"Do or Do not. There is no try."

What Steve Jobs’s Legacy Says About Innovation

In the wake of Apple Computer  cofounder Steve Jobs’s death, it’s become almost a truism that he provided  consumers what they needed before they even knew they needed it.

I think it’s true not only in the  case of the revolutionary products that Jobs marshaled into existence, but of  many, many consumer goods that seemed exotic or pointless at first, and then  became ubiquitous.

It’s the nature of innovation, the  “novus.” The New Thing.

There’s an important moral dimension  to it, too, I think—this idea  of “needing” consumer goods. Pro-innovation  people—the vast majority of  us—love new things. We love things that make our  lives simpler,  easier, more enriching, or just more fun.

Take the vacuum cleaner.

I remember well a lefty history  professor in college, lecturing in a  disdainful deterministic tone about the  vacuum cleaner. Did it make  housewives’ lives easier—or did it impel them to  remove household dust  that had previously been a nonissue?

On the one hand, Christine Rosen’s 2006  essay in The New Atlantis,  “Are We Worthy Our Kitchens?”, was a  definitive takedown of such  thinking. There have been real gains in human  welfare due to  industrial-era electronic technology:

Despite its humble  status … the electric washing  machine represents one of the more dramatic  triumphs of technological  ingenuity over physical labor. Before its invention  in the twentieth  century, women spent a full day or more every week performing  the  backbreaking task of laundering clothes. Hauling water (and the fuel to   heat it), scrubbing, rinsing, wringing—one nineteenth-century American  woman  called laundry “the Herculean task which women all dread.” No one  who had the  choice would relinquish her washing machine and do laundry  the old-fashioned  way.

Then again, even with all of our  fancy time-saving gadgets, has family/domestic really improved? She continues:

Judging  by how Americans  spend their money—on shelter magazines and kitchen  gadgets and home  furnishings—domesticity appears in robust health.  Judging by the way Americans  actually live, however, domesticity is in  precipitous decline. Families sit  together for meals much less often  than they once did, and many homes exist in  a state of near-chaos as  working parents try to balance child-rearing, chores,  long commutes,  and work responsibilities. As Cheryl Mendelson, author of a  recent book  on housekeeping, observes, “Comfort and engagement at home have   diminished to the point that even simple cleanliness and decent  meals—let alone  any deeper satisfactions—are no longer taken for  granted in many middle-class  homes.” Better domestic technologies have  surely not produced a new age of  domestic bliss.

True, no?

And who can deny the moral, or at  least McLuhan-esque, dimension of “gadget love”?

There’s no simple answer to these  questions—and I ponder them anew  every time I interact with an Apple product.  (Like right now, as I  type.)

I’m far from a Mac nerd, but I am,  in my own way, a heavy user. My  iPod battery has been broken for months, and I  haven’t gotten around to  replacing it. Lately, the idea of driving without  ready access to my  entire music library—something that would have been  unthinkable for  most of my lifetime—is a continual annoyance.

And when I first bought that iPod, I  found myself mired  in a sort of technological obsessive-compulsive disorder:

With  1,000-plus CDs that I’d ideally like to  upload—because you can’t let all those  free gigabytes starve, not with  so many of the world’s poor children starving  for gigabytes—the process  of ripping, in short order, became an object of dread  and crippling  self-doubt. Unripped CDs now taunt me in their unripped-ness. I  can  almost hear them, in their half-broken jewel cases and water-stained   leaflets, in their state of 20th-century plastic inertness, laugh at   me.

I’ve also found  the aesthetic, near-cultic magnetism of Apple products a little creepy, too:

When  I read stories about iPod users rhapsodizing about  how their iPods are profound  reflections of their personalities; how  their iPod shuffle mechanism has the  seemingly mystical ability to  randomly spit out the right song for the right  moment; how life  screeches to a halt when their iPod suffers a technical glitch  [um, yes — S.G.]—when I read these stories I think of Mr. McLuhan’s  chapter on “gadget lovers.”

Riffing  on the Greek myth of Narcissus, Mr. McLuhan wrote that  technology gadgets were  like narcotic extensions of the self; we  worship them as idols and thus become  a self-enclosed system.

Sound  familiar?

“Servomechanism”  was the term of art that Mr. McLuhan employed: a device that controls something  from a distance.

He  said of gadget love: “We must, to use them at all, serve these  objects, these  extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An  Indian is the  servomechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse  or the executive of his  clock.”

When  you think of mere gadgets in such terms, it’s no wonder there’s  been such an  outpouring of grief over the loss of Steve Jobs.

But  who among us is willing to pull  a modern-day Thoreau and wall ourselves off from innovation?

It’s  part of the human condition, I suppose.


By: Scott Galupo, U. S. News and World Report, October 6, 2011

October 7, 2011 Posted by | Capitalism, Corporations, Economy | , , , , | Leave a comment


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