By Hank StueverRemember a few years ago, when your Apple store on any given Saturday afternoon ceased being the clean, technological zendo you once admired — the place you bought your iMac — and instead became a crowded bazaar of idealized wonder and hopeless waits at the Genius Bar?
The movement spread. People built their lives around the objects Steve Jobs gave them: the MacBook, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. What happened with Jobs and Apple over the past decade is one of the rare participatory phenomena of our disconnected and no-longer-common culture. It was as if this generation’s defining event took place in a shopping plaza and then up in the “cloud,” and this time everyone (that is, everyone who could afford Apple products) got to go to Woodstock.
People stopped lining up for concert tickets and started lining up for new phones. This was the future right in front of you. It was sleek, responding to your touch. Imagine explaining an iPad to someone from 1984. They might get it, they might not.
Jobs died Wednesday at age 56 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer that his wasting form came to wear as familiarly as his preference for outdated jeans and black turtlenecks. When news of his death broke around 7:30 p.m. on the East Coast, a good number of us sought immediate solace (to say nothing of information) from our Apple stuff. The rippling tweets and shares fanned outward.
Swipe, swipe, touch. The nighttime news anchors, fearful of the obsolescence that dogs them at every turn, turned to social-media feeds for confirmation of a shared sense of loss; they invited hipster tech writers and thinkers who scorn old-media ways to make themselves available to grieve analytically on the air. (The digital air, that is; in Jobs’s world, we sacrificed the broadcast band to the broadband.) You can easily imagine newspaper assignment desks, similarly afflicted with professional hypochondria, scrambling reporters to Apple stores to gather quotes from the bereaved.
That is what Steve Jobs gave us: the future. A sense of ourselves moving forward into this century, which has proved especially hard to do, with its lack of employment opportunities and its addiction to panic. He gave us a look at the future and all the ambivalence and worry that comes with it. It was the most elegant form of social disruption, and now your kids won’t glance up from their iPhones. They’ll never need to.
We spend a lot of time wishing for the past, carping about our gizmos and the sway they lord over us, while loading up our iPods with songs that were popular when we were in high school, while stalking old boyfriends on Facebook. That in itself is a pleasant form of grief, but it is grief all the same.
Jobs kept nudging us away from that. Under his leadership, Apple’s subliminal selling point was: Let it go. Let go of the uneasiness about computers. Let go of ugly, antique technology. Let go of the fantasy future of personal rocketships. Let go of the expensive, shiny new phone that you bought last year for the slightly less expensive, shiny new phone that’s coming out this year. But let go of something deeper, something resistant in you that romanticizes the past.
In 2011, so much of our culture — as well as our politics — feels as though we’re losing grip on the old, beloved things. Where did record stores go? What happened to letters that come in the mail? Where did movie theaters go? What about the books? Where is my Main Street? Where is my America?
Jobs had been teaching us to say goodbye to all that for decades — we just didn’t know it. Some of us said goodbye to typewriters in the 1980s when we finished term papers using MacWrite on a Macintosh Plus for the first time. Some of us said goodbye when we made PTA fliers and “Lost Dog” posters that were far and away better than their Sharpie-scrawled predecessors. Let it go, let it go: Take your CDs to Goodwill; give your books to the library sale.
It was therefore an irresistible metaphor, in these final years, when the auditorium lights would go down and the crowd would go wild for Jobs, who increasingly greeted his followers and touted the latest neat, new thing even as he wore the look of a person who was not going into that future with us. He would be getting off here; we were to proceed without him into the unknown. Let it go and look ahead was the message all along