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JewishJournal.com

October 26, 2011

Opinion: Following Ted, not Steve

http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/following_ted_not_steve_20111026

With the passing of Apple founder Steve Jobs, master creator of the iPod, iMac, iPhone and iPad, many people are now wondering: Which future brilliant gizmo will be buried with Jobs that we’ll never get to see?

As someone who adores Apple products, I appreciate the question, but it still disturbs me.

That’s because it reminds me that we live in a world that worships cool gadgets. I’ve noticed this is especially true with men. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen a dinner conversation be overtaken by male friends debating megabytes, bandwidth and cellular connections.

Cool gadgets fascinate us because they give us an illusion of power — a sense that we’re always making progress, that we have the power to control an unpredictable world.

The problem, of course, is that machines, however mesmerizing, can’t teach us how to think.

In fact, they might do just the opposite. They train us to consume. The faster our digital gadget, the faster we consume. The more sophisticated the gadget, the less sophisticated we seem to become.

How do we consume our information? In little snippets, posts, Tweets and texts. If the snippet is juicy, like a graphic video of Gadhafi’s last minute, or one of monkeys that can paint, we spread it around so others can consume it, too.

We’re becoming a snippet society. We snorkel and catch newsy snippets and instant opinions that reinforce our thinking but rarely go scuba diving for deeper understanding. 

One of the sexiest snippets is news of The Upgrade. We eagerly await it, crave it, sleep outside the Apple store hoping to be among the first to get it.

Can you imagine Ernest Hemingway, while he was working on “The Old Man and the Sea,” lining up outside a pencil store for a “new and faster” pencil?

Instead of meaningful or creative thought, our new mobile gizmos make us value speed and ease. They spew out zillions of digital Doritos that our minds snack on all day — and once you start crunching, who can stop?

“Information is cheap,” Internet philosopher George Dyson wrote, but “meaning is expensive.”

Yes, but in truth, how can meaning compete with the serial pleasures of our alluring gadgets? We caress them, study them, marvel at their features, and, in no time, discard them so we can marvel at the upgraded version. This pattern of pleasure never stops. A better gadget is always around the corner, waiting to seduce us.

The maestro of this impulse was the great Steve Jobs. His sensual and intuitive machines, it must be said, have added an enormous amount of pleasure, convenience and human connection to the planet, and we owe him immeasurably for that.

But what his machines can’t do — what no machine can do — is encourage us to think more deeply and value the power of human ideas.

For that, you’ll need to go see Ted.

This is one of my favorite Web sites (TED.com) because it seduces with ideas — fascinating, challenging, eye-popping ideas on subjects like life, science, philosophy, beauty, ethics, art, astronomy, love — you name it.

The site offers videos of hundreds of the best and deepest thinkers in the world presenting their ideas in snappy talks that last anywhere from seven to 20 minutes. 

As I write this, here are some of the subjects featured on its home page: “How Beauty Feels,” “Art Made of Storms,” “Learning From a Barefoot Movement,” “How to Spot a Liar,” “Less Stuff, More Happiness,” “What Do Babies Think?” and “Finding Life We Can’t Imagine.”

The subjects are endless. The insights are riveting. But here’s the point: The site could be just as riveting in 100 years — even without improved technology — because its hero is content.

When I say content, I don’t mean disposable content that gives you a sugar rush. I mean deep and meaningful content that intrigues you, fires up your curiosity and provokes thought. This kind of content makes you think of new ideas, not new technology.

It reminds us that the ultimate gizmo is the human mind, and the ultimate app is human ideas.

I have no doubt the presenters on the TED site all have their own smartphones, iPads and Twitter accounts. But I also have no doubt that in order to come up with their ideas, at some point they had to slow down, unplug and just think.

The Jewish tradition seems to have a prophetic understanding of this need to reconnect with the essential. Maybe it’s no coincidence that 3,300 years before the invasion of Tweets and texts, God gave us a day for just that purpose. It’s Shabbat, our weekly holy day, when we liberate ourselves from all technology and reconnect with our inner humanity, our inner ability to think and go deep.

It took the extraordinary content of a Web site to remind me of this great Jewish value of elevating our minds over our machines.

This is surely a value that won’t soon die — not with Steve Jobs or any of us.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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