I’m glad someone else said it, so I didn’t have to.
After a meeting of the editorial board of Tribes magazine, where executive director Steve Cannon had been stressing the importance of picking what we like and not what we think he likes or someone else would like, I got the news that Steve Jobs died. In a room of six people, I was in the half that was over 25. One of the other half gave the news like he was saying, “coffee’s done.”
News today, in its swift, silent, and soaring reach, gets plunked down in the most unexpected places and ways. It seems the one thing that cannot be calculated by the phenomenal capability of current technology is the precise how and when it happened. This is thanks, in no small part, to Steve Jobs. And the news of his death was delivered in the most appropriate mode: a room where no phone rang, no television was on, no radio was being listened to. No one walked in the door. But suddenly, everyone in the room knew.
I am trying now to remember the last big piece of bad news that might be my generation’s Kennedy moment — a “flashbulb memory” of our time. Although I, of course, remember where I was on 9/11 (I was, as they now say, “there” on 9/11, so that doesn’t count since it would be like being in the crowd at Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was shot, and my flashbulb memory would be more of a stadium lights memory). I remember where I was when I got the news that Michael Jackson died. It was a few summers ago. I remember I got off the phone with A (my oldest daughter who was in Minnesota at the time and, since she led with the news, I thought it was some kind of a joke – you know, “Hey, Mom, did you hear Michael Jackson died?” – a pause – “No,” I said, anticipating the punchline, but there was no ba-da-da to follow). After hanging up with A, who had no more details than that he was dead, I turned and told Karen the news. “Oh, yeah, I know. Can you believe it?” We watched the TV coverage, finished our drinks at the Edge, and headed back to Brooklyn to see what was being said on the more reliable pages of our Facebook friends. When John Lennon died, I was too young to form a clear memory of the moment. What I don’t remember about that time, or after, is people talking about it the same way they exchanged stories of where they were when they got the news Kennedy was shot. Oddly, what I remember about the day Elvis died was hearing that some woman was so upset upon hearing the news that she got into a car accident and died. I don’t have a flashbulb memory at all of the Challenger. I watched it fall apart in the sky, on the TV screen, as we sat gathered in Miss Knipschild’s Home Ec class at Parkview High School in Orfordville, WI, with the lights off and the TV on to watch the historical event. But now I’m not even sure of that, since there’s no flashbulb action to that memory — just having a vague sense as I watched it that “well, that was kinda weird,” and, “hm, that couldn’t be good,” but I don’t really remember the magnitude of it registering, not the way it did when I watched the first tower fall and thought to myself or maybe said out loud, “Oh my God. There are people in there.” The lights got turned back on. I think the TV was turned off, and she went out in the hall, while the students sat stunned, not knowing what to say. A few days later, the whole school had a moment of silence like we had many Christmases earlier when my politically savvy Uncle Eddie, a cabbie from Chicago, came for a visit and we stood outside under a starry sky before a vast field of moon-reflecting snow and shared a moment of silence with the rest of the world for the hostages in Iran. Although Jobs’ death probably will not be my generation’s flashbulb memory, the impact was felt far and wide. Evidence of his ability to inspire was all over Facebook and old media alike. And I think I’ll remember it, if for no other reason, than it bore witness to the impact of his work.
Steve Cannon, now 77 and an icon of New York City’s literary underground, black since birth and blind since the ’90s asked one of the younger crew what he thought about Jobs. The young black man was painting the wall white. He worked on one wall, while a white woman his age painted the wall on the other side of the room. I sat between the two of them, with the rest of the over-thirty crowd. I think the conversation got twisted and now we were now talking about Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, and Steve was demanding to know in his amusing but annoyingly persistent way, whether the young man thought he was funny. The young man was saying he didn’t watch TV. Steve was asking what this person mattered then if no one was watching him. I said that I watch them both and think they’re funny, but tried explaining to Steve that kids don’t really watch TV. I then had to explain to the ones in the room who didn’t know that I have a 21-year old daughter, and that she doesn’t really watch TV- she just watches whatever she wants to see online. The young woman, who was painting walls for the upcoming photography show, said that her hippy liberal parents watch TV but that she doesn’t. But they love him, and she loves them. So there’s my flashbulb memory of the death of Steve Jobs — trying to explain why, if Jon Stewart is funny, the kids don’t watch him on TV but I do.
The night that the news of Steve Jobs’ death broke, my husband was at home with our 18-month old daughter, who we have frequently observed already being adept at using my iPhone and who will be witness to unimaginable technological advances, and who, for now, was fast asleep. He texted me, “A little sad Steve Jobs dies. Innovators inspire.” The soft tone surprised me. He works in computers, programming large displays for a living, and seems to take the most earth-shattering news in unbelievable stride. I spoke to my older daughter, A, a few days later. I’ve watched in bemused amazement as she has breathlessly waited the latest iPhone upgrades and has tracked online, with OCD attention, the shipping of her latest gadget and has had me drive her to the Apple store in midtown many a late night. I said, “Hey, Steve Jobs died this week. I’m sorry.” She bust up laughing, then yelled into the next room to tell her roommate what I had said. She pointed out that she didn’t know him personally. I was surprised that my husband, who doesn’t usually display a sentimental side, seemed more affected by the news than my older daughter, whose world had been so shaped by this man at the helm of Apple. Then it occurred to me that her world, indeed, had been so shaped by him that she had the luxury of taking it all for granted. I recalled when I was 7, and my father worked for Parker Pen in Janesville, and he used to take us into the “computer room,” where you could hear the humming and whirring of the computer which stretched all the way around the room and in its center, and churned loudly, processing massive data. When he would drop us back at home, my sister and I would take the punch cards used to feed the computer and run them through our make-believe high-tech cash registers as we played house. That was 1978.
I wonder what our flashbulb memories here forward will look like. Will they consist of a person, alone in a room, reaching in his pocket and pulling out his phone, glancing at it for barely a second, then putting it back in his pocket, and sitting silently for a moment, aware of the thunderous news reaching all round the globe? The smoke signals and Morse code and megaphones and speakers and broadcasters and news anchors and Paul Revere and the newspaper delivery boys and the barkers and the deejays and all those other rusted out modes of communication will have given way to the single, solitary person, alone in his single, solitary room, not bothering to gasp because there’s no one to hear him.
I gasped. It’s like I completely forgot that Steve Jobs was battling pancreatic cancer for the past seven years. With his regular appearances and apparently enough money or good fortune or fortitude and determination, he looked thin but not bad before the cameras. It appears that until the end he fearlessly led. He made it easy to forget. Just a day before his death, the public was grumbling about the meagerness of Apple’s announcement of iPhone’s latest upgrade – not an iPhone 5 or even an iPhone 4gS (as the latest email scam has been selecting me to test), but just a measly iPhone 4S. The public’s dissatisfaction with an impressive but not stunning upgrade is explained only by the groundbreaking expectations Jobs’ company set. Had he only set the expectations as high for his company’s social responsibility as the quality and innovation of its products, he’d have left a legacy that would be worthy of his ingenuity. I know some of you may be saying that his company’s failure to use its status to bring more jobs to the States or bring attention to issues surrounding corporate responsibility cannot take away from Jobs’ legacy. While this may be true, given that technology is moving at a pace so dizzying, even technology itself seems unable to analyze its own reach, my guess is that the technological gains made in the past forty years will seem like baby steps compared to what lies ahead in just the next five to ten years. Our reverence for these baby steps will likely be found amusing by the next generations, who are born taking that pace of advancement for granted.
As it’s been said before, none of this will mean much if that technology isn’t aimed to the greater good of our survival. That man sitting in that room getting that news that’s being spread around the globe in a heartbeat, may be alone in that room not out of choice or as a result of the dystopic isolation endemic to hyper-consumption of electronic media but maybe because the ants won, the scientists were right, the politicians were too busy fighting with each other to care, the protesters got tired and went home, and even if Al Gore had gotten the presidency he won, the last three years have shown us that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.
This time feels very “now” but soon it will be past. How will we remember it then? As the turning point, after which it all fell irrreparably apart, and nothing was ever the same again (and not in a good way), or the point at which people really woke up and realized we had to act, and fast, and did.