This Note actually has nothing really to do with Xi’an apart from the fact I am writing it, on a MacBook, in Xi’an, and that I am using a Xi’an based wireless Internet connection. This Note is also not an obituary for Steve Jobs, who passed away yesterday, nor a hallelujah for the Apple products he has bequeathed us, though, I like them. This Note does, however, offer a bit of context to his passing. It also gives me an opportunity to share some of my concerns about the omnipresence of multimedia devices in our lives today. First, a note from Ai Wei Wei, taken from Edge.org’s timely annual question - How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?:
“I only think on the Internet anymore. My thinking is now divided into on the net and off the net. If I’m not on the net, I don’t think that much; when I’m on the net, I start to think. In this way, my thinking becomes always part of something else.”
I will offer some context to Steve Jobs’s passing by way of a link to Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article in The New Yorker: the opening paragraphs of which I will include below. Gladwell outlines the evolution of the mouse, the printer and Apple’s personal computer. In his interesting piece Gladwell focuses on the personalities and environments involved in the development of these products. From it we understand the determination, ingenuity and passion that different types of people, with different motivations, all harnessed to produce technological advances most of us could never have dreamt of.
“In late 1979, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur paid a visit to a research center in Silicon Valley called Xerox Parc. He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.
Xerox Parc was the innovation arm of the Xerox Corporation. It was, and remains, on Coyote Hill Road, in Palo Alto, nestled in the foothills on the edge of town, in a long, low concrete building, with enormous terraces looking out over the jewels of Silicon Valley. To the northwest was Stanford University’s Hoover Tower. To the north was Hewlett-Packard’s sprawling campus.
All around were scores of the other chip designers, software firms, venture capitalists, and hardware-makers. A visitor to Parc, taking in that view, could easily imagine that it was the computer world’s castle, lording over the valley below—and, at the time, this wasn’t far from the truth…” The New Yorker
Whatever peoples’ take on Steve Jobs and Apple, his work has directly or indirectly influenced most personal computers, mp3s and mobile phone products on the market today, and thus all of us as consumers. Jobs’ passing provides a timely reminder of how the last 40 years of technological development have changed our lives, for both good and bad.
Personal computers are becoming increasingly smaller, more powerful and more ubiquitous; mobile phones are themselves now forms of personal computer. Add to this the variety of software that is now out there; the number of apps; the choice of games, and it is hardly surprising that time spent on personal computers is becoming a major part of people’s days.
There are questions to be asked about where this is all going. Most importantly, what is the nature of our own individual relationships to these devices and the wider world beyond them? Our lives are increasingly spent going online and into web-based social forums with new forms of communication being created all the time. In doing so, we are diluting previous forms of social activity and interaction.
Hank Stuever, in his Washington Post article - Steve Jobs and The Idea of Letting Go, highlights these changes in this simple observation:
“Remember a few years ago… People stopped lining up for concert tickets and started lining up for new phones… That is what Steve Jobs gave us: the future. He gave us a look at the future and all the ambivalence and worry that comes with it. It was the most elegant form of social disruption, and now your kids won’t glance up from their iPhones. They’ll never need to.” The Washington Post.
Watching TV has been described as sleep walking into the future. In contrast, many see interactive multimedia computing as the means by which autonomous human beings reclaim technology for themselves. However, Internet use and gaming can, in my opinion, increasingly be seen the same way as television. It is just that we seem to have a layer of consciousness that deludes us into believing we are active, participatory beings, freely choosing our own futures. In fact, more often than not, we are just caught up in this digital world that spins ferociously around us; lost in alternative worlds and tittle-tattle: switching on and switching off, watching, reproducing, commenting, disappearing, floating and searching.
Here we have questions of time and questions about the forms and processes of communication that we are participating in. A lot of time is spent on these technologies, while our communication through these devices seems to have evolved into a ceaseless stream of information; that goes backwards and forwards ad infinitum. So much so that websites and visual content are increasingly giving way to feeds and tweets, symptoms of a desperate need to keep up.
There is also the question of how offline forms of communication are damaged by the interfaces of our media devices. Sitting with someone reading a book is a very different experience to sitting with a person reading an e-book. A greater distance, not in a physical sense, exists between two people in the latter environment. The peripheral vision of a person reading from a computer seems to narrow, closing out more of the environment that exists around him or her, including other people. And that is not taking into account the multiple stimulus points that websites, and the incessant opening and closing of windows, create.
We have a context today where people spend more and more time interacting with personal computers/smart phones. And, there is a sense of this being positive and empowering; offering individuals greater autonomy and freedom, than is, for example, offered from simply watching TV or doing nothing. There is indeed an abundance of content out there, more and more efficient mediums of communication online, and greater scope, in some senses, for individual creativity. However, there is also even greater potential to waste time and get lost in a mass of regurgitated individuality and culture.
Steve Jobs made the following statement to a graduating cohort from Stanford University:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
This extract comes from Dan Gillmor’s article - Steve Jobs: A Man of Contradiction and Genius - in The Guardian. The question is, have we taken this to heart in the domain of multimedia, but in the process ignored it in the wider political and societal domains? And, are we deluding ourselves into thinking that our use of creative media software, and our online interactions are actually us following our own hearts and really fulfilling who we are meant to be?
Technology is increasingly dominating our lives, but it rarely frees people to enjoy their lives more, as was always promised. It has in fact, in many instances, become our lives. There seems to be more light inside these devices than there is outside, and that for me doesn’t seem quite right. This is particularly true if we refer back to Gladwell’s original article, and consider the drive, ingenuity and bloodymindedness that went into producing many of these products in the first place. It seems somewhat ironic that these technological advances have led us to surf the net and play games with the same habitual, non-engaging tendencies we find in the oft-derided couch potato.
Steve Jobs was right but while we are using his products, we are not heeding his words. Today, more of us are living someone else’s life, through someone else’s profile, comment or feed, and we are doing it over and over and over again. We are living the results of other people’s thinking, while the noise of other people’s opinions, and the sheer scale of them, are drowning out the inner voices of the people that Jobs worried about, us. The final irony is that the Internet is giving and taking away all at the same time. The Internet is allowing a voice where there wasn’t one previously, but then it is getting lost in a collective, turbulent, incessant whirlpool of voices. At the same time the wider world outside is getting lost in a maelstrom of a different kind. And, most of us, don’t know what to do about it.