Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Unimproved End of Steve Jobs

I am very sorry that Steve Jobs has died. I am usually sorry to hear of anyone dying, but before we all jump to canonize the man (too late) I would like to pause and consider his contribution to the world a little bit. Or maybe it’s what he symbolizes, or the inherent baggage that comes with his gizmos, that makes me somewhat uneasy.

When I heard of his death, and the immediate outpouring of devotion, I hesitated, as I often do in my quest to try to reason out why I don’t feel compelled to let the jerking knee do the talking. I was also reminded of two of my heroes: Henry David Thoreau and Neil Postman. Postman because he discussed the manner in which technology both gives to us and takes something away. It is, as he called it, a Faustian bargain. And Postman was right to quote Thoreau, who said: "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." The iStuff is great and fun and all that, but has any of it made our lives better? Faster, sure. More interesting, okay on a superficial level. Easier? Certainly. But are we not beset by the same problems that we have always faced?

Let me back up.

In the '80s I was a metal kid and guitar geek. As such, I opposed the beat box and the electric drum machine. Someone asked if it ever occurred to me that once there was a man who opposed the electric guitar. After all, it must have seemed impure to their ears. A salient point, but I didn’t care. I was a kid, after all. Similarly, I understand that, as a 40 year old somewhat curmudgeonly bastard, I might be too rooted in my time, place, and traditions to truly give a damn about the iPod or the iPhone, just as that kid hearing me bitch about them won’t care about my complaints. To me the iPod and iPhone are plastic in the truest sense: fake, flimsy looking repositories of better things. I am perhaps obnoxious in my tendency to celebrate the artist, not the device (or the message, not the medium), but it makes sense to me. When people say Steve Job’s inventions changed their lives, I’m a bit baffled. Tom Waits, Shubert, Otis Redding, Trey Spruance, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Eddie Van Halen, Charles Mingus, Paul Westerberg… these people changed my life with their music. The iPod and iTunes are just new ways of getting that music.

I don’t have an iPod and may never have one, not because I wish to be different (contrary to some opinion) but because I simply don’t need one. I like my CD collection. Were I more of a music geek I would have LPs and a turntable. I like art that takes up space. iPods, as revolutionary as they are (were?), are insidious devices that promote an unconscious acceptance of the immateriality of art. Sure, music has always been transitory in the sense that you can’t touch it. It is sound, pure and simple. Nevertheless, I grew up associating music with vinyl, then cassette tape, then the CD. I was not such a luddite that I stayed true to one device over another, but I did get a little annoyed when iPods and iTunes came along, mostly as these mediums seem so heartless. Okay, they are convenient, and sure they have helped a lot of artists get their music heard (I no longer have to risk buying what could be a mediocre album for one song!), but the physicality of LP/CD packaging has gone bye-bye. A lot of that packaging was what caused records and CDs to be so damned expensive, sure, but I was conditioned to think of music as being about, well, more than just music. Maybe this was wrong of me, but I always saw buying a record as an investment in an artist, not just their music but the art they wanted to promote as well. I cannot think of Led Zeppelin’s classic four symbols record without thinking of the gate fold illustration and the old hooded man atop that rocky mountain. Alice Cooper’s School’s Out is inextricable from the panties that held the LP. Ditto Sticky Fingers and the zipper album cover. Big Black understood this and littered their records with some fantastic liner notes, not to mention many dangerous artifacts.

Maybe all of this is inconsequential, or at least of less importance than the music itself, right? After all, my bitching about the loss of packaging is the snob’s equivalent to boy band worship and record sales based on a haircut. Perhaps, but I also recall John Zorn’s classic band, Naked City. Zorn was so frustrated with domestic record companies who refused to print his CDs with specifically selected cover art that he had to sign with overseas labels. Eventually, he started his own label. Why? It would have been so much easier to live with different cover art. Well, to Zorn, and a lot of artists, the cover art is important to the overall experience. I respect and appreciate that. When I pull out those Naked City CDs, I look over the strange, violent images that come with the music. It creates, for me, a complete experience. Another hero, Trey Spruance, consistently puts out CDs that are beautifully packaged with stunning illustrations, photos, and, often, cryptic philosophical texts that essentially lend to the mystery of his increasingly mysterious band, Secret Chiefs 3. The pictorial and textual accompaniment is, in my mind, essential. I would not have the same feeling about his creation were I to simply download it from iTunes.

But none of this is Jobs's fault. I blame the music industry more for shitting on artists and ruining things. Painfully myopic to the point of arrogance, they failed to take into consideration what 21st century realties meant for their business. Unwilling to adapt quickly, they were on the verge of going the way of the dinosaur. (One would have thought the publishing industry would have seen this as a cautionary tale, but I digress.) No, Job’s inventions did not ruin the music industry, but the ubiquity of the iPod has made me take pause. To me, Jobs was the ringleader in a circus that often makes me feel comfortable. He represented speed rather than substance; ease over experience. The iPod and iTunes seem content to treat music as something easily digestible and disposable, not worthy of serious consideration. Music, and all good art, requires a certain level of dedication. I am all for slowing down when approaching a good record or a good book or a good movie or a good painting. I don’t want to see a world where the instant availability of art fosters a lack of critical skills and evaluation. Jobs, for all the good he did, also helped create a culture that treats music as an easily found, easily abandoned, just-add-water commodity. I like committing to records when I bring them with me on car trips. I carefully choose a CD and stick with it. I don’t know that I would do that if I had an iPod. I’d likely flip in search of something else. What else? Doesn’t matter. We crave variety above all else. We just want to know what else is out there and don’t focus on what is in front of us. This is a quality I do not admire about myself. The iPod celebrates this.

The iPhone seems like a good idea. Why not have one device that allows you to make calls, surf the net, and… what else does it do? Oh, right… play games. Okay, sure. Sounds nice, but life changing? And the problem with this device, and so many others from the Apple factories, is their short shelf life. Sure I’ve had my laptop for years, but the newer, faster, slimmer ones make mine seem quaint. I can’t completely champion a man who promotes his gadgets as rest stops toward a better model. Pardon my cynicism and damn near paranoia, but it seems like a plot to separate me from my money. There’s a sucker born every minute, said P.T. Barnum. Well, in the 21st century the suckers are born every nanosecond. And they line up for days to get the new model.

Again, Jobs is perhaps less to blame than the industries that failed to see the writing on the digital walls. Nevertheless, he did say some things that annoyed me. He seemed all too prickish when he stated that no one reads anymore and then decided to save publishing with iBooks. I believe my exact words were: fuck you, zombie-nerd; I hope you get strangled by your mock turtleneck. But now I see past such ire. Jobs was indeed a visionary and his technological tinkering have introduced some interesting gadgets to our lives, even mine. Still, in the end he succumbed to cancer, proving that no matter how far we advance and how many portable gizmos we create, we still decline into frail shadows of ourselves until we die. No app for that.