The “Pro-Life” Poster Boy

Characteristically, David Warren concisely gets to the heart of the late Steve Jobs and his creations:

…Anecdotes of Jobs and that other Steve (Wozniak), depend largely on the frailties of human memory, mythologized in the retrospect of later achievement. Jobs himself became larger than life, his vices subtly transmuted into virtues in the public mind.

Like the late Princess of Wales …, he was a brilliant and charismatic self-salesman. (And had been at least since adolescence, when he brought himself to the attention of Hewlett Packard’s CEO, just to get a summer job.) Unlike Diana …, he had products to bring to market, stamped with the ineffable mark of his personality; and is now lionized almost in spite of the fact he was a capitalist entrepreneur.

Here was a man whose company’s cash reserves have sometimes exceeded those of the United States of America. Who made it company policy to give not one penny to any philanthropic cause. Who pitched entirely to the mass market, with cleverly purposeful branding. Who imparted intangible fashion qualities to those products, through fanatic attention to industrial design. Who rode often brutally over opponents; who had anger management issues; and was the boss from hell to anyone who didn’t perform according to his exacting specifications.

A great salesman, as great a nerd (hundreds of patents with his name on them), and finally a great artist, in an age when art has taken the strangest egalitarian forms. More positively, he carried the hallmarks of an artist, even into his salesmanship, from the attention to fine detail to the Zen drama of his presentations. It is rare when so many gifts, not necessarily compatible, combine in one man and are harnessed together.

An orphan, adopted by step-parents who misrepresented themselves and their situation to get hold of him. (Later, a college dropout himself.) His ancestry was secularized Syrian Muslim; he was born in 1955 to a young couple “not ready for children yet.” Twenty years later he would surely have been aborted: together with who knows how many others with commensurate gifts. Yes, Steve Jobs could be a poster boy for “Pro-Life.”

A man who genuinely changed the world, though, let me add, not entirely for the better. For the cumulative effect of all these ingenious electronic devices is to train the attention of a huge population narcissistically inward. And from the moment they look out, to assist them in finding the distraction of cheap and mostly worthless entertainment. The iPod, iPad, iPhone, etc., are all instruments of distraction. Each reduces some segment of reality to the virtual, and each reprograms the habits of its users within the spiritual confines of a kind of computer game.

But that is the story of all technology, since the “apple” first presented to Eve: a dubious good, whose merits are made visible through salesmanship. Whose costs are subtly hidden.

Technology by increments has conquered the world, from the harvesting of fish to what Stalin called “the engineering of human souls.” We are caught in the net of our own ingenuity.

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