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Technology isn't a tool, it's an instrument

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Aaron Sorkin's Steve Jobs movie has been sitting with me — or maybe I've been sitting with it — for a few days now. I think it's a pretty good play that was made into a pretty good movie even though it belongs on a theater stage. I also think that it's seriously flawed in a lot of ways — but I'm actually not mad at all about the lack of fidelity to true history or the ridiculousness of believing that Jobs grapples with the same friends right before every keynote like they're Dickensian Christmas Ghosts. (Although the idea that John Sculley is Steve Jobs' own personal Ghost of Christmas Past is basically perfect.)

I think the biggest problem is that Sorkin has an idea about how we relate to each other through technology that he desperately wanted to express and the film ends up being a heavy-handed attempt to build a two-hour-long allegory. But the heart of that allegory is an idea that's actually pretty close to one of my own ideas (spoiler: it's in the headline), so I want to try to suss it out.

In the process, I'm going to include spoilers for Steve Jobs with impunity. I'm literally going to start the next paragraph with the final scene of the movie. You are warned.

The Mac sits between Jobs and his daughter

The final scene of Steve Jobs has Lisa, Jobs' daughter, standing just off a keynote stage, watching her father. She's holding the art she created on the original Mac that he's apparently kept with him, and she's watching him walk back toward her on the stage. He's in full view of the public, he's about to announce the iMac, he's smiling and looking right at her, and the camera's focus softens and blurs and the music swells. Father and daughter are reunited.

Except that's not true at all. Jobs isn't looking at his daughter, he's looking through her. He's not walking towards her, he's walking towards the podium to begin his keynote presentation for the iMac. The fulcrum on which the relationship between this man and the daughter he used to deny being related to is the Macintosh.

I'm getting to the point, but here's one more scene to keep in your head. Jobs is talking to Steve Wozniak in the orchestra pit. Woz demands Jobs tell him what he actually does, because Jobs doesn't seem to actually make anything. "The musicians play the instruments," Jobs tells him, "I play the orchestra."

The allegory, finally: Jobs is a man who cared more about products than people, and used his friends like hammers to pound his nails. But then, later, he accepts that he is his daughter's father and he realizes that he's got it all backwards. He can express his love for people through the products, which are not tools but instruments. The Mac is the paintbrush he gives to his daughter, the art it creates is the bond between them. (In the film, Woz ends up being collateral damage in this realization.)

The Mac is the paintbrush he gives to his daughter

But the power of this myth is bigger than that, because Jobs is a Sorkinesque Great Man and the story isn't just about his relationship to his family and coworkers, but about our relationship to him and (through his his products) to each other. The power of Steve Jobs, as Nilay Patel has pointed out, lies in our knowledge of what he did and (crucially) everybody's remembrance of the outpouring of love and emotion many felt when he died.

Here's Sorkin talking to Patel after a screening of the movie last week:

I was still astonished at the way that Steve Jobs was eulogized when he died. I has no idea that the world had this kind of emotional connection to him, when what they really had was an emotional connection to his products. The way we really didn't have an emotional connection to John Lennon, we had an emotional connection to his songs, right? And I thought, boy I missed something that everyone else got and I want to write about it.

Steve Jobs used people like an orchestra conductor uses musicians in an orchestra: to make a product. But it's not that he cared more about the product than the people; it's that he came to care about people through the medium of the product. And, more importantly, he wanted all of us to come to the same realization. Technology has come between us, but instead of being a wall it should be a conduit. It shouldn't be a hammer, it should be a violin.

Here's where things get a little dark — or then rather darker — because let's face it I'm currently doing literary analysis of a story that ruthlessly changes a real man's life story in a mercenary attempt to make a point about our relationship to technology. Recently I went back to an essay in the Ann Arbor Chronicle by David Erik Nelson, written in the wake of the Newtown shootings:

A gun isn’t a tool – it’s not a hammer or a drill that you can pick up, use to solve a problem, and put away until you have the next problem you want to solve. It’s an instrument, like a guitar or piano. It requires constant care, it requires checking and tuning before each use, it requires an intimate relationship with its mechanisms, with its parameters, with what it can do and what it should do and what it is meant for. It requires care and feeding. And it requires practice, near constant practice for you to be any good at doing anything with it.

I know this is dark, but I'm citing it mainly to keep myself honest: This is the piece that gave me the insight that it's important to think of technology not as a set of tools, but as instruments. There's no balance in the parallel between guns and tech, obviously, but I do think there's a parallel. Technology is an instrument. Learning how to use it properly makes you an artist. You can create works of art or works of work. You can become skilled. You can use it to touch other people's hearts or pull money out of their wallets.

Technology can create works of art or works of work

Take the very thing you're reading right now, what I used to create it is infused with culture and context. I wrote it using technology: a text editor, a browser. I have certain technological skills I've acquired that I used to tune the work: the Markdown "coding" language, knowing how to link other stories, knowing how to embed a YouTube clip that beings playing at a certain time mark. I have cultural biases and knowledge I've brought to it: remembering Nelson's story about guns, knowing enough about Steve Jobs to know that Steve Jobs runs roughshod over the facts of his life (and, I believe but cannot say with authority, his character), and perhaps most importantly: a set of beliefs about what technology is that explains why I chose to be the executive editor of The Verge instead of doing something simpler.

It seems like everybody who writes about technology has the same thesis we do, that it informs, infuses, and ultimately is culture. I believe that's all true and I believe it's important to understand. But I believe that the way that happens, the way technology changes our very identities and familial relationships is deeper and more complicated than most of us are ready to admit.

It's easier to just think of technology as something that separates us. I see too many people think of technology in terms of tools instead of instruments. I see it when internet commenters argue about processor speeds on phones; when I read Sherry Turkle's concerns that phones are making us feel alone, together; when Jaron Lanier insists that you're not a gadget and not to let yourself be defined by the gadgets you use.

Stop thinking of technology as something that separates us

Nobody seriously says that a guitar is superior in every way to, say, a piano. Instead, we know that each is an instrument with a set of abilities and limitations, able to create music in different ways that can instill different emotions in the listener. Why do we have arguments about "what's better" with Macs and PCs, iPhones and Android? Because too many of us think of them as tools, as products.

Steve Jobs is about the intersection of products and people. But a phone or a tablet or even a Wi-Fi router is more than a product; it's an instrument. They're pieces of culture that also create culture. If you think of your phone as a tool, you're going to dehumanize the person on the other end of it. If you treat it like an instrument, you understand its place, your place, and your relationships' place in the grand symphony of human culture.

When we use a violin, we create a song. When we use an iPhone, we create each other and ourselves.