Friday, February 17, 2012
Long letters written and mailed in her own head
There are no mails in a city of the dead.
-Robert Graves, "I Will Write"
In a culture like ours, enthralled by money, people are fascinated by millionaires, and a thousand times more by billionaires. They attribute nonexistent qualities to them, ingenuity to the things they do, and profundity to the things they say merely because they are wealthy.
When the death of Steve Jobs was announced last year my initial reaction, like most people's I suppose, was that it was unexpectedly sudden. There was certainly plenty of speculation about the fragility of his health, despite his efforts to keep the details secret. His insistence on appearing in public to show off his latest gadgets made his decline obvious to everyone. His personal connection to those gadgets made his brand into so much more than just a label affixed to sometimes delightful accessories.
I have never owned a Macintosh/Apple product, either because I never had a use for one or because I simply couldn't afford it. So I was bemused by the outpouring of emotion when Steve Jobs died. His true importance will take awhile to properly assess. His direct impact on people's lives was, it seems to me, overwhelmingly exaggerated. I am confident that Steve Jobs did not change my life one tiny bit.
Quite the last thing I wanted to carry around with me in my pocket was a telephone. I'm certain that when letters were invented some people complained that they would only give people an excuse to live apart. Letter writing is predicated on distances between people. They increased immeasurably people's opportunities for leaving and deceiving one another.
Computers and cellphones have made the discipline of letter writing obsolete. How many people in the rich countries ever send or receive a real letter any more? The pleasure of holding in one hands an object that was last touched by a loved one is being lost. When cellphones first appeared on the market, my immediate response was one of overwhelming disapproval. Human discourse is becoming a matter of electronic connections between people who are out of physical reach, "facing" one another only through the intervention of webcams or videophones.
John Cheever, in his Paris Review interview, spoke about precisely this problem, decades before it became a reality for all of us:
Another opening sentence I often think of is, “The first day I robbed Tiffany’s it was raining.” Of course, you can open a short story that way, but that’s not how one should function with fiction. One is tempted because there has been a genuine loss of serenity, not only in the reading public, but in all our lives. Patience, perhaps, or even the ability to concentrate.
Cheever blamed it on the effects of advertising, but its effects have been accelerated by technology. An ebook reader may be a splendid tool that can store one's own private library of favorite books, but it denies a reader the irreplaceable pleasure of holding a book in his hands.
Steve Jobs may have helped make communication quicker, but he also helped make it more impersonal. He didn't make people more obliged to communicate with one another. In fact he created for them whopping excuses to not communicate.
Undeniably, Jobs was a salesman of genius. He was also a micro-manager who insisted on overseeing every detail of his products' design, manufacture and marketing. He was no Thomas Edison. In a hundreds years, will there be as many high schools in America named after Jobs as there are for Edison today?
Jobs's last public speeches, in which he touched on the meaning of mortality, were, I think, inspired by the shock he experienced when he realized that all his billions couldn't save him from his premature quietus. He spoke about the pointlessness of being the "richest man in the cemetery". He could've bought himself his own private cemetery.
I'd rather repeat the words Carl Reiner (as Saul Bloom in Oceans Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen) spoke: "I want the last check I write to bounce."