Friday, October 07, 2011

Steve Jobs (1955-2011) — Coda to the 20th Century

Historian Eric Hobsbawm insisted that the period 1789-1914 be called the 'long 19th century', spanning the era between the French Revolution and the Great War. It's a Eurocentric perspective; I would have included the American Revolution and made it 1776-1914. Perhaps he felt a 40-year extension to be too much.

Hobsbawm then went on to compound his assertion by saying that the period 1914-1991 should be called the 'short 20th century', spanning the era between the start of the Great War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He thus cleverly made two centuries out of the period 1789-1991, evening things out a bit.

I think he was wrong, though. The 20th century perhaps indeed began with the machine gun and the mass slaughters of the Great War. It certainly could have begun with the death of Victoria, the Queen and Empress who had presided over the greatest empire of modern times and the greatest advances in human enterprise and technology in history at that time. The antagonistic royals of the Great War were all her offspring (see this article).

But the breaking-up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (how many still remember that dread acronym?) was a comparatively bloodless end-of-history that proved not to be any such end. Instead, the growing chaos just continued to grow. The one thing that held humanity together was increasing communication capacity, and the increasing ubiquity of widespread and speedy data transmission.

Steve Jobs was a prophet of this change. In a 1985 Playboy interview, he said, "The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We're just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people — as remarkable as the telephone."

He was right. And he spent his life ramming this vision artistically into the established wisdom of the world. Of all those who made and lost computer fortunes and established computer legacies, his was the most important: he was the Doctor Strangelove who taught us how to stop worrying and learn to love computers. He made them accessible, not just cheap plastic tools of high utility in the workplace, but companions and associates for the burgeoning chaos of the new millennium.

(I am quite certain that those who show their disdain for Apple's pretty machines as opposed to more robust and powerful systems are subconsciously working out their misplaced anger that so much power could be given to people who don't know anything about computer programming or have not 'earned' such power. These angry people might be Linux users, for example. Or those who assemble their own machines. The same people will probably vilify and/or disparage Jobs after his death.)

Steve Jobs's last 20 years, from 1991 to 2011, were the missing coda of Hobsbawm's 'short 20th century'. In those years, he spawned the new Apple way that forced competitors and colleagues to dance to his rhythm. For many, it was hard to decide if that rhythm was more like Chesterton's drumming " the hills half-heard, where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred" or the ominous thrill of Auden's drumming. But it was an unmistakable sound.

It was the sound of one aspect of the future. Not for us the flying cars and colonisation of space, but the future which meant tricorders and thinking machines. Jobs made us give names to our electronic aides, much as Asimov did for his positronic androids. Jobs did more than any other lord of the electronic realm to put power in our pockets and data in our hands.

That is why 2011 is a good year for the dying tail of the 20th century. Steven Paul Jobs is dead, and the way ahead transits with him into uncertainty.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home