Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Technology and Forgiveness

Dear Steve,

I never knew you. I never really even liked you, to be honest. I thought you were arrogant and controlling, a genius of consumer psychology who turned everything we know about technology adoption on its head, but a sort of evil genius – or at least a selfish one – who did it all for his own legacy (you never struck me as financially greedy), and who did not hesitate to trample on anyone who stood in his way.

It took your death to let me see you for who you really were: an intensely focused man who cared deeply about bringing beauty and elegance to the digital world; who wanted the benefit of computing to be not just available but attractive and even exciting to the majority of society that just wants to enjoy their tools and toys and could care less about hacking them. I was ripping MP3s in 1997 using Winamp; why did I need iTunes? I knew how to install programs (not "apps") on my color, touch-screen, 3G smartphone six months before the first iPhone and 18 months before the App Store. Why were people so stupid and simple-minded that they needed Apple to hold their hand on the way to these already self-evident technologies?

As I grew up I started to realize that life was too busy and complex to master everything, and that it was nice to rely on experts in fields that I couldn’t be bothered with learning. I don’t want to be an electric engineer or a literary critic – I want my electricity to just work and I want other people to review books for me so that I can easily find the ones I want. Slowly I came to understand that most people look at technology the same way – they just want it to work so that they could focus on their own lives. Yet it took your death to let me see that that was your raison d'ĂȘtre, the thing that drove you to do all that you did: making peoples' lives simpler, not self-promotion.

And yet the greatest insight you gave me in death was not the greatness of your life but how I had blinded myself to it. The gnawing, empty pit I felt on hearing the news forced me to ask the uncomfortable question: why was I mourning for a man I had no great fondness for during his life? 

For two days I wrestled with this question. It wasn't until last night, on Yom Kippur - the Jewish holiday  of fasting and asking for forgiveness from God and ones fellow man - that I found the answer as I drifted off into sleep.

As always, you were a master of timing. Having died just 48 hours before one of the few occasions on which I shut off the internet in favor of a truly spiritual, introspective moment, I understood that now that you were gone I could not longer hold on to the resentment that I had built up about the control you exerted to maintain the quality of your ecosystem, the “dumbing down” you had done to information technology in order to bring it to the masses. Letting go of this resentment had let me forgive in the purest sense.

Forgiveness, I understood, is not a gift for the forgiven but for the forgiver. Until we forgive we are blinded by our anger and resentment; we can’t see any good that is associated with the object of our grudge. We cut off our nose to spite our face; we resist anything that would better ourselves and our world if it might benefit those we have not forgiven. It is not for nothing that in the English language we call it “to bear a grudge”; indeed few things are heavier. Forgiving is the act of letting go of that weight, of seeing the possibilities in a life free from emotional baggage.

This flips the accepted wisdom that we forgive for the benefit of the forgiven on its head. It means that when we forgive we need not do it for the other person, and reminds us of how important it is to forgive others regardless of whether they forgive us. Likewise it means that asking for forgiveness need not be a selfish act; in fact it can from a place of the utmost love and care for the person we ask to forgive us.

So Steve Jobs, I forgive you, wherever you are, for all of your foibles and for the sometimes less than ideal manifestations of your perfectionism, and I acknowledge you for the greatness that this perfectionism produced. It was an honor to have been in my prime during the period in which you transformed the world at Apple’s helm.

I also thank you for the opportunity that your passing gave me to forgive you and the insight that came with it, and I hope that you forgive me, wherever you are, for running Windows on all of my personal computers to this day, even down to the MacBook Air on which I currently write.


NB: In a tradition I started last year, I intentionally write this on Yom Kippur itself, despite the lack of sharpness that results from not eating or drinking for 24 hours, in hopes that the meaning of the moment will overcome its hunger.

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