Steve Jobs graced the cover of a recent Newsweek. My housemate set it aside for me. He didn’t’ know Jobs was adopted and thought I’d be interested. I’ve been thinking about it since.
Jobs presided over the transformation of the computer as a religious artifact or antisocial curiosity to indispensable appliance. He imagined a mutable helper and avatar that would watch out and provide for us, and the devices he created are less important than his realization that computers could be friendly assistants who were both tireless and truly helpful. History may prove this fact far more lasting and remembered than anything else reported on in that Newsweek. Jobs created the computer in the sense that Al Gore created the Internet: not the physical nuts and bolts but imagining the computer as an all-purpose tool for manipulating symbolic knowledge. Microsoft, which should best be regarded as a cousin of IBM, inherited all of IBM’s staid, lumbering paternalism. In the end, Microsoft’s vision is no wider than IBM’s foolish mistake that handed the PC operating system to the upstart. Neither embraced the subtle and awesome (in the original sense of that word) world of science fiction computing or tried, again and again, to make it present reality.
The best science fiction (if that term has meaning) asks what can go wrong. How does technology enhance the human condition? Even running through the most well-known novels and movies finds the enhancement mixed at best. The machines and drugs and windows into other dimensions do not bring the end of history but a slow-motion calamity about the same as where you were, only now turned upside down.
Like most visionaries, Steve did not question his vision too much. Capitalism, like the Christian faith from which it evolved, cannot. His sense of history, and the narrative that confines it, is too narrow for such questions. We are always heading toward the glorious future, which is always on the receding horizon. The next coming thing will finally make us complete. There is always 2.0.
As a corollary, Steve’s vision is never finished, and ultimately always at its beginning. The devices that link us and allow us continual distraction are always being “improved”, whatever that means. Microsoft and IBM don’t understand Steve’s key realization that planned obsolescence and a culture of image are means to an end: a shimmering, glorious white place where there are no needs or anxieties because they have all been so long sated we have forgotten them. Microsoft and IBM and all the other patriarchs are too busy managing complexity. Steve understands that complexity is just our current phase, and beyond that, a different world.
In the meantime, that our transitional world isn’t too different from THX-1138 is irrelevant. Faith is powerful, and indomitable. All these little chirping blinking things will move from satisfying us to saving us. Eventually, they will make us free, somehow. In the meantime, Jobs’ legacy has been to enslave us with freedom.