In addressing the loss of Steve Jobs, it would probably be fashionable to affect a poise of analytical detachment from which to examine his considerable legacy.
Certainly the slickly aloof, vaguely-though-endearingly misanthropic pedant on my shoulder can barely suppress the temptation to launch into some snotty tirade on the ubiquity of digital technology and the diminishment of character that comes with the advances provided in convenience. Don’t get my inner English major (never off-duty, babes) started on Kindle; first comes mouth-froth, then comes darkness, then comes sobbing over a haggard pile of spilled entrails and fifty-to-life. I really do have serious reservations concerning the impact this stuff has on our collective psyche. The increasingly pervasive presence of communication technology in particular has always struck me as a catalyst of social fragmentation and intellectual laziness (with a growing drive for instant gratification comes diminished patience comes nobody wanting to spend precious time reading or thinking critically, etc.).
Likewise, the seeming inescapability of cell phones, iPods, BlackBerries, et al. both fosters and nurtures our addiction to constant stimulation, rendering the prospect of silent, contemplative solitude not just unattractive but somehow primally frightening. One has only to glance around campus and observe countless eyes glued to electronic paraphernalia to realize we simply don’t like being (or at least feeling) alone. And yet we come now to the caveat: I cannot pass snide, didactic judgment on this phenomenon because I myself am a participant. Rarely do I make the trip to class and back without earbuds in tow, I’m a compulsive Facebook-procrastinator, and, yes, I always feign texting as a means of coping with socially awkward situations. I doubt the possibility that anyone criticizing the immersion of technological decadence within our cultural fabric can claim immunity to its effects. We seem to have reached a point of no return, since for all this stuff to quit functioning would pretty much necessitate societal collapse.
I’ll make another confession: when used to a moderate degree, I think a lot of it is pretty neato. I adore my iPod with a quasi-religious fervor reserved for the bold and the crystal meth-dependent, bestowing upon it the moniker of Cornelius and granting it my leftover Hoot’n’Scoot waffle fries every three days (not too much – you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to overfeed these guys). Furthermore, various advances may be applied to purposes other than frivolous amusement. The advent of e-books, for instance, works to the great advantage of a good friend who happens to be legally blind, as does widespread academic adoption of enlargeable-text PDFs.
Though I admit to a reflexive condemnatory (some might say curmudgeonly, to which I say get your bony hoodlum tush off my lawn before I beat you with a sack of reeds) impulse toward matters of technological “progress,” I can’t honestly deny a simultaneous element of fascination. The truism remains that so long as there have been groups of people, technology has played an integral role in everyday life and will continue to do so inasmuch as we aren’t all that hot on cave-dwelling and cannibalism. Twitter and iPods and whatchamacallits aren’t inherently culturally degrading; the deciding factor rests with the level of dominance we allot them. The burden’s on us to take advantage of the convenience afforded by such objects while still cultivating a vital, active inner life.
Similarly, the tendency to demonize multinational corporations from which these products stem, while justified in various ways, should be tempered with a healthy dose of perspective.
Yes, they often engage in bullying, unethical practices, which corruption seems to correlate with astronomical growth and global expansion. Yes, it occasionally seems like any remotely subversive/exciting piece of culture will inevitably be swooped in on and neutered by way of awkward marriage with some lifeless advertising campaign or another (Janis Joplin’s bitingly satirical “Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz” as the focus of a Mercedes-Benz commercial = textbook example; YouTube it if you don’t believe me).
Trace these companies back to their modest roots and more often than not you’ll find a bunch of honest-to-god human beings with talent, imagination and an authentic desire to improve quality of life. In that light, casting all ambivalence momentarily aside, Steve Jobs R.I.P.
Justin Levesque can be contacted at email@example.com