When Steve Jobs passed away last week, one commentator stuck us with this summary of the impact of the ubiquitous iPod/iPhone/iPad triumvirate:
He put white earbuds in the ears of everyone on the planet, and shut us all in to our own little pods of experience.
Harsh, but it doesn’t feel entirely wrong. Walking the streets of Manhattan, or below ground, it’s strange not to see a plurality sporting headphones of some kind, likely connected to an Apple device, or at least to one inspired by the same. To a certain extent, the effect is to strand us in our own islands which, though tranquil, isolate us from some part of the day-to-day experience that’s defined Western civilization for a few centuries. For one, the random subway conversation is a stranger thing today than it was pre-iPod. In many cases that’s for the best, but it does contribute to obliterating those random, happy coincidences that can, in a rare moment of fate, come to define a life.
This is what we’ve lost in the iPod age, but set it against what we’ve gained. Portable connectivity is found time; a chance to listen to music from that girl you met (you know, at the thing), write a longer email that you may not otherwise have had time for, or catch up on missed reading. For my part, Jobs’ creations have let me read more, hear more, and communicate more — albeit with people I already know — adding depth that could otherwise have been lost. I learned to love This American Life by podcast, the New Yorker on iPad, and built (or rebuilt) friendships, largely over Gchat and iPhone, based on shared experiences from both. It’s not for nothing that (according to one study) iDevices stimulate the part of the brain normally reserved for relationships: Jobs’ gadgets are, for much of our lives, the effective portal to those relationships. Whose heart hasn’t skipped a beat at the white bubble of a text message from just That Girl (or guy)? In the modern world, we may fall in love over Gchat, text, or FaceTime, thanks to slicker connectivity. It’s not even unusual.
Jobs’ legacy is a way of designing technology that adds charisma to the routine, unlocks new capabilities, and redefines the modern life. As with grander technologies, our challenge is to use it to (on balance) add to the human experience, rather than lose ourselves in it. And to Jobs’ credit, that’s a goal he wholeheartedly endorsed, and ensured was reflected in his work.
(This post written on an iPhone, on the subway, and with a title referencing one such song.)