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Rest in peace, Steve Jobs

It’s late at night here in Fife and I can’t sleep.  So I do what many Western twenty-first-century twenty-somethings do – I end up on my computer, browsing the internet.  Tonight I am especially glued to the computer with the Phillies-Cardinals game going on.  If the Cards lose tonight they’re out of the playoffs, so I desperately want them to win in order to keep the prospect of a Cardinals-Tigers World Series alive.  For those who are unaware, the World Series rivalry between the St Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers (my favourite team) spans nearly eighty years.  The first time the two teams played each other in a World Series was in 1934, with the Cardinals taking the series in seven games.  They met again in the 1968 World Series, which the Tigers won in seven.  They last met in the 2006 World Series.  After having defeated the Yankees and Athletics in the playoffs, the Tigers went on to lose the World Series to the Cards in five games.  So in the [unlikely] event that both the Tigers and the Cardinals win their respective league titles and end up facing-off in the World Series, well, I will be an excited young man.

But the Major League Baseball 2011 postseason is not why I am compelled to share a few thoughts in a blog post.  The answer to that ‘why’ is sitting right here in front of me…literally…on my lap.  Yes, I am a ‘Mac user’, and tonight, as has been made clear from the incredible flood of identical status updates on Facebook (yes, I am a ‘Facebook user’), it was announced that Apple co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs has died at age 56.

Not only was Steve Jobs the official technological outfitter of hipsters, he was a proto-hipster.

Without a doubt Jobs’ death will be the talk of the town tomorrow.  Whether you loved him, hated him or found yourself generally apathetic toward him, Jobs has had a significant role in the daily lives of a great many people over the last few decades.  When I initially heard the news of his death I figured that enough people are writing about this, why make my own feeble attempt to eulogise, inadvertently adding to the cloud of ‘We’ve lost a visionary!’ chat?  While I have admitted to being a ‘Mac user’ I have neither a literal nor figurative Apple tattoo.  I am not especially wowed by Apple Keynote addresses.  I certainly don’t trouble myself with the false ‘need’ to possess a wide array of Apple products.  To be honest, it’s all very expensive and even if I had the money part of me doesn’t think that it would be especially responsible to indulge in consumer electronics.  But I have owned several Apple products.  As a child my family had an early Macintosh (we weren’t cutting edge or wealthy, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t stolen either).  All throughout my school years we used Macs in computer labs.  I first learned computer programming on a Mac.

When I went to university I used my extra scholarship money to buy my first computer – a 12-inch iBook G4.  A few years later that laptop’s display went kaput and I eventually upgraded to a black MacBook, the very MacBook that’s sitting on my lap now, four years after that purchase.  A couple years ago a certain Greg gifted me with some money, in celebration of my birthday/embarking on my PhD, meant specifically to assist my purchase of an iPod.  I only tell you this incredibly boring history of my Apple product experiences to highlight how my life actually is affected by the influence of Steve Jobs on a daily basis.

In a way I feel sort of dirty for thinking so much about this.  Nearly one billion people in the world don’t have clean drinking water, let alone a computer, let alone an expensive Apple computer (granted, I’ve never owned the ‘high-end’ Apple products).  It’s very evident to me that I should change my lifestyle, but I’m not going to pretend that I don’t make extensive use of my Apple products.  My Macs have brought me through university degrees, have been the means of countless designs (like the designs you see here at LITC), blog posts (like this one), letters, mix CDs, recording songs, etc.  I don’t necessarily need to do all of these things on a Mac, but I have a Mac so I do.  And the iPod – unless I’m spending uninterrupted time with people it is a very common feature of my day.  I estimate that I probably use my iPod for, on average, two hours a day.  I don’t necessarily need to listen to music on an iPod, but I have an iPod so I do.

My point is not to make some profound argument about how the world would stop without Apple – it wouldn’t.  My point is not even to make some profound argument about how my life would be drastically different without Apple – it probably wouldn’t.  But the vision of Steve Jobs, a man who was genuinely passionate about innovation (and genuinely good at selling it), is the fuel behind the success of Apple, success that cannot be reduced to mere monetary units.  The Jobs-led Apple set the bar for other manufacturers (yes, this is a mild endorsement of one aspect of a capitalistic system).  Even though Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, they dramatically changed the way that our society experiences recorded music.  Aside from the technical innovations, Apple also brought a high aesthetic quality to the realm of electronics.  Why can’t our electronics be both functional and pleasing to the eyes?

It’s quite depressing to think about reducing a human being to a brand.  The media outlets will soon be publishing frightening news about how Apple’s success will decline because of Jobs’ death (which isn’t that frightening even if it was true).  Part of me finds this sort of revolting – Steve Jobs was a man with his own unique personality that, in theory, extends beyond the confines of a business, even a business as large as Apple.  But then another part of me realises that Apple was very much at the centre of Jobs’ life and he liked it that way.  Apple was not merely a business venture, but an invaluable outlet for Jobs’ vision and self-expression.

Apple is not dead and will continue to produce excellent innovations, but I don’t think that trajectory could have been so successful without the creative leadership of Jobs.

Steve Jobs wasn’t my friend and I generally do not have a great deal of respect for large companies and their leaders, but all-in-all I think he might have been something like an artist, and a great artist at that.  For someone I never knew and never followed with any sense of dedication, somehow I think I’ll miss Steve Jobs (or as I like to call him, ‘Esteban Trabajos’, with affection).  Thanks for sharing so many good things with the world, Steve.  We here at Lost in the Cloud salute you and will think of you as we experience the blessings of our MacBooks and iPods (and Greg as he uses his iPhone).

Cards won the game, by the way.

Nihilo sanctum estne?

I recall when the first iPod came out in 2001.  It was revolutionary – 1000 songs on a portable and extremely attractive hard drive!   Less than two years after the release of the iPod, Apple launched the iTunes Store.   It was one thing to fit [a portion of] your CD collection onto an iPod, it was another to be faced with the reality that said CDs were no longer useful; one can simply purchase and download digital files which would be synced up with your iPod in minutes.  One need not drive to the record store only to find out that the record they intended to buy was no longer in stock (and would, say, Best Buy even carry a Danielson record?!).  Soon the iPod (or any MP3 player for that matter) would be easily adaptable to all settings: one’s car or one’s living room, through a portable stereo in the park or strapped to one’s arm during a workout.  The sale of CDs has steadily dropped since the introduction of the iPod and similar devices and CDs are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Although I often despise the association, I am of the CD generation.  My family made excessive use of cassette tapes (especially my father’s Van Halen and Eric Clapton and my mother’s Fleetwood Mac and The Beach Boys), but CDs were around for four years before I was even born.  I remember my first two CDs: Weezer’s first self-titled record (aka The Blue Album) and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins.   Since then, my collection has grown considerably.  Still, even with the hundreds of CDs I’ve collected over the last fifteen years, I can fit four times as many on my 120 GB iPod.  With services like iTunes, eMusic, Lala, Amazon, etc., complete MP3 albums can be downloaded for a fraction of the price of a new CD, and unless one has some high-end headphones or a high-end stereo system (a lot of $, £, €, ¥,…) the difference between a standard MPEG audio file (160 kbps) and a standard CD (1200 kbps) is rather unnoticeable.

With all of this technological allure some people are still unsettled by the change.   I myself prefer to have the album in my hands because I appreciate creative packaging design to a near-obsessive degree.  Any look inside a [post Pablo Honey] Radiohead album booklet would quickly convince one of the inferiority of an exclusively digital musical experience (even such an experience with a picture of an album cover on a computer screen).   And while we already have the platform for digital music (computers and MP3 players) couldn’t we save on so much physical consumption by switching exclusively to digital music?   Even when considering environmental issues like the possibility reducing the production of plastics and paper, I find this option difficult to stomach for the same reason that I find digital books difficult to stomach.   There’s something to having a physical CD/package and a physical book in one’s hand…or is there?

Mass production of recorded music didn’t exist until about a quarter of the way into the 20th century.   At that time the vinyl phonograph record was the standard and it could only play from two-to-three minutes of music per side.  By 1949, vinyl records were in 12-inch LP (45-minute long play) form.  This became the standard length of a record.  Eventually this was followed by the use of magnetic tape: the 8-track cassette in the late sixties and early seventies followed by the compact cassette, which could generally play up to 45 minutes of music.

In a recent interview with Paste, Sufjan Stevens expressed his own crisis with regard to this whole shift in the way we can experience music:

I’m wondering, why do people make albums anymore when we just download?  Why are songs like three or four minutes, and why are records 40 minutes long?  They’re based on the record, vinyl, the CD, and these forms are antiquated now.  So can’t an album be eternity, or can’t it be five minutes? … I no longer really have faith in the album anymore.  I no longer have faith in the song.

Perhaps we find ourselves in this crisis with Sufjan, but while he remains skeptical, I remain hopeful.  From 2006 to 2007, vinyl record sales jumped more than 85%, and from 2007 to 2008 vinyl record sales jumped another 89%.  Yes, collecting vinyl records is extremely trendy and hip at the moment, and yes, when these hipsters accidentally become parents or are forced into real life via some other circumstance they might realise that investing their money in vinyl records solely for the propagation of their hipster image is not very hip after all.  But I still believe that these market figures are indicative of a basic human need for ritual and tradition of some sort.

It is true that there is nothing particularly sacred about the length of an LP or a cassette or a CD, but does the freedom of the age of digital music distribution and consumption require that we abandon the [recent] traditions we’ve grown up with?   Just because the technology moves along and just because we move along with it doesn’t mean that we can’t slow down and savour the beauty and simplicity of the traditional way we experience recorded music, packaging included.  After all, music is art and art is aesthetic and aesthetic is beauty and beauty, as Kant has defined for us in the Third Moment of his Critique of the Power of Judgment, “is the form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of an end.”

I see great correlations between this issue, ritual, and Church tradition, but that’s for another post.

[Elijah adds: Pet Sounds added to Listening]