I’ll get in trouble for this post in two ways, but people who get it will appreciate it.
The first is how I view death. I’m overwhelmingly swayed by this passage from the ancient book called the Zuangzi (spelled Chuang Tzu in the translation below) on the death of a loved one.
Chuang Tzu’s wife died. When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a pot and singing. “You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,” said Hui Tzu. “It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing – this is going too far, isn’t it?”
Chuang Tzu said, “Not at all. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.
“Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about how things worked. So I stopped.” — from this translation, with slight changes.
I find this perspective compelling, that, among other things, the more you understand things, the less they grip you, the less you feel bound to follow other people’s rules, and the more you celebrate life. If one can practice such a perspective in the extreme case of the death of a lifelong companion and loved one, one can do so anywhere, so this story illustrates that you can practice so effectively.
Steve Jobs died recently and the press is going nuts with its eulogies, grouping him with Henry Ford, which I understand, and Albert Einstein, which I don’t. Einstein!?!
I wouldn’t care for journalists’ opinions so much except for an overly doting review in today’s New Yorker. At least this piece in the same issue recognized “by the standards of today’s open-source computing world, Apple’s platforms are still very much closed.” But this one ended with “You have to love him.”
“You have to love him.”
I’ll return to that statement.
I understand the appeal of products his company produced, but I’ve also read and understood the foundations of the open-source computing world, which is the Free Software world, where the “Free” is the same Free as in Free Speech and Free Press, not as in free beer. Free Software guarantees freedom, saying nothing about price.
I appreciate attention to detail, user experience, and other things people credit Apple for focusing on. But I will never value them above freedom. Apple may have tolerated openness and freedom here and there, but my impression was that it was always within the range of freedom they gave you. Maybe I missed something, but Apple products seem to make it easy to do what they let you do, not necessarily what you want to do. Free Software lets you do whatever you want, as long as you don’t prevent others from doing what they want.
By no means do I mean to imply Apple has any obligation to protect anyone’s freedom. It is a private company, not our government. I’m looking at its contribution to our culture, not cross-examining it. Nor do I mean to suggest Apple only makes money by curtailing freedom. But I do see it as central to their business model.
I posted the following elsewhere and found it expressed my feelings well.
My first computing experiences were on Apple 2s and TRS-80s. The first I bought myself was an Apple 2e.
Since then I’ve never seen an Apple product I like. Someone gave me one of their mp3 players and I haven’t thrown it away, so I guess I have that. Meh.
Design is a matter of taste. I get that millions (billions?) of people like Apple design. I don’t. People say they’re easy to use. I feel like they’re easy to use to do what they want you to do. Hard to do what they don’t.
Apple took shots at Microsoft, most famously in its 1984 ad, when it was losing. Now that it’s winning it has become the 1984 ad. They gather data on you, control their communities, and control their platforms. I see them as creepy as Google and Facebook. I’m sure they have the right to do these things, just like Facebook does. I just find little redeeming about Apple. I’m no fan of Disney either.
I give him the respect any human deserves. I recognize many people like products he contributed to making and many investors made money off of him. I just don’t see much value in his achievements.
I don’t expect many people share my views, except in respecting him as a human being.
Apple, its products, and most of Steve Jobs’ creations represent to me control and uniformity. I won’t start with Disney and what they do to culture with their influence on copyright. I don’t know if Apple and he started that way, back in the days of the Apple 2, but I know where they’ve gone. While Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen foresaw how digital media could be used to curtail freedom and worked to protect it, Jobs and Gates worked to profit from that curtailing, also contributing to it.
The world has plenty of heroes who didn’t choose to profit from curtailing others’ freedom. Plenty of people followed in Stallman and Moglen’s footsteps, creating works promoting freedom that influence us today: Wikipedia was borne of the free license they created, as was Linux, likely delivering you this content. If I picked a leader of industry that didn’t curtail freedom, I’d pick Craigslist’s Craig Newmark over Jobs any day. He and his products improve my life and he has worked hard not to encroach on people’s freedom. He’d be much richer otherwise.
How much Apple’s famous 1984 ad, with its gray uniformity, resembles Apple today, or how much the 1984 telescreen resembles Jobs’s famous Apple announcements is a matter of opinion.
The final words of that New Yorker article, “you have to love him” poignantly reminded me of the final words of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The voice from the telescreen was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter, but the shouting outside had died down a little. …
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
“He loved Big Brother.” “You have to love him.”
By now I’ve gotten myself in trouble in two ways. I’m not fawning over the dead in the way the popular media does and I’m not admiring Jobs for being a captain of industry. Regarding the first way, as I wrote, I give Jobs the respect I believe all human beings deserve. Regarding the second, I see a man who profited off curtailing people’s freedom, somehow motivating them to say “you have to love him.”
EDIT: I referred to this post a few days later when I posted on Dennis Ritchie’s death.
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