McAdams On: Life After Steve, October 7, 2011
10/7/2011 5:19:59 PM
REFLECTIONVILLE: His influence in American
culture is well documented. It’s recognizing Steve Jobs’ impact on my own life
that astonishes me. I didn’t even realize it until I sat down to write this
essay. I meant to question the consequences of his legacy, which I still intend
in some measure, but it’s hard not to get lost in gratitude.
Anyone who’s used a computer for more than 15 years will certainly recall that
Apple made them right-brain friendly. Steve Jobs is in good part responsible
for why we don’t have to know a programming language to use a computer. That
alone is reason enough to deify the guy in my book. Even the non-computer
science major could fix software conflicts and handily reload the operating
system on the early Macs. Those things were a wonder, and they made Bill Gates
moderately less condescending toward his company’s customers.
Schools adopted Macs in part because they facilitated right-brain creativity, and
because the company had the sense to do deals with colleges and universities.
You learn on a Mac, buy one on discount as a student, you probably become a
loyal Mac user. Good strategy. I bought a Power Mac 8500 with my Hearst
scholarship money. I wrote, designed and typeset a book on it. “The Grain Way,
A History of the Nebraska Grain and Feed Association.” A mega-seller. I only
work now because I enjoy the headaches.
(Digression alert: I was in my 20s before I started using computers, and in my
30s when I graduated from college. I have to wonder what my life would be like
now if I’d had a computer and the Internet when I was a kid trapped on a farm
in the Sand Hills. It’s a perspective that informs my support of nationwide
broadband availability, though I believe the current call to reassign broadcast
TV spectrum to provide it disingenuously claims the interest of the unserved
when in fact it is about controlling content delivery in metropolitan areas.)
Back to the subject at hand; I’m guessing most of us by now are Mac and
Microsoft literate. I have one of each setting on my desk. There’s a Powerbook
190CS, upon which I once published a newspaper, in my closet. There’s also a
Zip drive, a dial-up modem, a selection of modem cards, diskettes galore and enough
cable to plug into an outlet in Guam. Which all serves to bring me back to my
original intent, that is, to question the legacy of Mr. Jobs.
It became clear as my collection of obsolete computer gear multiplied like
bunnies that personal technology could easily become a very expensive
addiction, both for me and for the environment. This stuff is not exactly on
par with the cup holders from Starbucks. I wasn’t thinking back in the ’90s
that women in China would one day be cooking down motherboards and sucking in
the toxic fumes because of my particular hardware-buying habits. I doubt that
crossed the minds of all the people who lined up for iPhones in June of 2007. I
doubt too many Americans think about it now when they flip their perfectly good
iPhone for the newest iPhone. Upgrading our cellphones is such an accepted
obsession that not doing so is considered suspect. When I tell people I don’t
have a smartphone, I may as well be saying I obtain my food with a club.
Mr. Jobs to some degree is responsible for “innovation” becoming synonymous
with “versions.” While Apple’s successive software and hardware versions were
not immune to criticisms, their impact beyond the user experience was seldom
questioned. It’s long been clear that “versions” have little or no relationship
to necessity and everything to do with boosting stock prices. Mr. Jobs relished
that part of the game just as certainly as his competitors. And we’re all
pretty much OK with that, too, as long as it’s befouling someone else’s
I understand that rampant consumption drives the wheels upon which the American
economy turns, and I like new stuff just as much as the next person. But at
what cost? When will the meaning of “innovation” evolve beyond the mindset of
versions and throw-away technology? Who will give us the virtually upgradeable
modular device set designed for the human lifespan, or at least a lot more of
it than 10 months?
We don’t need the next Steve Jobs. I think the late Mr. Jobs, may he rest in
peace, would even agree that what we need isn’t the next him. What we need is
the original, creative and big-picture thinker who takes us far beyond anything
Mr. Jobs conceived of.
We need someone who will redefine what it is to innovate.
~ Deborah D. McAdams