A Debate on Steve Jobs
Nothing is as good as it used to be, it seems, including the quality of our geniuses.
In the aftermath of the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs, the requisite praise came pouring in from all corners -- he was Thomas Edison reincarnate, a world-changing genius of titanic proportions. Walter Issacson's biography goes on sale today, and it is being closely perused for general and political wisdom. Nonsense. It is only by comparison to other luminaries of today that Jobs has appeared to be such a Goliath. By historical standards, Steve Jobs is a poor excuse for a genius.
This is not to take away from his considerable entrepreneurial accomplishments and marketing innovations -- certainly, Jobs can be counted among the greatest CEOs of the post-War era. And before the legions of Apple fans get ready to flog me with their wrath, let me say -- I am a fan. A Mac was my first computer, as have been all my subsequent computers. I'm writing this column with the assistance of my iPad, in fact, which I love. There is no question that Jobs and Apple have made it easier and sexier to enjoy our "content."
But that, in fact, is the tremendous downside of the Jobs-led digital revolution: the downgrading of all of the world's knowledge, art, literature into the single all-encompassing category of "content."
Is it any coincidence that the squeezing of both the average inconsequential tweet and Bach's masterpieces into the single, amorphous umbrella "content" has gone hand-in-hand with the steep decline in the quality of new content being produced? I don't think so.
Think about it: the more ways we have to enjoy our content -- HD, Blu-ray, DVD, iPod, iPhone, laptop, desktop, satellite TV, the "cloud" -- the less enjoyable it is. Sure, you can carry any movie with you in your pocket, but how good can it look on a 3-inch screen? Sure, you have your music with you wherever you go these days, but how good can it sound competing with the din of the street traffic or train that suffuses your morning commute?
Music especially these days is a pale shadow of its former self. Modern albums are small and tinny-sounding, mixed atrociously, and why not? Bands have no incentive to make dynamic music, because each song is just going to be compressed (which shaves off the high and low ends) and deposited along with thousands of tunes onto an iPhone or other portable device. Then, if it is lucky enough to actually make it onto a playlist, it will likely be sampled, but briefly before being skipped over for the next track or interrupted by an incoming call or text.
Steve Jobs is being credited with saving the music industry with iTunes and the iPod. Perhaps the industry was saved, but the music itself has been devastated. Our machines are sleeker and sexier than ever, but our souls -- like our songs -- are in a far shabbier state, and yes, Steve Jobs and others like him are directly responsible.
Jobs gave us some beautiful toys. But for crying out loud, Thomas Edison tamed the night itself.
Now that was genius.
Thomas Lifson responds:
There is no question that cheaper and easier access to media (of all sorts) leads to vulgarization. The root of the word "vulgar" means popular. But in English, it also connotes and even denotes a lessening in merit, a watering-down, a lowering.
Matt seems to blame Steve Jobs for the vulgarization of popular culture, and because Jobs made so much in the way of information/data/content/media available and accessible to so many, he did indeed vulgarize us, at least in the original intent of the term. But, for that matter, so did Guttenberg with his printing press.
We forget that Guttenberg's invention was not greeted with universal praise. The original project was making the Bible more accessible, but in the end print has been the vehicle for Larry Flynt and worse. Unquestionably, the average quality of literature was far higher in the era of illuminated manuscripts than it is today. But making the printed word cheap enough that everyone potentially has access was worth it.
So it is with Jobs, who brought digital media to the pockets, purses, and briefcases of the world, and made its use intuitive -- not a skill to be mastered after study of manuals. He has enhanced accessibility, which has an upside and a downside. Matt well outlines the principal downside: more pap is being consumed than ever before. But on the upside, I have Vivaldi and other masters available on my iPhone, and could read Plato's Republic on my iPad, if I buy one. And so could you, for whatever elevated interests you might have.
As for the matter of sheer inventorial genius, Edison is a difficult subject. The light bulb certainly was important, and so, too, the phonograph and movies. The latter two achievements certainly led to vulgarization of music and dramatic art by vastly improving popular access to culture.
Jobs' achievement was in the digital realm, not the mechanical, even though his inventions required a lot of engineering on the physical plane. His genius was in imagining the possibilities for entirely new kinds of products, and in putting the user first, so that intuition could guide the novice into using the device. With the iPod he reimagined the music industry, bringing a vast library to the listener's fingertips, and collecting a nice commission each time a piece of music is sold. The iPhone (and its smartphone imitators) has brought vast information capabilities to us no matter where we roam. The ultimate impact of the iPad remains to be seen, but friends who have them enthuse about their utility.
I am reconciled that technology has an upside and a downside. There's no putting the technology genie back into the bottle, at least until a civilization collapses. Fifty years from now, the world will have a better sense of Steve Jobs' importance. But for now, I put him in the column of important enabler of everyman, with all the good and bad that implies.
Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.