The Man Who Came From The Future

In 1994 my mother brought home our first personal computer, a sleek and sexy Power Macintosh that, compared to the school computers still running on DOS, may as well have been Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner. I was in the fifth grade at the time and a bit of a Luddite, and being able to use a graphical user interface instead of hunting and pecking at command lines was a neat little novelty; playing Doom II and Myst instead of dinosaurs like Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? made staying home because I had no friends a little less sad. In late 2001 I bought a first-generation iPod, a big white box that looked like it too could come up with “42” if given enough time; bored with my less than extensive music library, I traded it less than a month later for a Playstation 2, and I haven’t owned an Apple product since.

I claim no diehard loyalty to PCs or Microsoft, but nevertheless Apple grated on me: the intolerably self-satisfied image spearheaded by Justin Long’s smug series of commercials and the lost Doobie Brother reeking of last night’s OG Kush manning his spot behind the Genius Bar without the slightest sense of irony made anything or anyone in proximity to an Apple machine insufferable by association.

But regardless of any other number of arbitrary and illogical explanations for my inimicality towards the empire he created, the biggest reason why I still mourned the death of Steve Jobs is this, attempted with as little pretense as possible: when so many people don’t know how to let go of the past, it is always a tragedy when the world loses someone so firmly rooted in the future.

The late Marshall McLuhan, himself an extraordinary visionary and futurist, famously said, “The medium is the message,” meaning the inference of a message is influenced by the medium in which it is delivered. As far as aphorisms go, it’s hard to find one that, for better or worse, more concisely sums up how we communicate with one another. Of course, “communicate” has a very concrete definition, but McLuhan meant “medium” in much broader, encompassing sense. For him, a light bulb was as effective a medium for effecting social interaction as television or radio or, had he lived long enough, the internet (though he certainly predicted the creation of the World Wide Web). In terms of information as the message and technology as the medium, however, one may not find someone who understood McLuhan more than Steve Jobs. Seeming wizardry and an almost egregious emphasis on aesthetics all in the same breath, Jobs’ creations, with their smoothly alien surfaces and fantastical yet intuitive mechanics, as a medium evoked in many the singular message that, after decades of futile waiting for flying cars and colonies on Mars, the future had finally arrived.

(Quick question: How many of you first heard about his passing via mediums that Steve Jobs had a direct hand in creating?)

The future is a bit of a sore subject for me, and has been ever since the official termination of the US Space Shuttle Program and manned space flight earlier this year. Bullsh-t budgetary concerns aside, it’s difficult to imagine the future as meaning something to a species that has resigned itself to dying in the same sad little ball of dirt from whence it spawned; it’s difficult to feel pride in, and solidarity with, a nation as indifferent to saving itself, in the larger contexts of time and scale, as the giant panda.

George Lazenby (whose blogs almost singlehandedly justify the existences of Twitter and Tumblr) once tweeted, “Sometimes I think the only beautiful thing left about mankind is that we went to the moon because we felt like it.” And yet it has been almost forty years since we last walked there. In an early, Warren Ellis-penned issue of The Authority, the super-powered Engineer takes her inaugural flight to the moon, where she looks out over the desolate landscape and says, “Why did we ever stop coming to a place as beautiful as this?”

Obviously, low orbit jaunts to the International Space Station and relatively short flights to the moon are a far cry from the terraformation and long-term colonization of other planets, much like the iPhone and Siri are hardly the android sex slave and artificial intelligence promised to us by science fiction and the phantasmagoric world fairs of the early 60’s, with their terrifying depictions of a future dominated by boys with buzz cuts and girls wearing pink-furred pillbox hats, and where everyone smiles all the time. The problem is that with space travel, while our all-too-brief excursions to the moon showed us a possible vision of mankind expanding beyond the boundaries of Earth, we simply admired the view, said, “Well, I guess that’s that,” and turned right back around, ultimately deeming the whole thing too expensive and eschewing it in favor of inflating our already grossly swollen military budget. What Steve Jobs did was the exact opposite: he showed us a piece of the future from whence he traveled back, where robotics and AI are more than the automated mechanical arms which assemble cars and shred trees into toothpicks, and instead of taking it away he placed it into our clumsy hands, not yet evolved enough to gracefully maneuver around a touchscreen’s lack of tactile sensation, and proceeded to show us even more.

(At this point I wonder how many people with the iPhone 4S have already nicknamed Siri “Cortana,” or “HAL,” or any other nod to speculative fiction pop culture; I also wonder if those are merely attempts at being clever, or if they are a sad acquiescence to the possibility that this is as far as we will get.)

In his brilliant rant about the defunding of NASA on Wired, Warren Ellis, with his usual inimitable curmudgeonly flair, said that “a nice robot phone is not an acceptable substitute for a future.”

I agree completely.

What it and its technological contemporaries are, however, is one small step towards that future. What truly worries me is, with the death of Steve Jobs, the painfully small pool of visionaries and time travelers who can give us that one giant leap has gotten even smaller. TC mark

image – Peter Denton


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  • Antonio Watson

    Very well written.  Sadly, I don’t have anything significant to add except for the fact that I enjoyed your piece.

  • matt good

    What’s wrong with going to the moon and never going back? There’s more than enough for us on Earth, no need to go fuck with any other planets. I don’t call it a lack of vision, I call it special responsibility

    • Aimee Vondrak

      No. That’s like going to Disneyland once, riding all the rides, and then 20 years later when your wife or girlfriend asks you to go, after advents like California Adventure, and Indiana Jones, and the Tower of Terror, and the World of Color, and being all like, “I’ve gone once, why would I go again?”

      • Guy

        With regard to terraformation, etc., as mentioned in the article, I would say that if we can’t seem to keep from destroying one ball of dirt, why would we be better able to take care of two?

        Disneyland seems to be bucking the general trend of self-destruction.

      • matt good

        I’ve been to Disneyland once and I definitely don’t see why I would go again…

    • J. Ky Marsh

      It is our responsibility as an intelligent race to continue to expand and explore. If you can’t understand this at its very fundamental level, there’s no hope for explaining to you why we need to return to the moon, either.

  • Ch

    Article of the week.

  • Aimee Vondrak

    Nicely done! I’ve been thinking exactly this. Who is our next Steve Jobs? And if there isn’t a next, what are we going to do? I mean, we all knew he wasn’t going to live forever, but we didn’t anticipate having to march into the future on our own for quite some time, I don’t think.

    • Aimee Vondrak

      Specifically, your last line. Brill.

  • Catt

    Steve Jobs’s brilliance came in his determination to outdo himself. He wanted to make sure that whoever outdid Apple was Apple, and so: he dropped outdated technology the moment something new came along, and then worked to make sure that “new” technology wasn’t new for very long.
    It was such a beautiful way of working and no one else seems to work that way.

  •!/85Stead Chris Kierstead

    Great article, I  look forward to exploring some of the information here. I agree on grating and insufferable, and would also add pretentious; yet I too can appreciate Steve Jobs’ “wizardry”. However, I shudder to think he is representative of the small pool of visionaries in the world. His aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly gadgets are technologically revolutionary, and analogous to the space program in one sense, but I still think his ambitions were trivial by comparison. iPhones are neat. Perhaps he could have had a greater impact in his too short time if he had focused on something more significant.

  • Anonymous
  • J. Ky Marsh

    Fantastic article.

    Hits particularly close to home for me as well, because I’m beginning to feel the same way. It seems as though the divide between reality and what we had HOPED the world would be like in fifty years is beginning to grow wider and wider. As resources and forward-thinkers are allocated elsewhere, the plausibility of a mind-blowing future grows more and more distant…

    Sad reality. Thanks again for the great read, though.

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