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The iOracle

Steve Jobs changed the world. But are we really better off?

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MATT YOHE
  • Matt Yohe

Steve Jobs’ passing coincides with some hard thinking about his legacy. The man did change the world. But did he change it for the better?

The other day, a student nearly walked right into me. Like every fourth one, she had her thumbs working feverishly, texting on her iPhone.

I shared the blame. Like most of my colleagues in academia, I was daydreaming.

The scribes write that not long before the Great Disillusionment, a time of miracles came. If one needed to know the weather, locate sustenance, recall the name of a friend, mark the time of a meeting, the oracle would speak.

Until we nearly collided, the student noticed nothing aside from her small screen. Yet we were on a campus so lovely that it appears to be manicured daily, all to be easeful and relaxing to the eye and mind.

“Sorry,” the student said.

“No worries,” said I.

We both lied.

Such behavior is not confined to my campus or her age group. We all tell lies about these tiny boxes to which we tether our lives.

I fret over those younger than me, though not in the grumpy way old men grouse about those they envy. I worry about my iPhone-addicted peers, too.

Over coffee, the day of my near-collision, I returned to daydreaming about a shaman telling stories.

Aye, it was an age of giant deeds, when every man and woman carried an oracle inside those black or white rectangles we still set in honor upon the mantel, to remind us of ancient prosperity and the casual power of our ancestors.

Gradually over the past decade, the coming of the iPhone and its imitators has changed us, culturally. All technologies do, for good and ill. Electric light enabled us to live in relative ease; it also contributed to our denying the rhythms of our bodies’ inner clocks. Cars freed us to have adventures and live where we choose; they also ruined a great deal of our open spaces and contribute to the wrecking of a once-stable climate.

And of these phones, the realization of Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? What began with the young now spreads. For those my age, habits once confined to eternally fretful parents spread like an oil slick: endlessly checking Facebook, texting, phoning, raging at unanswered messages. Such practices now creep toward ubiquity.

Many under thirty never seem to put their sleek, personalized iPhones away, clutching them constantly as they walk. In short assignments my students chart and analyze how they use technology to communicate; they report no off-time for their devices. Hesitating too long to reply to a text, or failing to post the requisite status-updates on Facebook result in anxious queries from the circle of friends or anger by those feeling slighted. While my students possess an intelligence that I’d have envied at their age, frequently they forget many details of daily life and details about history, politics, and science. After all, those minutiae are in the phone, aren’t they? One can always look them up.

How strange it seems in these fallen times. One could even speak back, seeking guidance from the priests of the oracle or goods from merchants at distant bazaars. One might reach out to loved ones over great distances, even beyond the curve of the earth’s surface. Verily, the earth seemed flat in those distant times.

Daydreams and nightmares haunt or humor me, as these steady but nearly invisible changes mold us: commuting on my bike, I passed a man little younger than me. He stood, stranded beside a newish Japanese sedan, its hood up to reveal a jigsaw puzzle of modules, wire-harnesses, and hoses. The man spoke into his iPhone, seeking help. He used one cryptic device to seek help in mending another cryptic device. At one time, not so long ago, the ancestors of both machines were more readily understood, even repaired, by a technological supplicant. Even in the comparatively recent days of desktop computers, hobbyists could do “hardware hacking” to upgrade or repair their systems. I have built Mac and Windows systems out of spare parts, just as earlier hobbyists opened hoods of ’67 Chevelles to make the engines roar more loudly.

Today, the hand-held grandchildren of our PCs and Macs, as surely as the shiny descendants of earlier Camaros and Mustangs, have quickly followed Clarke’s Law. Named for Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Childhood’s End,” it goes like this: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

For reasons we do not understand, The gods who made the oracles grew angry. Or perhaps a demon came from beyond the sunrise and poisoned the wellsprings of all wisdom. The oracles grew silent. The pictures and words used to comfort the Ancients vanished. Panic and despair were quick and profound, as the world became round and frightening again.

Yes, I thought, checking a news feed about Steve Jobs on my laptop, we have become little more than a cargo cult awaiting our sky-gods’ next shipment of goods and entertainment. May the screens never go dark.

Yet even if they remain lit, our scenarios of daily life ever more closely fulfill a grim warning by conservative humanist Sven Birkerts, whose lovely if neglected work, “The Gutenberg Elegies,” predicts three effects of what he labels the electronic millennium -- a flattening of historical perspectives, an erosion of language, a waning of the private self.

To this day, as we speak face to face, notice the sunsets and moods of the sky, and watch the wind and water for news of coming weather, we wonder at how and why the oracles departed.

So even if the reader cannot do more than renew the contract for an iPhone, the wisdom of a student other than my texting walker might help.

Faced with a hive of demanding friends and the heavy consequences of not doing his required work, he turned off his phone and had a hall-mate change the password for his Facebook account. Until he had it reset after exams, he was able to focus, and he returned to the sort of quiet that once filled the world of humans and their ideas.

Work done, he could bid his oracle to chatter, then summon amusing pictures to fill the screen in his hand.

This is your legacy, Steve Jobs, as you cavort in the afterlife with Edison and Ford. One could have done far worse with a life.

Joe Essid teaches at the University of Richmond. He owns no iOS devices, but will have his Mac removed from his cold, dead fingers.

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