Friday, October 07, 2011

iCame, iSaw, iConquered

Come December, I'll be curious to see whose death ends up earning more year-in-review ink: that of Osama Bin Laden or Steve Jobs. For now, I just feel bad that Bert Jansch was robbed of his last moment in the spotlight.

The only thing I feel about Jobs' sudden passing is surprise at how quickly it followed his resignation as Apple's CEO. Perhaps this is another instance of how intimately entwined are sense of purpose and will to live. Jack Layton, for example, took the New Democratic Party of Canada from a marginal parliamentary presence to the official opposition in a single election and was dead within a couple of months. Even T.E. Lawrence - a man whose feats of endurance & military daring read like pulp fantasy - was scarcely two months into his retirement when he met an ignominious end in a minor traffic accident.

Beyond that pseudo-philosophical chinstroke... so what? Can't say I particularly care. But judged by the online tsunami of farcical grief, I am starkly in the minority. So maudlin & wracked is the tenor of the bereaved I'd have thought that all these people were personal friends of Steve Jobs, that he'd brought them chicken soup on a cold November night, that he'd awarded their kids college scholarships, that he'd given sight to their blinded-by-moonshine great aunt.

But no, they are not a one his friend. They aren't Steve Jobs' acquaintances, they're his customers, his consumers.

Lest we forget that Apple is a corporate behemoth whose liquidity exceeds that of even the world's largest national economy. Lest we forget that Apple is a technocratic Goliath which dodges corporate taxes and whose idea of "healthcare coverage" extends to suicide-prevention nets but barely any further. Unlike his oft-maligned doppleganger, Steve Jobs is not a philanthropist - he's a corporate padrino whose brilliance lies less in innovation than elaboration & refinement - making borrowed ideas better. Apple's very first personal computers (the Lisa and the Macintosh) were little more than liberal imitations of the Xerox Alto. Similarly, Jobs did not invent a GUI platform to (re-)distribute digitized music, but he did figure out how to monetize one.

The true genius of Jobs was his aestheticization of appliances. He transformed utilitarian machines into the fully syntactic symbols of a lifestyle; his public-relations alchemy made technological amenities into elite totems. Between his products & his customers, Jobs fostered not just a relation but a relationship - a transubstantiation presented literally in those anthropomorphic "I'm a Mac" TV ads.

At least the UK got to watch the guys from Peep Show make smug pricks of themselves.

Anyway, this explains why Jobs' death is a big deal beyond the business section. A man like Philo T. Farnsworth arguably had a more revolutionary effect on daily life, but Steve Jobs was a man with whom people felt they had a personal relationship, a friend who had enriched their lives & enabled them to unleash their expressive potential. It's no exaggeration to say Jobs' death has elicited a despair whose scale and substance are equivalent to - perhaps even greater than - the passing of the Pope. Within a mere hour of the news, floral tributes were piling up outside Apple stores the world over. Social media was more choked with endless inspirational quotes than a Deepak Chopra book. The grief was so sensational it would've been considered too stagy for a Broadway musical.

Against this backdrop, the latest essay on Adam Curtis' blog made for some serendipitous reading: in his endless trawl of audio-visual archives, Curtis has managed to trace the evolution of demonstrative emotion on TV. Within barely a generation between the '50s and '70s, spilling one's guts on air went from being anathema - "shameful agony" - to the necessary signifier of human authenticity. This sentimental overflow has become a carved-in-stone commandment not only of broadcast media, but of western social relations in general. However, Curtis warns that this hysterical style of emotional "authenticity" may actually be anything but:
There is a creeping sense of someone pretending to have the emotions that are expected of them. And in this way hiding their true feelings even further below the surface. Or maybe the truth is even more disturbing - that there are lots of things that people live through and experience that they just don't have emotions about.
As irrational psychic ephemera, emotions are difficult to understand and even harder to reproduce convincingly - particularly positive, sympathetic emotions. This is why tearful confessions & expectorating fist-fights became mainstays of daytime television far earlier than the joyful hug-orgies & triumphal backslapping of more recent shows like The Amazing Race or American Idol. So how did gushing exuberance become part of the public's expressive mode? Curtis points to the rise of "self-help" and collaborative craft shows like Trading Spaces and its British counterpart, Changing Rooms:
I think the man that really brought the hug into British television in a big way was the producer Peter Bazalgette. His genius was to spot that the idea of transforming yourself as a person could be intimately linked to transforming the things around you - starting with the rooms in your house.

I think the first real hugs of these kind began in the series Changing Rooms in the mid 90s.

The original revolutionary idea had been that by changing yourself emotionally as a person you would then change society. Bazalgette created an easier and quicker variation. By simply changing the physical things around you - you could then change your inner feelings and became a better and more expressive human being.

Wallpaper as redemption.
Steve Jobs understood this perfectly. By emphasizing his products' artful design, and by casting them as tools of creative composition, Jobs enabled his consumers to feel they were more fully-realized, expressive individuals thanks to him.

What I find disturbing is that, by surrounding themselves with beautiful expensive objects that encourage a melodramatic solipsism, people are encouraged to construct & occupy their own private fantasy wherein the crueler aspects of reality are not allowed. No one wants to feel bad. No one wants to struggle with criticism, dissent, violence, or acrimony. This relentlessly positive self-regard creates the illusion of a cozy but false consensus: by engaging only with the familiar & agreeable, we diminish our ability to cope with difference. Think different, but not so different that it unsettles you.

This is why there is no such thing as a "Dislike" button.

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