Notes on the Legacy of Steve Jobs

It may be too soon for a “legacy” commentary on Steve Jobs. But part of Job’s legacy is that he helped popularize the “having a mobile device that can do everything, from anywhere at anytime” quickness of contemporary communication. His devices helped facilitate the cultural shift toward on-the-go, real-time media consumption. Because of him (and others), we can now hear about news, process it with others and, yes, even write a blog post about it as quickly as we want to. That I’m writing this on my Apple MacBook Pro is not meta irony as much as it is an unavoidable reminder of this man’s prodigious legacy and his brand’s revolutionary reach. How many of you who are reading this now on an Apple product?

The Twitter flood of memorial thoughts this evening underscores the extent to which Jobs achieved iconic, hero status in this generation. In the last few hours I’ve seen him described as a Walt Disney figure, a Thomas Edison, a visionary and genius, a force of nature, a wizard behind the curtain. The man was regarded as a figure beyond a celebrity–a single-minded innovator who didn’t trifle in the trappings of fame, wasn’t soiled by his conquest of capitalism, but instead hunkered down and made things happen: in garages, in laboratories, in the dark rooms where inventors invent things that will change the world.

And change the world he did. He was a populist advocate for technology, bringing it out of the provinces of geekdom and making it more user-friendly, accessible, intuitive. In an era when technological progress sometimes felt overwhelming and gizmos and gadgets too complicated to bother with, Jobs and his Apple brand focused on simplicity, user-friendliness, and an attitude of “even you can understand this device!”

But it went beyond utility. Jobs also reimagined technology as something that was more than a tool, something more than a gizmo with buttons. He declared technology to be something with personality. Something with style.

The significance of this contribution cannot be overstated. In the Jobs generation, technology became an accessory and friend rather than just something we use. With our “Macs,” our iPods and ear “buds,” and above all our beloved attached-at-the-hand iPhones, we learned to have relationships and emotional attachments with our technological devices. We feel lonely when we are without them. We turn to them in boredom, in sadness, in madness. They facilitate our every social move. In a very real way, Jobs pioneered an attitude toward technology (as a social, relational, emotional hub of our human experience) that paved the way for social media like Facebook and Twitter.

Jobs made technology elegant, sexy, beautiful. He made it something inspiring and easy for students, writers, artists, designers, musicians. He made it friendly. The first time I got an iPod I immediately got a little “sock” covering for it– to keep it safe or warm or something. I don’t know. It was a little sidekick, something that I swear appeared to be smiling back at me as I ran my finger over the little wheel thing to find the song I wanted to play. Maybe it was the neon colored ads, or the soft white rounded aesthetic, or the precious manner in which “i” was a pre-fix to everything. Whatever it was, Apple mastered the art of making technology seem simultaneously simple, futuristic, homey, sweet, hip, necessary, gender neutral & fun.

The technological landscape was altered significantly by Jobs, perhaps chiefly because he helped fuse the technological to the human landscape. If there had never been a Steve Jobs, we probably would still be living in a world where technology was an indispensable part of our daily lives. But I bet that world would have been far less pleasant than the iWorld Jobs has given us.

5 responses to “Notes on the Legacy of Steve Jobs

  1. I couldn’t help but think of the late Neil Postman upon hearing this news, specifically this excerpt from his 1998 speech “Five Things We Need To Know About Technological Change”, given at a conference hosted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver:
    “The questions, then, that are never far from the mind of a person who
    is knowledgeable about technological change are these: Who
    specifically benefits from the development of a new technology? Which
    groups, what type of person, what kind of industry will be favored?
    And, of course, which groups of people will thereby be harmed?

    These questions should certainly be on our minds when we think about
    computer technology. There is no doubt that the computer has been and
    will continue to be advantageous to large-scale organizations like the
    military or airline companies or banks or tax collecting institutions.
    And it is equally clear that the computer is now indispensable to
    high-level researchers in physics and other natural sciences. But to
    what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of
    people? To steel workers, vegetable store owners, automobile
    mechanics, musicians, bakers, bricklayers, dentists, yes, theologians,
    and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? These
    people have had their private matters made more accessible to powerful
    institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; they are
    subjected to more examinations, and are increasingly mystified by the
    decisions made about them. They are more than ever reduced to mere
    numerical objects. They are being buried by junk mail. They are easy
    targets for advertising agencies and political institutions.

    In a word, these people are losers in the great computer revolution.
    The winners, which include among others computer companies,
    multi-national corporations and the nation state, will, of course,
    encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology.
    That is the way of winners, and so in the beginning they told the
    losers that with personal computers the average person can balance a
    checkbook more neatly, keep better track of recipes, and make more
    logical shopping lists. Then they told them that computers will make
    it possible to vote at home, shop at home, get all the entertainment
    they wish at home, and thus make community life unnecessary. And now,
    of course, the winners speak constantly of the Age of Information,
    always implying that the more information we have, the better we will
    be in solving significant problems–not only personal ones but
    large-scale social problems, as well. But how true is this? If there
    are children starving in the world–and there are–it is not because
    of insufficient information. We have known for a long time how to
    produce enough food to feed every child on the planet. How is it that
    we let so many of them starve? If there is violence on our streets, it
    is not because we have insufficient information. If women are abused,
    if divorce and pornography and mental illness are increasing, none of
    it has anything to do with insufficient information. I dare say it is
    because something else is missing, and I don’t think I have to tell
    this audience what it is. Who knows? This age of information may turn
    out to be a curse if we are blinded by it so that we cannot see truly
    where our problems lie. That is why it is always necessary for us to
    ask of those who speak enthusiastically of computer technology, why do
    you do this? What interests do you represent? To whom are you hoping
    to give power? From whom will you be withholding power?”

  2. Elegant, honest, and beautifully written piece. My favourite by far on those I’ve read today on Steve Jobs. Thank you. Thank you!

  3. Pingback: Teoknologi » En naken galnings död

  4. Pingback: Thank You, Steve | Christ and Pop Culture

  5. “Technology became an accessory and friend rather than just something we use. With our “Macs,” our iPods and ear “buds,” and above all our beloved attached-at-the-hand iPhones, we learned to have relationships and emotional attachments with our technological devices. We feel lonely when we are without them.”

    This strikes at the heart of what I worry about (and am equally guilty of) with regard to the intersection of Job’s legacy and consumerism.

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