Friday, 7 October 2011

Steve Jobs: honouring his vision

Steve Jobs died.  The announcement happened whilst I was asleep.

I found out during my morning scan of Facebook, which was full of messages about Jobs and his sad passing.  It is testament to the man that so many felt a connection to him.
Amongst those messages, a friend commented that he had had 20 friends comment on Steve Jobs’ passing that morning; yet only 2 had ever commented on the East African famine.  There was a list of replies; people commenting on Jobs' vision, the connection to him that they felt thanks to the sheer might of Apple’s presence in the world and their lives, the fact that he was a visionary individual and, sadly, the fact that Africa too often has famines.

The comment, and its responses, made an instant impact on me and I too responded:

“No doubt Steve Jobs was an amazing man, and his passing is sad, but somewhere in the last 10-20 years we've lost our perspective.  We’re all obsessed with these marvellous technologies which allow us to connect so much more easily with each other and yet at the same time it feels like we’ve lost a little of our humanity.  Myself included.  Imagine the money that could be raised if everyone who mentions Steve’s passing made a small donation to the famine? I’ll start : )”

And do I did.  I am not an Apple fan, but I have always loved to hear Steve Jobs’ speak and I was reminded, as I made my donation, of his oft-quoted “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me… Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”

I like to make on-off donations to charity in honour of someone I know who has died and it seemed fitting to help change another’s life in tribute to a man who has changed so much of our lives.  It honestly did not strike me as a contentious comment but, apart from my friend and a couple of other people, it felt like my comment was the Facebook equivalent of farting in the middle of a crowded room!  Later in the day, at work, the subject came up again and it seemed that my farting problem had followed me to the office…

People were very determined on three points:
  1. Famines are always happening,
  2. They donate to charity anyway, and
  3. The fact that they felt compelled to comment on Steve Jobs’ passing was proof enough of their humanity. 
Oh, and I shouldn't comment, in any way that could be deemed negative, on this wonderful technology... technically four points!

Well, the process of embracing a vegan diet had certainly opened my eyes to the levels of ownership that we in the Western world should take for the suffering that occurs in other, less fortunate, parts of the world.  People can argue all they like about corrupt regimes and natural climate change but we have long meddled politically (and have some responsibility on that level) and our extreme consumption certainly isn’t helping climactically – don’t get me started on how many people we could feed and how much we could help the environment if we weren’t all so obsessed with this culture of dairy and meat and pre-packaged, fast food, out of season convenience food!

And again, I am a guilty as anyone.

Secondly, I wasn’t disputing people’s charity, but when we have so much, surely a small affordable contribution isn’t too much to suggest?   A step towards saving a life, in memoriam to another one lost.

And finally, our humanity vs our technology.  This one has my brain really ticking over.  I don’t deny that I love technology, I am a complete geek!  And I would argue that it enhances my life: I read, I learn, I teach, I watch, I play, I communicate, I craft, I design, I share, I could go on and on.  I also have a very full life and a family that I adore: I aim for balance.  I don’t always manage it, even though it is a conscious thought; sometimes the next blog, the next article, the next video, the next… is just too tempting to ignore.  I don’t watch the news on the TV or read newspapers any more, my news comes in three line, black and white text soundbites on my phone.  Famine in Africa? Tragic, but my finger flicks to the next story on the list - and this is the problem.  Ease and simplicity can remove us from the colour and complexity of life.  Certainly I feel for the people caught in a hideous situation, I have humanity for them, I have thought countless times “I must donate something”, but I got caught up again in my bubble.  This is a recent phenomenon: in 1984 during the Ethiopian famine, we didn’t have the level of technology we have today and thus we relied more on traditional news sources.  Who can forget the images from that year?  Who can remember them and not still be moved?  How do you translate that depth of feeling into a text soundbite on a smartphone?  I learnt to knit properly that summer as my Mother, my Grandmother and I sat and knit tiny jumpers for tiny children in the hope that they spread love and hope and ultimately saved a life.  We saw, we felt, we reacted, we got involved, perhaps we even made a difference.   

When I first heard of the famine this year, I wondered if the programme still existed, if I could tease my very rusty knitting skills into a sweater or three.  It took a few searches to find the programme (actually the same charity, still going strong!) and those that might want to help and don’t know where to look, go to Knit for Kids.

But back to Mr Jobs.  He was undoubtedly a great and good man; he believed in getting involved, in connecting the dots, in living each day as if it was your last and acting accordingly (I’m so glad that if yesterday had been last day, I could have gone to my maker knowing I did a good thing) but he also started a technological revolution that is, in some respects, at odds with all of that.  

In an article for ABC News, Susan Donaldson James discusses Job’s beliefs, his undoubted affinity with Zen Buddhism, and the effect that it had on his work, life and the Apple products.  I quote the final paragraphs of the article:

“But the irony of Jobs' spirituality was that as much as it reflected the most beautiful aspects of the products he made, those very "machines" have in some ways enslaved a generation of users, according to John Lardas Modern, a professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
Jobs made computers and hand held devices that have allowed people to become "disembodied" on a certain level -- "to escape and transcend the mundane reality of bodily existence," according to Modern.
Such spirituality begs for freedom from the trappings of tradition, he said, but they have a down side.
"These machines are amazing," said Modern. "For the last 12 hours, I have been seeing people on Facebook and Twitter in praise of how the devices he made allow ease and convenience and empowerment."
"I love my iPad, precisely because it feels like an extension of my mind and I can't live without it," said Modern. "The irony is, these products ground us in a chair behind a desk, behind a computer and in a sense they have pushed us inward -- and you don't have physical connections with others."
"It cuts both ways," he said. "
Our communications, our connections, are increasingly virtual and if our connections to the people that directly matter to us are increasingly virtual, how much further removed are we from starving strangers in a faraway land?  How do we relearn to connect?  It can be done, as the recent riots in London proved.  For good and bad, our new technology can be a very powerful tool, if we learn to use it right.
People say that Steve Jobs was a visionary; I am certain that that vision was not only for an easier and simpler world, but for a better one too.  Mourn the man, his passing and our loss, but do so in a way that carries on his whole vision.  Use his technology to the total sum of its capabilities and let it help you truly connect, learn, live and make this world a better place.

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