McAdams On: Life After Steve, October 7, 2011

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. Touché, again.

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 drinking water.

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