What's All This Then?

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Monday, October 10, 2011

I admit to being somewhat surprised at the outpouring of grief and accolades in response to the news that Steve Jobs had died. No doubt that was because I am not one who has participated in the use of all of the communication and information devices that he and others have created over the years . I do use a computer - obviously - a P.C. - and I own and minimally use a basic cell phone with virtually no bells and whistles. And that is just about the extent of my relationship to the world created by Jobs and his fellow geniuses, whoever they may be.

From all I’ve heard about the man, it seems clear that he was indeed a technically creative genius who died too young - and I agree with those who have been saying that his creations have changed the world we live in. But since I don’t use any of those creations other than the aforementioned computer and phone, I am not really qualified nor do I feel any strong compulsion to join in the world wide chorus of praise for the man and his life’s work. Instead, I thought I would look at his passing from a somewhat different perspective.

There’s no question that technology has changed the world we live in and mostly for the better But there is a price that we pay for each technological step forward and it seems to me that sometimes that price is high enough to make the advances seem a little less worth while.

Today the U.S. Post office is struggling to stay afloat, in some measure due to the severe drop in volume of personal mail. Today, many of us, taking advantage of a convenient technological innovation, use e-mail to keep in touch with family and friends and computers to receive and pay bills. We send "virtual" birthday and other greetings cards without having to shop for the items in a store or putting pen to paper. These are wonderful conveniences and they are eco-friendly, but we pay for them by losing the joy of anticipating the daily arrival of the mail man and opening letters and cards from friends and relatives and reading the written messages on paper that we often could recognize by color and design and sometimes even odor. Those days aren’t completely gone but they are fading fast and I for one cannot nor do I wish to imagine a world without stamps and envelopes and the anticipation of opening and exploring their contents.

Over the years, local book stores began to be squeezed out by the chains - not able to compete with price or advertising. And now the chains are gone or going, one by one, squeezed out by other life changing innovations - books "on line" or on electronic devices where the words of authors can be found and read - a convenience for many - but again at what price? Can one really enjoy sitting in front of a computer or with one of those cold to the touch electronic devices in hand - clicking away or whatever one does to "turn" a page, to the joy of opening the cover of a newly purchased book - glancing through the chapters - maybe even sniffing the cover and the pages - and settling back in a comfortable chair and appropriate light to enter the world of someone’s imagination or expertise without ever having to click? Perhaps one day the world that Steve Jobs and his fellow geniuses have created will have eliminated the need for books that are printed on paper and kept on shelves in homes and libraries. It won’t happen in my lifetime but I have to wonder where generations that follow mine will go to find a signed, first edition of some future classical work of fiction?

Today’s children are growing up more familiar with computers and the various pods and pads they use than with the basics that we old folk learned in our school days. They cannot imagine a time or a life without the innovations that were gifted to them by Jobs and his contemporaries. But I wonder how many of them will master cursive writing or will be capable of writing or want to write with anything other than a keyboard and whether they will ever understand or agree that they have paid a price for the gifts and that that price is the potential loss of something beautiful that may soon be little more than a memory.

I’m sure you’ve been delayed at the check out counter in a supermarket because a UPC code was missing on an item or couldn’t be scanned. You had to wait and the checker had to hold up the line behind you while someone went to find the aisle where the item was shelved and read the price posted there. Most check out clerks at supermarkets couldn’t tell you the price of most items sold in the store. It isn’t a job requirement. It’s replaced by the innovation of the scanner. Who needs to look at and learn the prices of what you’re selling when you can just scan them? Perhaps not that much has been lost by replacing the knowledgeable retail clerk with the check out scanner - but its another example of the increasing substitution of an electronic aid for personal knowledge and ability. I know it’s not directly appropriate since we’re talking about clerks who aren’t personally familiar with prices - but it brings to mind the description of a cynic - one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Maybe we’re moving toward a world where our supermarket clerks will know neither.

There is no way that these thoughts should be interpreted as being disrespectful or unmindful of the creative genius of Steve Jobs. I am as grateful as anyone for the innovations that have made life easier and easier from generation to generation. . Our ancestors may have snorted at our reliance on some of our modern day conveniences but while the ancient outhouse might have added a rustic look to grandpa’s house, I will forever be grateful for indoor plumbing on a thirty below snowy day in December.

Absent a cataclysmic atomic war, the invasion of a predatory alien race or our sun going nova, mankind’s future will be filled with one innovation after another - each obviating the need for some of the things succeeding generations will not be able to believe they could or would want to live without. And that will be the price they will pay for the innovations. The abandonment of those things and perhaps even the memory of what they were.

So as the world celebrates and gives thanks for the life of Steve Jobs, it would serve us well to offer thanks for and celebrate those things that we will be leaving behind and perhaps one day forgotten as the price we pay for the gifts he gave us and for those who follow him will give us.