, dad, husband or baby sitter – my first thought is: ‘What’s happened? What’s wrong?’ My second thought is: ‘Isn’t it weird to just call like that? Out of the blue? With no e-mailed warning?”

“Phone call appointments have become common in the workplace. Without them, there’s no guarantee your call will be returned. ‘Only people I’ve ruthlessly hounded call me back,’ said Mary Roach, author of “Packing for Mars.” Writers and others who work alone can find the silence isolating. ‘But if I called my editor and agent every time I wanted to chat, I think they’d say, ‘Oh no, Mary Roach is calling again.’ So I’ve pulled back, just like everyone else.”

While there may be no turning back the clock, one should still appreciate the collateral damage that over-reliance on the Internet has wreaked on small businesses – like your favorite bookstore, or video store, or the record store you loved, or the neighborly hardware store on the corner. The last major brick and mortar electronics chain, Best Buy, has suffered a steady decline, with sales down as much as 40%. As a cost-cutting move, the company recently announced plans to lease large amounts of floor space to retailers like Starbucks.

Think back when shopping was so less complicated; before every transaction had to be done online, with separate orders that the delivery person delivers to the wrong door, if at all. The U.S. Post Office is going broke, partly because nobody mails letters or bills anymore. Check out the hilarious new USPS TV spot where the announcer warns that “a real letter can’t carry an online virus.”

It’s not too late to support your local retailer. The Web is excellent for tracking down impossible-to-find items. But shoes? I have seen my local shoe store packed with dozens of people, trying them on for size, and then commenting aloud that they intend to save a few bucks by purchasing them online. Soon, these tools will spend three times the effort buying, returning, and then reshipping, shoes that don’t fit to Zappos – because their local store will be replaced by a condo. Just remember that Amazon may not charge sales tax (at least for another year in California), but Amazon is not your neighbor, or your friend.

Of all the human traits, the need to be liked is so powerful that studies have shown that we will change our habits and thinking, even our moral standards, to gain the approval of our peers. Several years ago, I’d hear people saying stuff like, “I was kinda forced in to Facebook.” You don’t hear that anymore, for good reason. Nobody wants to be penalized, to miss out on what’s happening, and be marginalized from the rest of life. Even if the price of this tethered subscription includes the shameless marketing of your privacy to the same companies who drop junk mail on your doorstep.

What does all this mean? Is it really that bad? These next few years should be interesting. Maybe they will mark that point in time when a backlash developed, when people woke up and rebelled against technology, questioning whether all of this shit is getting out of hand. Or maybe, like some noir episode of “The Twilight Zone,” it will be remembered as the point when man finally lost control of his machines, a period that future generations will look back on with regret.

The other day, the subject of Steve Jobs’ came up, and everyone agreed he was a brilliant inventor and salesman. But a 23 year-old kid offered something extraordinary. He said he rarely used his cell phone, never texted and despised Facebook, considering it trivial and annoying. I was astounded, and asked him what kind of life he expected to lead when nobody could track who, where, or what he was. He smiled at me with the knowing look of someone who had heard that before. “My real friends know how to find me,” he said.

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  1. Has anyone told the Post Office that real letters may not contain viruses, but they can contain anthrax?

    Great article.

  2. Bravo, Bentley.
    This is bracing in the face of all the sentimental prose surrounding Jobs' passing. Although this emperor had clothes, the nature of those garments was deceptive. The acid analogy is apt, touching on the problem of visionaries who become blind to any negative aspects of their creations.
    The problem of false intimacy can not be left to corporate minds who will put a price tag on something that must be eternally free: human interaction.

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  5. Great job on this article, Brian! I love your blogs and writing style, dude!!

  6. As the futuristic idea that books will be burned, war is peace, love is hate, the erosion of identity similar to the Orwellian image of the bag over ones head and the starving rat as its bedfellow, as we fall in love with photos, and are in schedules of behavioral psychology with "like facebookian buttons, as we confess our secrets to an audience of unknown people called "freinds" the earth is getting hotter, the plastic trash heaps are getting larger, the mushroom cloud is hovering over the dark gray genius's invention of the homogenization of instinct and grace.
    Thank you Brian for a great description of the fallout of digital age who's Renaissance resembles the flat line.