Steve Jobs, Encloser


February 6, 2007


Browse in Commons Technology

There are numerous ways to enclose a commons.  You can expropriate it, such as by selling off the national parks. You can despoil it, such as by dumping crap into the sky. Or, in the case of a social commons, you can suck the life out of it by seducing or compelling people to attend to something else.  Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Inc, has gotten two out of three.

Jobs generally is seen as the mercurial product genius, in contrast to Bill Gates the impresario of patent monopoly and closed code. There is a bit of truth to that portrayal; but Jobs and Gates actually are brothers under the corporate skin. They share the fatuous technophile belief that any new gizmo they offer for sale is a great step for human kind.  They share as well an apparent deficit in low self-esteem; and neither seems to think deeply about the impacts of their technologies upon the people who use them or on society at large.

Apple may claim to “think different.” But when it comes to dumping crap, it’s been a garden variety polluter. In 2006 Greenpeace released an environmental ranking of major tech companies.  Dell was first.  It now offers free recycling for every customer. Apple was dead last. But Apple’s dumping is not confined to the natural environment.  It does the same to the cognitive environment of daily life.

Supposedly, the Apple iPod is a “personal listening device.” If you ever have sat next to someone using one, on a bus or subway for example, you know what a joke that can be.  A couple weeks ago, I took a late-night bus from the Port Authority Terminal in New York to New Jersey. The fellow across from me had his iPod turned up to boom-box level.  His eyes were closed, his head bobbing, his jaws worked intently on some gum.  He was totally oblivious to the racket he was inflicting on those around him.

Usually I’m the one who speaks up.  This has led to some heated confrontations; technological devices give people a strange sense of entitlement. This particular night I just wasn’t up to it.  I sat and tried not to stew; but the driver, bless him, told the offender to pipe down.  “How could I have fallen asleep with that on,” the young man said, with a somewhat sheepish grin. It was all about him.  The rest of us didn’t matter; and that’s the mentality these iPods induce.

Induce and epitomize: have it your way,  and the hell with everyone else.  As the creator so the creation, you might say

There is something almost oxymoronic about a personal listening device to begin with.  Music began not as a commodity to be owned but rather as a social experience to be shared.  The social bonding – the merging of separate consciousnesses into one —  was part of the thing itself.  To strip that away, as iPods et al do, is to destroy something of the essence.  You can share the object, yes.  But the experience still is something you do mainly alone.  It’s all about me.

Is that mentality – that solipsistic world of whim and gratification —  totally unrelated to the loneliness and depression that have become epidemic in the US today? Is it totally coincidental that as the use of such devices has spread, and cell phones and other forms of electronic enclosure too, resort to pharmaceutical anti-depressants has soared as well.  Could it be that having just what we want doesn’t always make us so happy?

Yes or no, the noise that iPods, CD players and the rest inflict on subway trains and buses can be insufferable. On the Metro, in Washington DC, I often can hear the thumping bass from the opposite end of the car.  The result is the degradation of a common space that makes people less inclined to use it. Standing in a jammed subway car at rush hour is bad enough.  Then we have to absorb someone else’s second hand noise as well?  Thanks Steve.

Why don’t the reviewers and business writers who rhapsodize over these products ever consider the effects upon people other than the user (or on the user too, for that matter)?  Why do the people who run public transit systems continue to call them “personal listening devices” when in fact they are loud speakers that happen to be worn on the head?

There is a bit of good news to report, however.  Amtrak has instituted quiet cars on most of its intercity trains.  I traveled on one recently from Washington to New York, and it was a haven of quiet and calm.  A new social norm seems to be taking hold on these cars. When the man in front of me got a cell phone call and started yakking, I reminded him, as politely as I could, that this was a quiet car.  He apologized and ended the call.  There was no glare and no fuss.

This is a classic case of the comedy of the commons.  Establish rules regarding use; and soon people start to internalize the rules and enforce them because they work to everyone’s benefit. But Amtrak still is an exception.  Besides, there’s another problem with iPod-type devices – namely, the way they suck the life out of the common spaces they degrade with their noise.

There was a time, not that long ago, when people actually chatted on trains and planes.  It was common to return from a trip with a story about the person you sat next to. That doesn’t happen so much any more.  People have little speakers in their ears, or else a cell phone.  For all the moving about, they never really leave where they are.  The shared space where people used to meet and talk, becomes to that extent a ghost town.  People are physically present but not really there.

I wonder if Steve Jobs ever worries about such things. Or Bill Gates either. I tend to doubt it.  Gates built himself a house in which the music of his desire follows him around from room to room.  A friend suggested that such people don’t intend harm.  They are simply self-absorbed individuals who are more comfortable interacting with technology than with other people.  So naturally they create products in the image of their own desires.

That’s probably right. I don’t know either one, so I can’t say for sure.  But it’s not exactly comforting. A world designed by people who are not comfortable with other people is not one all of us want to be in.  But we are getting dragged that way anyway.