I’ve read a lot of comments and tributes to the late Steve Jobs today. Whatever I say about him will not add anymore to what has already been said.
All the tributes and reflections about Steve Jobs’ impact on the world makes this a good time to take a step back to think about the technology Apple produced (and by extension all the other companies that fell in line behind it) and what it means for us.
Let’s be clear, I think the technology is great. Even though I don’t use Apple products (it’s not that I don’t like them or hold anything against them, but I’ve found similar products from other manufacturers which serve my purposes as well), the technology has changed my life. My cell phone means I don’t have to carry coins to make a phone call nor do I have to wait until I get home to receive a call. My music player enables me to listen to podcasts of radio programs that played days before my car trip, and it vastly expands my music collection for the car.
We’ve gained a lot, but I think we’ve also lost something too. The technology we use are personal devices. The cell phone lets me talk anywhere at anytime, but as a personal device it’s only mine. We can’t have several people on a phone call at once as we did with a land line … remember … “Pick up the phone, we’re going to talk to Bob long distance.” and as many people as phone extensions would be able to talk to Bob. On long car trips the personal music players allow everyone in the car to listen to whatever he or she wants, but then we lose the patience to listen to someone else’s music or the negotiation skills it takes to make compromises over the music.
Has personal technology growth fostered a more insular culture, call it the culture of me?
The personal technology feeds into the post-modern culture. They have helped to free us from the fetters of time and space. Downloading a podcast of Car Talk frees me from having to be by a radio on Saturday morning’s at 10:00. TiVo frees a television viewer from the network programming schedule. Although we’re freed, we also can’t talk about it with others because we’ve disengaged the program from the original broadcast time. When would we gather to talk about it?
The laptop computer is a go anywhere device. Public WiFi has become almost expected, which means we can jump onto the internet just about anywhere we want. Access to the internet enables us to communicate with people in almost every part of the world. We’re no longer bound to our offices. Indeed, many companies are shedding offices and equipping their employees to work from home or wherever they define an office. It sounds great except it becomes entirely possible for an employee to work all week and have no physical human contact. Is that a good thing?
I’m not a neo-Luddite. I have no plans to give up my laptop or my cell phone or my personal music player. And I don’t want to rain on the technology parade or diminish the impact Steve Jobs had on all of this, but I do want us to think a little critically about the implications of personal technology now and for the future. We might be surprised the subtle ways it’s changing the way we live in community with each other and what we might do to retain some vestige of the community we cherish.