Steve Jobs has died. Long live Steve Jobs.
That’s the phrase used after the death of kings and, in the age of personalized computing, Steve Jobs was king.
Jobs made the geeky PC personal. Long before I had one, I knew a friend, an academic radical and Marxist, who would fall asleep at night cuddling his beautiful white Mac and then would wake up with it by his pillow. His wife (also an academic radical and Marxist) found this hilarious and touching. She had one too.
It was hearing this story that made me convert to a Mac. I admit I was a hold out. I found them too expensive, too heavy, and too lock-box, to unwilling to play with others. But then I wandered into an Apple store and it was my modernist dream realized there, so clean and clear and beautiful. And then, well, there was the iPod experiment at Duke that I was involved in and I think I let mine sit there for six months with only a few Bob Marley songs on it, and then I began hearing what Duke students were dreaming up for this little music listening device, and I held it one day, so much in the palm of my hand, all that and beauty too, that amazing surface that felt like nothing except itself. Dispositionally, I am an open source kinda gal. So I was opposed not just to the shut-down nature of Apple products but their canny, narcissistic isolationaist business model that really only works if other devices work out and connect with them.
I could pontificate at length about not liking Macs. And then I saw what students were doing, all the ways they used this one tiny device to connect, to make a world, to communicate, to interact, and even to do good, to make connections across and between communities, using one tiny device to connect activists and organizers in communities that could not begin to afford each person to have a device or their own but, in sharing, had access to a digital world from which, by sheer economics, they would have been excluded, even as, in the industrial age, the poor were excluded. The tiny iPod was a conduit. On the level of code, it may have been lock-box. On the level of connection, humanity, interaction, it was a link between all kinds of worlds at once, including those who might have otherwise been cut off, divided. All that in the palm of the hand. Genius.
In researching Now You See It, I looked for communities divided by the digital. As with all dispairites, growing and growing as they are, I found many digital ones. But I also kept finding that, among the poorest of the poor, there were ways to connect to the connectors.
Playwright Mike Daisey has a show currently running off Broadway and now fast-tracked to Broadway in the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing that is called ‘The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.’ I’ve only read reviews of this show but it speaks to an issue that concerns me deeply, how much our stunningly beautiful digital products are created upon the terrible, abusive, sweatshop labor conditions of others, especially in China. The single most knowledgeable person I know on this subject, a brilliant cultural anthropologist and activist, wrote such an amazing tribute to Steve Jobs on his Facebook page last night, marking how hard he and other activists and scholars are working to try to get “Apple to take a stand on the health, labor, and environmental record of its outsourced companies” in China. Apple refuses to address these issues–and yet, this same scholar, expresses the same admiration I feel for Steve Jobs and his imagination, his creation of such beautiful, wonderful human interfaces with technology. And of course, as much as we may excoriate Apple and the US for exploitation, there is the looming power of China, building its entrance as a first-world nation upon the backs of its outsourced populace whose standing of living may (that is the question) be improving because of what, to our values, is pure and catastrophic exploitation. That is the agony and ecstasy of Steve Jobs in Mike Daisey’s play.
It is the agony and ecstasy of the complex, interconnected world we live in, where a tiny device connects economic fates, including our own. You could not avoid the braided Twitter streams last night, the great outrushing of deep and geniuine sorrow for the passing of a genius and the great outrushing of outrage for police actions against nonviolent protestors who, among other things, were standing up for the jobless (pun partially intended) in the US and beyond.
I’m not sure it is possible to resolve the agony and the ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which is to say the agony and the ecstasy of the interconnected world we live in together and interdependently, in complicated ways that defy the elegant simplicity that defines Apple and defined Steve Jobs.
Many are quoting Steve Jobs today. The Stanford Commencement speech is unforgettable and inspiring: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”