Friday, October 7, 2011

Steven Jobs and The Power of the Personal

Personal (adjective) 1. of, pertaining to, or coming as from a particular person; individual; private  3. intended for use by one person  --Random House Dictionary

By the time this column goes to press, millions of words will have been written about the legacy of Steven Jobs, founder of Apple Computer, who died last week.  The list of tributes and titles attributed to Jobs is a long and well deserved one: innovator, artist, CEO, visionary, entrepreneur, inventor.  I’m not an Apple disciple but I’m old enough to have lived through the radical cultural, work and life shifts which have happened in just one generation, all because of Job’s first and perhaps most important invention, the personal computer, or PC.  The key word here is “personal”.  The Apple II computer was created by Jobs and Steve Wozniak in a garage and introduced in 1977.  Even though PC home kits had been available for sale to hobbyists and computer geeks for several years, the Apple II was the first mass market home, work and school personal computer.

Until then, computing and the vast power therein—to communicate, to research and to organize information--was overwhelmingly limited to closed networks.  You might have had a computer terminal on your desk at work or school but it was still “dumb” and not at all personal. Its power came from a central computer, access to which was often tightly controlled by a department, corporation, government or university.  Computer power was regulated from the top down.  The PC changed all that, turned this relationship upside down and unchained computing power, giving it to the individual for the first time ever.

The radical effect of this cultural shift is astonishing and birthed an amazing array of personal technological products that have forever changed the way we live and interact as humans.  We have personal phones (no cord connected to the wall), personal music (no more need for record stores), personal entertainment (no more movie theaters), personal email and text (no more post office), personal social networks (no more gossip over the fence), personal shopping (no more bricks and mortar Sears and Roebuck), personal finances (no more stockbroker), personal bankers (no more tellers), and personal news (no more Walter Cronkite). 

Not all this personal empowerment is necessarily a social panacea: there’s also personal pornography (no more dirty book stores), personal cyber-bullying (no more face to face bullies), personal work (no more 9 to 5: work is now 24/7) and even a personal God (no more faith communities: just find me on Facebook!?).  That’s the thing about big ideas like the PC: they follow the law of unintended consequences.  Once a revolutionary technology like the PC is unleashed you never know where it might take us, even evolve us, as a species on the earth.  There’s no turning back.

Yet finally all technology is just this: it is a box, a machine, a collection of silicon chips. There is no life within it, no power really either.  The personal power of all our technological devices finally happens in the interaction between user and computer, the human and the machine.  Whether or not this “personal” revolution started by Job makes this world a better place to live—more connected, more integrated, more whole—is finally up to each of us, the ones who tap away at keyboards and slide our fingers along display panels. 

So rest in peace Steven.  With your one life you forever altered the way human beings live.  You gave us the power and then made it personal.  The rest is up to us.



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