Monday, May 18, 2015
Compatibility, Reality Distortion & Reading the Spine of the Book Over & Over While Sitting On the Toilet
So I read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson called just Steve Jobs. Why, if I work in a crazy ass bookstore with weirdo art and comics, would I read such a book? It's not something I would normally seek to own except that my husband has a much more corporate job, and he received it as an anniversary gift after being there for a million years. His team signed a card that is still in the book, which I enjoyed using as a bookmark. And I kid you not, the company actually has the prefix "OMNI" in their name, which sounds like something you would put in the name of your major corporation in a movie, almost like a parody. Also, I thought it ironic that he works with a PC computer all day, not a Mac, so it seemed funny to me that they would give him a book about one of the founders of Apple, especially about a man known for his mercurial temperment, but what do I know? This is why I don't work in an office job (though I do spend a lot of my day in front of a computer, which is a Mac).
Actually though, there is another reason this book made it's way into my hands. When I sit on the toilet the placement of the book is at eye level on the bookshelf, so every time I was on the toilet, I would see the spine of the book over and over every day, Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs. So it eventually made its way into my brain that I had to read it.
Most of my life I've been an Apple person, though I have had some experiences with owning at least one PC, so I do feel like I can kind of exist in the mid brain between the Apple and PC, which is interesting, because whenever I do those tests to find out if you're right-brained or left brained, I always end up right in the middle. I'm not quite fully logical, not quite fully creative. I'm not fully spatial, not fully verbal, not fully mathematical.
I spend a lot of my day on a computer at the bookstore or doing stuff on my computer at home which is all Mac-based stuff, though I don't have an iphone. I have an Android, though I do have an iTouch ipod dying a slow painful death. Even my personal device existence is in the corpus callosum between the right brain/left brain Mac vs PC experience.
If I've just spent all day with technology, much of that time frustrated with how annoying it is, what with our old computers at work and my old computer at home, if I've spent my day being so frustrated in a permanent state of Mercury-in-retrograde technology superfuck, why would I want to come home and immerse myself in a book about Mac computer culture and the founder of it? I have no good answer for this, other than the fact that apparently, maybe the best way to get me to read a book is have it eye level for me when I am on the toilet. (Also, once I started it I couldn't stop, mostly because it was illuminating my experience as a Mac user. Yes, I agree, Steve Jobs! MobileMe did suck!!!!)
And also, why do I feel like when I talk about a book I have to spend tons of time explaining how the book came into my life?
Anyway anyway anyway, so, Steve Jobs book at eye level while I'm on the toilet.
What I really realized, when I finished the book and started rambling on about it to whoever would listen which was nobody because I'm sure it's ponderous to listen to me talk about Steve Jobs, was that the book was really about was the debate between the open system vs closed system. And what I mean by that is that in terms of building your own franken-computers, rebelliously hacking and using different brands of pieces to modify hardware and software, that's called "open system," as in like, open to you to use whatever you want to plug into those open slots and open ports! Then there's the other side of things, the "closed system" which is the designer-customized experience of user friendliness for the consumer. Only things that belong in that "system" are compatible, so you can't go outside that system to hack it with other parts. Macs belong (mostly but not 100% any more) to a closed system, making it difficult to hack. In fact, many Macs you have to have special tools to even open the case, which was not so true of open system old computers where you could open them with something like a screwdriver.
Before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple, they came from a goofy prankster background where they'd hack into phone lines with their Blue Boxes and call phone lines across the world for free. And they'd get together with other nerdy computer types and build shit. Woz was the open source, free code type but Jobs was the marketer. So eventually this became an issue.
I know I'm not the first person to say that the "open system" hacker sensibility seems more rebellious than the "closed system." I'm also not the first person to point out that the Apple campaign of "Think different" is well, flaunting a rebelliousness that is less believable coming from a proprietary "Closed system" type of company, where only Apple things are compatible with Apple things. It seems pretty well, not hacker-ish, not rebellious, totally corporate, total "brand loyalty"-ish to me (though things have become more fluid as of the past handful of years -- I have things that are compatible with both).
On the other hand, you're not a sheep midlessly following the herd just because you have brand loyalty. What's wrong with good design? A closed system can be a good thing if that system is designed well. Isaacson cites a quote from Woz in regards to this very discussion (pg 497): "Apple gets you into their playpen and keeps you there, but there are some advantages to that. I like open systems, but I'm a hacker. But most people want things that are easy to use. Steve's genius is that he knows how to make things simple, and that sometimes requires controlling everything." Control isn't necessarily a bad thing. Isaacson wrote that part of Jobs' legacy was founding a proprietary system that didn't modify hardware and software or share code: "The hacker ethos would be sacrificed in order to create a seamless and simpler user experience" (pg 562). Well it is true. I do think Macs are easier to use than PCs in terms of where to find stuff and so forth, but then, is that only because that's what I regularly use? My husband, a devoted PC user, probably disagrees.
The crux of the book (well, one of them anyway. Can there be more than one crux in a book? No. Whatever.) was this concept of "compatibility" both in the computer world but also as a concept. Like our intersections with other people, you know, like communicating, because Steve Jobs, from what it sounds like, was difficult to be with unless you got on his good side or if he liked you. It sounds like he could be a real jerk, hiring and firing at whim, lacking tact, etc. It seems poetic to me that someone who was clearly incompatible with so many people, would create a "closed system" that is incompatible with other third party technologies.
Many people in Jobs' life that Isaacson interviewed agreed that Jobs had this amazing ability to create a reality distortion field. He'd say something like, "This technology will be available in six months." Everybody would freak out because there'd be no way they'd be able to have the chip ready in six weeks, but because he demanded it, somehow people would figure out a way to come through. Every time I read "reality distortion field" I couldn't help but think of Robert Anton Wilson's concept of the "reality tunnel," which was his theory that everybody viewed things from their own version of reality which shaped how they understood the world; it "tunneled" information in such a way that it was compatible with the way their own already-biased view of the world and themselves. What I want to know is, what if you had a "reality distortion field tunnel" what would it do? Warp the reality around you to actually fit in your view? That would take a powerful person.
But enough of that. Interestingly, I was at the Apple store for a computer issue, and I got to talking with an employee there, and he said that there is a different biography about Steve Jobs, some newer book, that paints a more sympathetic portrait of Steve Jobs that he suggested I read, citing in particularly, a scene where Jobs sits in his car crying. Shall I read that book too or let this book have the final say? (Jobs did tell Isaacson, to write the book with warts and all, giving him full reign to talk to people from his past and present, no matter what terms Jobs was on with them.) This book however, has a passage I found particularly well, I don't know, petty but hilarious and probably enough to allow me to let this book have the final say, and it's this particular detail: Joan Baez dated Jobs for a while. She said that he announced they should go to a particular store because they sold a red dress he said would look great on her, and then when they got there, not only did he not buy the dress for her but then came out with two shirts for himself. And this was after he was super rich, so it wasn't like he couldn't afford it. Did I also mention that there was some suggestion in the book that the reason he dated her was because she dated Bob Dylon and Jobs loved Bob Dylon? Why didn't Steve Jobs just date Bob Dylan? Would another book on this topic allow me to have these thoughts? No? Well then, I'll stick with this one.
I enjoyed hearing about Jobs' many weirdo juice cleanses and fasts. He also did hippie-ish things like nomadically traveling, dabbling in cult-like commune-like living situations and creating an alcove in the attic to do acid. It seemed like he was always on the hunt for some type of enlightenment, ecstatic/numinous experience or sublime appreciation. I enjoyed one particular quote (page 49), where Jobs said "I think different religions are different doors to the same house. Sometimes I think the house exists, and sometimes I don't. It's the great mystery." YES and YES. Two points that sprung to mind when I read that were: 1) I recalled David Lynch saying something in some interview or video to the effect that what he feels transcendental meditation does is get one to the place that many religions try to get one to, but that they all have different ways to get there, which is that place of cosmic consciousness that we all have access to and 2) I like that someone can be searching for the "house," wanting and hoping it is there, but understanding that it may not be there at all. And that it is OK to be of two minds about it. Sometimes I believe in religion-y stuff and sometimes I don't.
Another quote that I really liked was on page 49 where Isaacson quotes Jobs, in reference to his experiences with Eastern spirituality, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism etc. He said something that resonated with me about my experiences with transcendental meditation. Although Jobs may not have been talking about the type of mediation that I do, I have found elements of this to be true in my experience doing it:
"If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things—that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it."
This is so true. When I first started mediating some months ago, for weeks and weeks I felt frustrated because it seemed like whenever I tried to meditate, it was just making whatever was on my mind bugging me worse. Sometimes it seemed like I was just stewing in whatever was bugging me, marinating. And I would actually feel myself literally warming up, like heat was rising off me. But then over time, after meditating for a few months, I stopped feeling heat rising off me and everything slowing down, in terms of my body temperature. Maybe my pulse and heart rate would slow down (I don't know; I've never measured it when I do it). I have actually started to feel more relaxed when I meditate, but it usually takes the first half of the time of the session for me to get there (I do it twice a day, twenty minutes at a stretch). Sometimes when I meditate it takes fifteen minutes for me just to get my nervous system in order, and it isn't until the last few minutes are where I actually feel good. It's not a cosmic experience for me (yet, will it ever be?) but it is relaxing, gets me feeling recharged, and on occasion, more emotionally clear-headed.
The fact that it can take more than half of the time of an individual session to get to a helpful place mentally reminds me of an experience I have a lot with physical exercise. That is, I'm not excited to start it but I force myself to, inwardly grumbling. And for much of the workout, I feel like I'm really just warming up. Often I don't start to sort of enjoy it until the last few minutes, and then it's done. And that's not ideal. Ideally, I'd be enjoying it the whole time but we know that's just not how things are.
The trick is just forcing myself to go do it. With exercising, it's like, just get those shoes on and do it. Or with meditating, just quit what you're doing and put your ass in the chair -- turn off the computer for two seconds and just put your ass in the god damn chair and do it, which seems pretty antithetical to the idea of relaxing with meditation, but that self-talk is really just what happens before I sit in the chair. The part of sitting in the chair is the part about letting go.
A final quote I'll pull, is suprisingly uplifting considering it is in regards to death. Jobs, knowing how sick he was, how he was going to die sooner rather then later, actually made him more likely to follow his heart and live in less fear of making a fool of himself (pg 457):
"Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
If only we could be in the place of following our heart's authentic propensities without fear even when there is no threat of immanent death.
It also seems fitting that I have an appointment at the Apple store tomorrow to fix the jack on the back of the Mac Mini that we plug into speakers. Sometimes the sound doesn't feed through it into the speakers unless we take the cord out and plug it back in. And I know it's the computer and not the speakers because I did some trouble-shooting with plugging and unplugging other devices and speakers etc. If that same guy is working there as last time, I can tell him I finished the book and have no plans to read the other one. That is, unless it ends up in the bathroom so I have to continually read the spine over it over while I sit on the toilet.