The iPhone is Pretty Cool
In one of the last episodes of Six Feet Under, Claire Fisher and her love interest, Ted Fairwell, get into an argument regarding her future. Eventually, Ted finally says to Claire something along the lines of: “when are you going to stop worrying about being cool?” That moment has always stuck with me because Claire, for most all of her life, had been the cool, depressed, art girl whose impenetrability made her irresistible. Ted’s simple question was a revelation for Claire because it once and for all revealed the carefully crafted veneer Claire had created to protect herself from the pain of her father’s death. This veneer prevented further pain, but it also prevented her from intimacy with both herself and others. It’s a good reminder that eventually no one cares how cool you are.
The death of Steve Jobs is as good a time as any to think about these things. I say this mostly because Steve Jobs is by far the most culturally significant person to die during the (so far) young lives of Millennials. What made Jobs different from JFK or John Lennon is that our primary engagement with Jobs was as consumers. Put simply: Jobs was selling us stuff–and we couldn’t get enough of it.
In Jonathan Franzen’s 2011 Kenyon commencement speech, he remarked upon the consumer-oriented nature of the Millennials. It’s a generation where the distinctions between nerdy and cool, mainstream and underground, rebellion and conformance, have all collapsed on one another. The primary driver of this change, in Franzen’s mind, was technology–the goal of which is to “replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes.” In other words, the natural world is a scary, uncertain place, that routinely (and randomly) doles out decisions with no regard for you or your desires. Technology offers a welcomed respite from that world of uncertainty. As Steve Jobs would often say, Apple products “just work.” Your iPhone will do what you want it to do when you want it to do it–every time. Technology helps to order the world in one’s own image. And that feels good.
However, Franzen considers this the height of narcissism. Technology can lead to “a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.” We want to be liked; we want our self-image affirmed by other people. But the consequence of this is that it treats people as a means rather than an ends. For a narcissist, people exist so as to validate his or her own cool self-image.
If the problem with being cool is that it leads to people being treated as means rather than ends, then gadgets have the opposite problem: we treat gadgets as ends rather than means. Franzen spends a lot of time detailing the alluring features of his Blackberry: “Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics.” These objects are designed to be desirable. Obviously. But what makes separates the iPhone from, say, Franzen’s BlackBerry Bold is that the iPhone is both desirable and functional. Steve Jobs designed the iPhone to be seamless with everyday life–a device that “just works.” Eventually it becomes difficult to remember what the world was even like pre-iPhone. The technology that changes your life tends to do so without you realizing it.
Steve Jobs was above all an innovator. Speaking about the first iMac released in the late 90s, Jobs explains what made Apple difference: “There’s a reason why, after two years, people haven’t been able to copy the iMac. It’s not just surface. The reason the iMac doesn’t have a fan is engineering.” Engineering is the “without realizing it” part of having your life changed. The exterior is nice, but it’s the interior that really matters.
At the end of Franzen’s commencement address, he ends with the very same conclusion, the interior matters because “the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.” So much effort is put into posturing against death that it has the effect of thwarting any possibility of finding the very things desired–meaning, intimacy, love. Facebook, gadgets, technology: these things can be distractions, but, if we treat people as people and gadgets as gadgets, they don’t have to be. They might actually help you live a better life.
And what else is there:
almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
— Steve Jobs