It’s the message, not the messenger

American Thinker has a debate over Steve Jobs‘ effect on culture.

First, Matt Patterson:

It is only by comparison to other luminaries of today that Jobs has appeared to be such a Goliath.  By historical standards, Steve Jobs is a poor excuse for a genius.

This is not to take away from his considerable entrepreneurial accomplishments and marketing innovations — certainly, Jobs can be counted among the greatest CEOs of the post-War era.  And before the legions of Apple fans get ready to flog me with their wrath, let me say — I am a fan.  A Mac was my first computer, as have been all my subsequent computers.  I’m writing this column with the assistance of my iPad, in fact, which I love.  There is no question that Jobs and Apple have made it easier and sexier to enjoy our “content.”

But that, in fact, is the tremendous downside of the Jobs-led digital revolution: the downgrading of all of the world’s knowledge, art, literature into the single all-encompassing category of “content.”

Is it any coincidence that the squeezing of both the average inconsequential tweet and Bach’s masterpieces into the single, amorphous umbrella “content” has gone hand-in-hand with the steep decline in the quality of new content being produced?  I don’t think so.

Think about it: the more ways we have to enjoy our content — HD, Blu-ray, DVD, iPod, iPhone, laptop, desktop, satellite TV, the “cloud” — the less enjoyable it is.  Sure, you can carry any movie with you in your pocket, but how good can it look on a 3-inch screen?  Sure, you have your music with you wherever you go these days, but how good can it sound competing with the din of the street traffic or train that suffuses your morning commute?

Music especially these days is a pale shadow of its former self.  Modern albums are small and tinny-sounding, mixed atrociously, and why not?   Bands have no incentive to make dynamic music, because each song is just going to be compressed (which shaves off the high and low ends) and deposited along with thousands of tunes onto an iPhone or other portable device.  Then, if it is lucky enough to actually make it onto a playlist, it will likely be sampled, but briefly before being skipped over for the next track or interrupted by an incoming call or text.

Next, Thomas Lifson:

Matt seems to blame Steve Jobs for the vulgarization of popular culture, and because Jobs made so much in the way of information/data/content/media available and accessible to so many, he did indeed vulgarize us, at least in the original intent of the term.  But, for that matter, so did Guttenberg with his printing press.

We forget that Guttenberg’s invention was not greeted with universal praise. The original project was making the Bible more accessible, but in the end print has been the vehicle for Larry Flynt and worse. Unquestionably, the average quality of literature was far higher in the era of illuminated manuscripts than it is today.  But making the printed word cheap enough that everyone potentially has access was worth it.

So it is with Jobs, who brought digital media to  the pockets, purses, and briefcases of the world, and made its use intuitive — not a skill to be mastered after study of manuals.  He has enhanced accessibility, which has an upside and a downside.  Matt well outlines the principal downside: more pap is being consumed than ever before.  But on the upside, I have Vivaldi and other masters available on my iPhone, and could read Plato’s Republic on my iPad, if I buy one.  And so could you, for whatever elevated interests you might have. …

His genius was in imagining the possibilities for entirely new kinds of products, and in putting the user first, so that intuition could guide the novice into using the device.  With the iPod he reimagined the music industry, bringing a vast library to the listener’s fingertips, and collecting a nice commission each time a piece of music is sold.  The iPhone (and its smartphone imitators) has brought vast information capabilities to us no matter where we roam.  The ultimate impact of the iPad remains to be seen, but friends who have them enthuse about their utility.

I am reconciled that technology has an upside and a downside.  There’s no putting the technology genie back into the bottle, at least until a civilization collapses.

The comments, which devolved into the usual Mac-vs.-PC war, did not really address Patterson’s complaint that easing the ability to publish cheapens quality. As Lifson countered, the blame lies not with Jobs but with Guttenburg if you buy that argument. (Or whoever figured out how to draw stick figures on the sides of caves.)

And I don’t buy even that argument. William Shakespeare threw in violence and sex to get the commoner crowds at the Globe Theater to buy tickets. Patterson commits the error of the carpenter’s blaming his tools. If people watch reality TV and the “sport” of poker, that is the fault of the culture, not the medium.

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