In the wake of Apple Computer cofounder Steve Jobs's death, it's become almost a truism that he provided consumers what they needed before they even knew they needed it.
I think it's true not only in the case of the revolutionary products that Jobs marshaled into existence, but of many, many consumer goods that seemed exotic or pointless at first, and then became ubiquitous.
It's the nature of innovation, the "novus." The New Thing.
There's an important moral dimension to it, too, I think—this idea of "needing" consumer goods. Pro-innovation people—the vast majority of us—love new things. We love things that make our lives simpler, easier, more enriching, or just more fun.
Take the vacuum cleaner.
I remember well a lefty history professor in college, lecturing in a disdainful deterministic tone about the vacuum cleaner. Did it make housewives' lives easier—or did it impel them to remove household dust that had previously been a nonissue?
On the one hand, Christine Rosen's 2006 essay in The New Atlantis, "Are We Worthy Our Kitchens?", was a definitive takedown of such thinking. There have been real gains in human welfare due to industrial-era electronic technology:
Despite its humble status ... the electric washing machine represents one of the more dramatic triumphs of technological ingenuity over physical labor. Before its invention in the twentieth century, women spent a full day or more every week performing the backbreaking task of laundering clothes. Hauling water (and the fuel to heat it), scrubbing, rinsing, wringing—one nineteenth-century American woman called laundry "the Herculean task which women all dread." No one who had the choice would relinquish her washing machine and do laundry the old-fashioned way.
Then again, even with all of our fancy time-saving gadgets, has family/domestic really improved? She continues:
Judging by how Americans spend their money—on shelter magazines and kitchen gadgets and home furnishings—domesticity appears in robust health. Judging by the way Americans actually live, however, domesticity is in precipitous decline. Families sit together for meals much less often than they once did, and many homes exist in a state of near-chaos as working parents try to balance child-rearing, chores, long commutes, and work responsibilities. As Cheryl Mendelson, author of a recent book on housekeeping, observes, "Comfort and engagement at home have diminished to the point that even simple cleanliness and decent meals—let alone any deeper satisfactions—are no longer taken for granted in many middle-class homes." Better domestic technologies have surely not produced a new age of domestic bliss.
And who can deny the moral, or at least McLuhan-esque, dimension of "gadget love"?
There's no simple answer to these questions—and I ponder them anew every time I interact with an Apple product. (Like right now, as I type.)
I'm far from a Mac nerd, but I am, in my own way, a heavy user. My iPod battery has been broken for months, and I haven't gotten around to replacing it. Lately, the idea of driving without ready access to my entire music library—something that would have been unthinkable for most of my lifetime—is a continual annoyance.
And when I first bought that iPod, I found myself mired in a sort of technological obsessive-compulsive disorder:
With 1,000-plus CDs that I'd ideally like to upload—because you can't let all those free gigabytes starve, not with so many of the world's poor children starving for gigabytes—the process of ripping, in short order, became an object of dread and crippling self-doubt. Unripped CDs now taunt me in their unripped-ness. I can almost hear them, in their half-broken jewel cases and water-stained leaflets, in their state of 20th-century plastic inertness, laugh at me.
I've also found the aesthetic, near-cultic magnetism of Apple products a little creepy, too:
When I read stories about iPod users rhapsodizing about how their iPods are profound reflections of their personalities; how their iPod shuffle mechanism has the seemingly mystical ability to randomly spit out the right song for the right moment; how life screeches to a halt when their iPod suffers a technical glitch [ um, yes — S.G.]—when I read these stories I think of Mr. McLuhan's chapter on "gadget lovers."
Riffing on the Greek myth of Narcissus, Mr. McLuhan wrote that technology gadgets were like narcotic extensions of the self; we worship them as idols and thus become a self-enclosed system.
"Servomechanism" was the term of art that Mr. McLuhan employed: a device that controls something from a distance.
He said of gadget love: "We must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An Indian is the servomechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse or the executive of his clock."
When you think of mere gadgets in such terms, it's no wonder there's been such an outpouring of grief over the loss of Steve Jobs.
But who among us is willing to pull a modern-day Thoreau and wall ourselves off from innovation?
It's part of the human condition, I suppose.