Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Paradox of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and the creator of numerous innovative technology devices, died yesterday. Within minutes of his death, we hear, the Internet filled up with tributes to him and the legacy he apparently left behind. (Twitter reportedly almost crashed due to the overwhelming number of messages.) Bill Gates, for example, said "The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come."

This is quite a statement. And indeed, on first blush who can argue? Jobs certainly changed the way people live and work, and for millions of people life would be well-nigh unthinkable without his products, none of which they realized their "needed" until he invented them.

Hmm. In fact, this plays into something we have been thinking about lately, which is essentially the problems created, paradoxically, by our current excess of abundance. As we see it, there are two related issues. First, the world has never seen the sheer number of "comfortable" people who exist today. In the US, for example, the vast majority of "poor" people have such extravagant luxuries as air conditioning, cell phones, and cars; in fact, there is little question the average welfare recipient in the US enjoys a far superior quality of life--measured in terms of access to food, possessions, etc.--to the richest medieval king.

Second, the instant availability of "stuff" has led to a virtual absence of delayed gratification, and consequent annoyance when such delays are imposed. We find ourselves wondering why the book we ordered from Amazon has not arrived--after all, we ordered it last week! Not that we were planning to read it right away, but what kind of operation are they running, anyway?!?

In short, as we have collectively moved up the "quality of life" ladder, not only has happiness not shown much particular progress (countless studies show happiness more or less levels off after basic needs such as food and shelter are met), but in adjusting to this new, more prosperous way of life, we have exposed ourselves to huge risk of disappointment when things do not go as expected.

What does this have to do with Steve Jobs? Well, consider how much easier his products make certain tasks. When we were a teenager, we had a mishmash of records, cassette tapes, and eventually some CDs, as well as a Walkman that played cassettes and the radio. In other words, it was not at all simple to make sure we had exactly the song we wanted, when we wanted it. Sometimes, we had to make do (gasp!) with whatever we had.

Similarly, we had an extremely simple computer that was basically a word processor. There was no Internet, no Facebook, and no Google. No Twitter, either--it's hard to remember how we expressed condolences back then...

Tangentially, we have always found one of the early scenes of Scarface instructive--the scene where Tony Montana runs into his best friend Manny Ribera in the Miami slums. It is interesting because the two friends are surprised to have found each other; 30 years ago (only 30 years!), if you lost touch with someone it was conceivable you might never see them again. Again, there was no Internet, no smartphones--if someone disappeared, they might well be gone for good. Now, by contrast, we are constantly being told by friends about the 4th-grade classmates they have "reconnected with" on Facebook.

So, if we are no happier, but have become increasingly reliant on an ever-complex societal and technological system just to maintain that happiness (what do you mean you don't have environmentally-friendly Salmon?!? This is an outrage!!!), it seems we have, in financial parlance, more downside risk than upside reward. In other words, while ever more efficient and technologically-advanced stuff seem unlikely to make us much happier, as we will quickly adjust to our new reality, the loss of even a fraction of our current "status quo" could be devastating.

Peter Whybrow, a neuroscientist and the author of American Mania, argues that the instant gratification culture in our society, most prevalent in the US, is something for which our reptilian brains are particularly ill-suited. In short, Whybrow's argument is that putting a piece of chocolate cake in front of someone on a diet is asking for disaster--while we may intuitively understand the tradeoffs involved, we are almost always going to choose to eat the cake rather than exercise self-control. Quoted in a recent article, Whybrow says "We’ve created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded."

So what to think of Steve Jobs? Well, of course it goes without saying that Jobs didn't "exist" any more or less than anyone else--that is to say, he was an illusion as we all are. But ignoring that, we are honestly not sure what to think of his impact. We use an iPod when we walk our dog, but we don't find ourselves feeling a whole lot different about the walks than we did before. We do not have an iPad, but our wife often spends long hours on the computer at night--is this preferable to when we lacked this option?

This is not some Luddite argument that technology is bad and we should all go back to living in caves. But we cannot ignore the paradox that despite all the wealth humans have created in the past couple of centuries--the lives of unimaginable luxury so many lead, even compared with a few decades ago--the levels of human happiness have barely budged. And now that happiness rests, or so it would seem, on ever-thinner reeds of more and more stuff.

A paradox indeed...


  1. Jobs was an i-con.

  2. This is an excellent article!

    I also wonder about the same thing, that we are making our lives more and more complex, while calling it a "progress", which in some sense is true; but in some other sense, quite untrue. As you nicely summed up in the last line:

    "And now that happiness rests... on ever-thinner reeds of more and more stuff."

    I wish more people could observe that^.

  3. ...and it will continue so until it all falls apart...

  4. If only there were an easy-to-use mass-communication device so you could share your ideas with other people all over the world...

  5. Chocolate Cake.......aaaaahhhhhhhh