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Death Of A Salesman: Some Christian Reflections On Steve Jobs

Here is my text, and it is taken from a friend’s Facebook profile. She said she

does not feel the need to either beatify or demonize Steve Jobs. I acknowledge that his presence on earth had a significant effect on human history.

I  only own one Apple product: an iPod. Why don’t I own an iMac, a MacBook, an iPhone or an iPad? Firstly, because I can’t afford them. Secondly, because there are certain diplomacies in our family, when a close relative works for Microsoft. Yes, Windows frustrates me at times, and perhaps it would be nice to have a product that allegedly ‘just works’, but that also means re-educating the entire family to a new operating system. Besides, like a car mechanic who doesn’t mind owning a lesser car because he can fix the problems, I can often work out (at least with the help of Google) what to do when we have a problem, and I learn as a result.

Ultimately, finance and functionality are the reasons I don’t buy Apple. It would be nice to have the aesthetically pleasing designs, but on a limited budget the bang to buck equation is about getting the specifications I need. Apple aesthetics are a luxury I can’t afford. But certainly I have to acknowledge that was one innovation Steve Jobs brought into computing. Not for him the world of beige boxes, the man who studied calligraphy wanted products to beautiful as well as simple and workable. Might it be that especially in the free churches, we so concentrate on function at the expense of beauty that we are utilitarian Christians?
I bear Steve Jobs’ family and friends no ill. But in the days since his death, a lot of twaddle has been written, and a lot of Diana-style hysteria has been expressed. Cult Of Mac seems exactly the right title.  The secular website Gawker got it right, I think: Steve Jobs was not God. We have heard that Jobs ‘gave’ us various things. No, he didn’t: he sold us things. (And dreams, too.) Or that he ‘invented’ things. No, the inventors were Steve Wozniak and his successors. Jobs was a salesman and a showman. That isn’t necessarily wrong, either: it just depends how you exercise it.
The genius of Jobs (if genius is not an overused word) was not as an originator, but as one who took products that were failing to reach the mass market and transforming them into propositions that did. The Apple II was not the first personal computer, the Altair 8800 had beaten it, but arguably the Apple created the market. There were MP3 players before the iPod, but he popularised it. Likewise, there were tablet computers before the iPad, but he bossed the market and made it attractive. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Jobs was the technological John Wesley? Wesley mostly took existing theological ideas and made them explode with power (the one exception, perhaps being his doctrine of Christian perfection).

If Jobs had an area of originality, I would suggest it was iTunes: he took all the sanctimonious moaning of the recording industry about pirating, and forced them into a fairly reasonable pricing model. Other download sites have since, in my opinion, rushed through the open gate created to provide a better and often cheaper service.

Then, although selling is a dirty concept in Christianity, I have to admire the man’s enthusiasm in his product unveilings. Having famously taken such detailed interest in the precise design of products, I take the excitement he projected when unveiling a new toy as utterly genuine. For those of us in the church who have got tired, jaded and cynical, a dose of Jobs’ passion for what he introduced – even though we do not sell the Gospel – could be good for us.
Jobs has been compared to various people in the last few days, from Thomas Edison to Walt Disney. Whatever the merits, I suggest two British comparisons: Richard Branson and Felix Dennis. Like Jobs, they were ex-hippies who made vast fortunes in business. Dennis, perhaps, is the most striking, as the editor of Oz magazine who was imprisoned, but who now heads up the Dennis Publishing empire. Compare that to Jobs, who dropped out, travelled to India, took LSD and took up Buddhism – although where his Buddhism influenced his business is far from certain. At least his arch-rival Bill Gates set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Perhaps nowhere is Jobs’ post-hippie business philosophy better seen than in his famous Stanford University Commencement Address of 2005. While it also contains powerful statements such as those on how the certainty of death should focus everyone’s life (he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before), some of it is a shallow, individualist, follow your own road creed. If you don’t have time to watch the entire fifteen minutes below, the text with annotated commentary can be found here.

And he finesses the story in places. Is it true that ‘Windows just copied the Mac’? More likely it’s true that both copied the GUI (Graphical User Interface) they saw at the Xerox PARC Research Center.
I have no desire to be cruel about Jobs. I leave that to the nasty words of people like Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, whose comments at the time of Jobs’ death were so foul I shall not even link to them here. But I do wish there was a sense of realism. Jobs was the visionary and extremely clever CEO of a consumer products company. Yes, a massively influential one. But just as Princess Diana’s funeral overshadowed the death of Mother Teresa the day before, so on the same day as Steve Jobs died, a hero of the American Civil Rights Movement also passed away, the Revd Fred Shuttlesworth (as the Gawker article I linked to above notes). Which one contributed more to the kingdom of God? That has to be a Christian question. Because for God, it is less about the feted celebrities and more about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Rest in peace, Mr Jobs. May your loved ones find comfort in your passing. But may the rest of us stop getting carried away.

A Financial Decision

This week, I bought a new toy. Actually, you might say I’m treating it less like a toy and more like a pet, given how regularly I am feeding it and taking it for walks.

I bought an iPod.

I’ve wanted one for aeons. I love music. I have a large CD collection. The thought of portable, available music is bliss. Yet I’ve never bought an iPod before.

Sure, the last time I had to buy a mobile phone, I bought one that came with an MP3 player. But despite good reviews, the Sony Ericsson W810i proved to be unrecyclable rubbish. As a phone it’s good, but the MP3 is terrible. The software provided is the most unreliable I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve become quite acquainted with Sony Ericsson‘s technical support people, who could only blame it on an unspecified clash with other programs on our PC. What are the problems? When I do get tracks on it, either because the software got out of the bed the right side just for once, or because I resort to a conventional copy and paste in Windows, it has a sneaky trick for me. It mangles the order of the tracks. Usually, they are completely reversed. Occasionally, just the first track is moved to the end. Imagine that when you’re listening to a live recording, such as Bruce Cockburn‘s brilliant recent release Slice O Life.

Then it has another trick. It calls this ‘Playback failed’. At the end of a track (and lately in the middle, too) it goes on strike. The only solution is to reboot the phone.

In short, it’s about as productive as a nineteen seventies British Leyland shop steward. I swear I have a Friday afternoon phone, much as we used to speak of being saddled with Friday afternoon cars.

So I’ve been Googling around forums, seeking advice. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have reported the same faults with this phone. (So maybe it’s not a Friday afternoon one, but Sony Ericsson’s regular standard. Do they supply specially tweaked ones to reviewers and then ship piles of manure to the shops?) I’ve tried all the suggestions I could find. Nothing has improved the phone.

Well, I clearly needed a new MP3 player. And rather like Janis Joplin singing, ‘O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz‘, I prayed, ‘O Lord, please may I have an iPod?’

Now my ideal iPod would be an iPod Classic. The 120Gb version. No, actually, the short-lived 160GB model. I would need all that capacity and more to fit in what I want. But the price was not right. Money for treats is not plentiful chez Faulkner. I could pray for the Lord to provide, but what had he provided? I had £25 in Amazon vouchers, and someone had also recently given me £20. The new bottom of the range 4GB iPod Shuffle was £56.60 on Amazon, whereas everybody else was charging the full £59.00. Whoo and indeed hoo, a £2.40 discount. I would only need to find £11.60 of my own money.

That was manageable, but was it right? I’ve always made a point of praying about financial decisions, especially big ones. I know this isn’t the biggest, but much as I wanted an iPod, I knew I could be giving in to self-indulgence here. There have been various occasions when God’s answer has been dramatically clear in my life. One was about getting to theological college the first time, when I was turned down for a student grant. There is a long and wonderful story I can tell about how God provided the finances.

And in 1998, I had another example. I was praying about buying a new computer. I wanted one. The old one was crawling and there was little more that could be done to cure its arthritis. I had an ongoing prayer, asking God to show me whether it was right to buy a new one or whether I was merely justifying my love of PCs.

I had a woman in one of my churches who had received the most remarkable gift of prophecy. One Saturday, she went down to the church building to pray on her own. While she was at the front of the worship area near the pulpit and communion table, she prayed for me. She told me soon afterwards that the Lord had told her to tell me I could have what I wanted. She had no idea that I was praying about buying a new PC.

It wasn’t so dramatic with the iPod. It clicked in a simple way. What was the reason I’d gone for a phone with an MP3 player? Answer: because I need to exercise more., and I needed a motivation to get out walking. Listening to music and podcasts became my incentive. All I can say is that still just felt ‘right’, and hence I welcomed my new silver arrival on Thursday morning.

And this experience prompts me to ask: what are the criteria you use as a Christian in making a serious financial decision? One or two of mine have poked their heads above the parapet in this story, not least the importance of prayer in the discernment of motives. Let’s have a conversation below in the Comments where we can encourage one another. And if you have some good stories, please share them. I for one would love to read them.

Choice Fatigue, Randomness And The iPod

Brian Eno has some interesting comments in August’s issue of Word Magazine:

‘The interesting thing about [the iPod Shuffle] is you can’t control the order. Suddenly some of the surprise of music reappears. It’s the first commercial product which uses randomness and this is a very interesting response to the oversupply of choice. We’ve had a whole generation of people saying, ‘You have more and more choice, anything you want.’ But there’s really been no attention to what happens when you have all that choice. How do you organise it? And what this little iPod says is, actually you don’t. You just let it surprise you.’

Psychologists talk about ‘choice fatigue’, something we Westerners hit at the supermarket. But we couldn’t shop via the shuffle method. Or could we?