“Indeed your dancing days are done…” (Irish folk song)
I hope you’re doing well, and seizing the day. As we all should, every day we’re alive.
Sometimes, for me, the best way to appreciate life is to, occasionally, also appreciate death. For all the sound and fury and chaos surrounding us on the Big Earthly Stage… for all the urgency of accomplishment and all the troubles of cobbling together a modern lifestyle…
… sometimes you just gotta stop and take a deep breath.
And know that, at some point, there will be one last breath like that… and then no more.
All of us sharing space on the planet have been granted a ticket to ride, and none of us know how long the ride will last. Or how it ends.
Or, for that matter, what’s going to happen one second from now, let alone tomorrow or next month or next year.
And yet, life goes on. And goes on well for some of us, and progresses haltingly for others. But it goes on.
For Steve Jobs, the dancing days are done. I did not suspect his leaving us would affect me this profoundly, but it has. I never met him. And yet, our lives are intertwined. I’m writing this on an iMac, using the friendly interface he championed (and forced the “who cares about fonts” geek-dominated virtual world to adopt), while my iPhone sits nearby (buzzing with incoming texts).
There will be plenty written about Jobs and his effect on how we live today. I’ve already read a dozen articles online… and even the iHaters have to admit the world has shifted significantly with Steve gone.
For me, he was the Uber-Entrepreneur. Dropped out of college because his energy and ideas bristled at the shackles of staid academia. Aimlessly sought out ways to engage with life on a more grand scale, correctly sensing that the world was about to change fundamentally and forever.
And once that aimless energy locked onto a vision of what could be… he never stopped driving forward.
Several articles I’ve read have brought up the notion that Jobs didn’t actually “invent” the things he’s now being given credit for. The same charge has been leveled at entrepreneurs since the dawn of time — disgruntled anti-hero types get heavily invested in dragging down icons out of a sense of justice. Edison, Bell, Tesla, Einstein, Ford… they all have detractors who focus on the suggestion they didn’t “earn” their glory.
Jobs, to my knowledge, never claimed to be the sole dude behind any of the breakthroughs he was involved in, though. He used “we” in his talks, and always had a team working with him. (Wozniak was the first member.)
You can pretend that the entrepreneur honchoing new stuff is merely an interchangeable cog in the wheel of invention. That the light bulb, car, radio, television, space flight, Internet, personal computer and every other gew-gah supporting modern life would have been invented anyway…
… maybe later, maybe in some slightly different form, but it would all be here.
And that’s bullshit. Anyone with a smidgeon of knowledge about the history of civilization can refute that idea. The Web could have easily remained a pet project of the military-industrial-academic world. The sky could easily today be full of zeppelins instead of jets, with no satellites orbiting above, no footprints on the moon, and no mp3’s murmuring in your earbuds.
Humans have a built-in drive to tinker with stuff, to make swords out of ploughs, to increase comfort and hide unpleasantness, to be curiouser and curiouser about things that blow up and move mountains and open minds.
But there isn’t one path to take, at any time. The mobs resist change, king-makers subvert progress, and corporations don’t like crazy guys messing with the bottom line.
And that’s why the world we live in today… with the Web woven completely into daily existence, with once-dominant industries crippled even as brand-spanking new entrepreneurial opportunities bloom, with utterly and radically changed ways of finding and processing information…
… owes a ton to Steve Jobs.
I still marvel at how much we’ve been swept into the wake he created on the sea of modern life. I was like a motley fool stumbling around the edges of this vast tidal change, sometimes with a ring-side seat… never quite grasping just how profoundly things were shifting…
… but still enjoying the ride.
In the late 70s, I lived in a quasi-communal house in Palo Alto, just up the street from the famous garage where Hewlett-Packard was founded, a town away from the garage in Los Altos where Woz and Jobs had started Apple a few years before. The guy in charge of the house I was in also happened to run the Artificial Intelligence lab at Stanford… so he had one of the first home connections to the Web (though it wasn’t called that yet).
He’d take us into the basement of the AI department after parties, where we’d run around like barbarians in the Alexandrian library — goggle-eyed at the refrigerator-sized mainframes chugging away, startled by the occasional mouse-like robots scurrying around… and completely mystified by what it all meant. (Few people believe me about the robot mice, but they were there. No idea why they haven’t been marketed, or what they could have been marketed for.)
I played text-only fantasy games on his home computer (attached to the Web through old-school telephone wires), with a poster of Bertrand Russell gazing at me. (“Look down.” “There’s a troll with a sword lying at your feet.” “Wake up troll.” “Cannot understand command. Try again.”) This was a decade away from Leisure Suit Larry, for crying out loud, and even PacMan wasn’t out yet.
My housemates were mostly Stanford grad students. (I was working in the art department of a local computer supply catalog, overseeing photo shoots where we naively put floppies upside-down into drives… cuz we were so clueless about all this computer crap, which surely wasn’t going anywhere anyway, you know.)
I had not the vaguest idea what any of this meant for the future.
I scored an early PC, cobbled together in a Pacific Coast Highway storefront with handwritten signs announcing the sale of “computers you can use in your home”. (I had two IBM disc drives, and had to load a DOS floppy first, take that out and load a word-processing program — now obsolete — and use blank floppies in the second drive to store my writing.)
(Huge, cumbersome 5-1/4″ floppies, too, not the small ones. Those things were as big as the New Wave singles on vinyl I still bought at the record store.)
And Gary Halbert and I actually attempted to market what is now called an “information product” on the World Wide Web — before anyone we knew had encountered a phone modem or owned an email address. (It bombed.) A decade later, I at least had the sense to establish an online presence with a crude website for my biz. I had an early podcast available (when I had to explain to people what a podcast was), one of the first online merchant accounts BofA created, and dove headlong into the blog-o-sphere back when they still called ‘em “weblogs”.
But I was just a rider on the train.
The guys doing the driving were the ones breaking a sweat. And the corporate types (IBM, MicroSoft) were headed one way, while Jobs and his team stubbornly headed out in another direction.
There was never any guarantee we’d wind up where we are now. Humans resist change. The majority refused to believe man could fly, or transplant organs, or survive in a chaotic entrepreneur-friendly democracy.
Never mind mobile web surfing.
And that’s why Jobs was so freaking important.
I hang out with a lot of geeks. They’re good people, smart as hell, and they’re having a blast in this Brave New Wired World.
But the breakthrough was in making it easy for guys like me to come along. I’ve never tried to program software, don’t know a thing about code, and would be just as lost now as I was back in the AI basement…
… if guys like Jobs hadn’t pushed so hard for friendly interfaces and user-centered computing.
Even hard-core iHaters can’t deny that, in may ways, we live in Steve’s world. He honchoed the teams that brought us here — doing the job of the visionary entrepreneur (who knows when to nix otherwise impressive geek breakthroughs, and when to fast-track the head-scratchingly obscure other breakthroughs no one else believed in… yet).
The corporate types are just fine with keeping new technology away from the masses. If The Man had his way, we might still be on dial-up modems, with streaming video reserved for the wealthy and the military. (And the only way to get music would be on CDs.)
Don’t think for a minute that The Man is happy about social media, instant messaging, and unfettered access to all knowledge. That’s why they’re eavesdropping so much, and experimenting with shutting down the Web when they’re scared.
I don’t know what the world is going to look like next year. Or even tomorrow. We live in exciting times… and that excitement cuts both ways, good and bad. Scary and delightful.
However, I do know I’m gonna miss Steve terribly.
There are lots of rebels out there, plenty of smart folks willing to take on The Man and never settle for “good enough” technology.
But there aren’t very many with the ability to communicate their vision.
And it’s fair to wonder if there’s anyone left with the mojo to honcho a team to make that vision real. (Remember, Jobs was fired from Apple, resigned when his failures threatened the stock price, and pretty much swam upstream against corporate know-it-all’s and “common sense” for his entire life.)
I have high hopes.
I intend to hang around for a long time, and I’m enjoying being an itsy-bitsy part of the history still being written about this turbulent, wacky, chaotic birth of our Brave New Wired World (at least on the marketing side).
And Steve’s passing reminds me not to take any of it for granted, ever.
The dude was an Uber-Entrepreneur, and he changed the world. We got to be bit players in the movie, enjoying the constant re-booting of reality and possibility…
… and now we’re already into the next act.
With no script.
Again, I have high hopes. I’m also scared, because I study history… and this movie could easily take a wild left-turn at any time. Just like it has so often in the past.
For now, though, I’m not worrying about the future.
Today, I’m reflecting on the ride so far. And enjoying the privilege of having been around while Jobs was shaking up the joint.
What’s your take on all this?