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.