Tag Archives: technology

ron

Ron’s #44: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Mark’s excellent review is here.

I finished the last few pages of this biography in the following environment: My Apple TV played Cars streamed from my Mac that I controlled with my iPhone. All that was missing was an afternoon trip to an Apple Store somewhere. This illustrates not my dependence on technology (a topic that was addressed several other times in my reviews), but on the influence Steve Jobs has in my life. In many ways, Apple’s history is my history. Since I’m only a little older than Apple, I can connect aspects of my life with its.

I bought my first Mac in 1998 and lived in an Apple-exclusive home every since. The history of Apple and the computer industry has been a favorite topic of study over the years, and I’ve read and watched many books and movies. I have been an Apple enthusiast/evangelist for over a decade. I, like many, fell into Steve’s charismatic spell. Because of this, reading the new biography about Steve Jobs was not an option; it was an edict from within. The author, Walter Isaacson, chronicled the lives of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and now, Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs was a many of contradictions.

He was a billionaire, and he was a Zen Buddhist.
He created beautiful products, but he lived as a minimalist.
He was a charismatic man, but he was a complete jerk everyone around him.
He talked about passion in life, but he largely ignored his family.
He believed in design and beauty, but he ignored a Creator or Architect.
He believed in eschewing the trappings of the world, but he created the prettiest ones.

Isaacson gives a multi-faceted picture of the man who popularized geek, both the good and the ugly. And there is lots of ugly. The book is fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable, even if you were not interested in computer history. Steve Jobs is as tormented of a man as any character is a Dostoevsky novel. He wants to build great things, but he gets in his own way. He died with few close friends, but changed the technology world for the good. On one side he inspired engineers and designers under his leadership to create products that couldn’t be done, but he did this with berating, insulting, and, at times, crying. Most leaders use encouraging phrases like “Good job!” and “Impressive!” to help build up employees. Steve Jobs’s favorite line when he is shown a new design or feature is, “This is shit!” To Steve, this isn’t an insult; rather, it is a motivational tool.

What makes this book rich and deep is not just the computer history narrative, but it is also the subplots that run through the story: adoption, Steve’s estranged daughter that he denied for years, his romantic life, Bob Dylan, and Steve’s cancer. These secondary stories make Jobs more human and relatable to use non-billionaire geniuses.

While I learned much more about Apple, the one aspect that I was more surprised to discover is how much Steve Jobs really did at Apple, even in the final days. He micromanaged design, usability, packaging, commercials, color of walls, construction of new buildings and campuses, tile in Apple stores, the “floating” staircase in the stores, and even the dinner menu at events. Before I read the book, I thought that Apple would continue just fine without him. Now, after reading how he made all the decisions, I’m not so sure.

There’s so much more I want to say in praise of this book and for Steve Jobs and Apple, but I’ll save those for conversations with my geeky friends. I wish I could have it with Steve himself. Steve Jobs was one man I wanted to have dinner with someday. (Sidenote: I did have coffee with Apple’s other co-founder, Steve Wozniak. It was a great conversation with a slightly odd fellow. Read about it here). I’d love to talk about how his quest for design, order, and beauty springs from something within us, something built by an ultimate Designer. There was an interesting spiritual comment from Jobs as Yo-Yo Ma was playing his cello for an event. “You playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.” After this, Jobs made Yo-Yo Ma commit to playing the cello at his funeral. Fittingly, I am listening to Ma’s Bach Cello Suites as I type this.

I know what Steve Jobs would say about this review for his biography if he were to read it:

“This is shit.”

Jim

Jim’s #16: The Next Story by Tim Challies

I like technology.  I think it’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s dynamic, and, admittedly, I also find it can be quite addicting.  I don’t know that I’m quite as savvy as most in our digital age when it comes to having the latest and greatest (and if you charted me against other Computer Science majors, I’m sure I’d be at the low end of that totem pole of nerdery), but I do find myself becoming increasingly reliant on the many screens that seem to encroach on my life.  A few others have posted on this book already so I’m probably not going to add too much new stuff.  None-the-less, I’ll give it the good ole college try.

For the first chunk of this book I thought I was back at college learning the history of technology (surprisingly, I think I learned more from this chapter than I did in my semester at school–probably attributed to me actually staying awake this time).  It’s always amazing to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going.  As a matter of perspective, the top 10 in-demand jobs today didn’t even exist in 2004.  Moore’s law, which states that technology (though he specifically was referring to circuit board capabilities) doubles, or gets twice as fast, every 18 months.  Sometimes it’s even faster.  NTT Japan has successfully tested a fiber cable that successfully pushes 14 trillion bits per second down a single strand.  That’s the amount of data on 438 full iPhone 4s every second… and that amount is tripling every 6 months!

Here’s a pretty interesting video that complements the book quite well I think:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mmz5qYbKsvM

I won’t discuss everything Challies talks about but I do want to mention one issue that he brought up and I fear immensely.  I think we all see the evidence of technology severely crippling our ability to relate on a personal level with others.  We prefer digital, private, discussion where we can multi-task and do other things at the same time, rather than having to focus on one singular thing or person in the flesh for an extended period of time. I’m sure Ron’s witnessed plenty of this in the classroom.  As an extension of this, Challies discussed briefly the effect it is having on the church and the digital age approach to fellowship and community (or lack thereof).

I very rarely get visually and verbally upset; it takes something pretty intense to make me yell.  But I think the topic I have yelled the most about in life is professing Christians’ general apathy or even disdain for the church.  It drives me crazy to see people that claim to love Jesus talk bad about his bride, the church (especially when non-christians are present).  Clearly there are issues within the church, but it’s a group of sinners.  There will always be issues.  But that’s a different topic.  What I’ve noticed is that there seems to be a shift from the actual community of believers to a build-your-own, have-it-your-way church.  You can now go online and choose your worship songs, messages, and whatever else you might want to do for your self-sized worship service, all from your home.  Basically, it allows people to check the box of attending church without having to submit to authority or take part in real community.  It eliminates accountability and I can see this becoming a major in the church at large.

Challies talks about plenty of other interesting things as well.  I particularly enjoyed his discussion on the transitions from Data to Information to Knowledge to Wisdom and the growing realty that we are stuck in the Information phase, filling ourselves with information that taxes our mind but offers no substance and is hurting our ability to do any sort of memorization.  His analysis on the shift of truth is interesting as well, citing Wikipedia as our willingness to accept as gospel that which the majority agrees is right.  Stephen Colbert’s phrase “Wiki-ality” drives his point home quite well.

All in all, I think this book is a great insight on what technology is doing (some positives, but mostly negatives) to our society and the shift in our thinking because of it.  It has certainly forced me to analyze how I’m allowing technology to manage my world.  Just this week I noticed myself at one point watching my home TV while watching the Brewer game on my SlingBox while playing words with friends on my iPhone while shopping for homes (even though we don’t know where we’re going yet) on my iPad.  Pretty impressive now that I think about it, but it showed me that even while I don’t consider myself to be technology dependent, I still have plenty of room to grow.

 

ron

Ron’s #20: Feed by M. T. Anderson

Continuing my interest in the future of technology, Feed explores the topic via a young adult novel. A girl in my English class reviewed the book, and it sounded so good that I borrowed it from her.

Feed is set in the somewhat-near future, when the Internet is not longer an external connection to our computers and phones, but rather it is implanted directly into our brains. The Feed is always on and ready to be at our service, whether it is searching for the right word, planning a hotel, or buying a new jacket. The user merely needs to think about the search, and there it is. This may sound wonderful to some, but the problem is no one bothers to know anything anymore. People in this society are dumber than the dumbest teenager at the mall. Anderson captures the “dumbness” so well in these pages.

The story connects Titus, an average teenage boy, with Violet, a girl who has been homeschooled (not that type), as her father is a lover of language and is trying to preserve remnants of intellectual culture that is quickly dying away in favor of blasting advertisements or mere entertainment.  While we’ve seen a character like Violet in many movies and books—the oddball girl that the boys think is weird but attractive—she is still compelling, as she is a key to the world as it used to be, our world, before The Feed. Like most teenagers, she also wants to experience life and fun and love as well. When her feed begins to malfunction, how will it affect she and Titus’s relationship? Can they still stay connected when they are no longer connected?

M. T. Anderson created a powerful yet funny satire on our over-dependence on technology that is worth reading. It’s a cross between Blade Runner and Idiocracy. I only wonder if the message will be lost on the young audience. They may think it is a great idea to implant Google into our brains. With Apple’s new iCloud service announced today, this may soon be arriving.

ron

Ron’s #17: The Next Story by Tim Challies

I have reviewed a couple of books on the subject of technology recently (Hamlet’s Blackberry and The Shallows), but I’m not growing tired of them (you, readers, may get tired of reading the reviews, though).

For those not familiar with the author, Tim Challies is a prolific Christian blogger at www.challies.com. His is one of only a handful of must-read sites that I visit. When I saw that he had a book about the effects of technology, I wanted to read it. What would a man who makes his living from technology have to say about technology?

The Next Story doesn’t offer much different from the other two books I mentioned, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. Rather, it shows that many people from different walks and faiths come to the same conclusion: our immersion in technology is changing us. Anyone who disagrees with this premise should reconsider and take a longer look at his own life. Challies’s book is part computer history, part social commentary, and part Christian living. All together, this offers a more complete picture of how we ought to live our lives while surrounded by iPhones, Internet, wi-fi, email, Facebook, and digital clouds.

I discovered a curious response when I discuss technology with people: there is a quick reaction against any criticism. This comes from both Christians and non-Christians alike. People seem quick to defend/explain their own technology use and how it is not that bad. I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce when the Angel confronts the man with a lizard of lust on his shoulder. The Angel asks, “Would you like me to make him quiet?” but the man has lots of excuses as to why the lizard is not that bad, and that any action will result in pain.

The Angel asks, “Don’t you want him killed?”

“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”

“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”

“Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here — well, it’s so damned embarrassing.”

“May I kill it?”

“Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please — really — don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”

“May I kill it?”

“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”

“The gradual process is of no use at all.”

“Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very careful. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well to-day. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”

While the other books discuss how overdosing on technology saps our human interaction, The Next Story adds an added loss, our time and relationship with the God of the Universe. If my texting at dinner pulls me away from my wife and son, what does checking Facebook in the morning or playing Angry Birds before bed do to my relationship with the One who has created me to enjoy the Creator supremely over the creation? When God asks, “May I kill it?” may my response never be, “I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”

ron

Ron’s #15: Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

When I told people that I was currently reading a book on the start of Zappos.com, the response was always the same: “Why?” I’m not exactly sure what interested me in this book, but I found it in the thrift store, and I was eager to read it. Aside from theology, my favorite topic to read is the history and evolution of the computer industry. Reading a book on how an online shoe store became a powerhouse retailer seemed to be perfect.

This book is part autobiography of Tony Hsieh and part how-to-be-a-leader book (a genre that I usually try to avoid). I enjoyed reading the start of young Tony with his entrepreneurial endeavors and accidental encounters that led him to Nick Swinmurn, the owner of a business called shoesite.com, which then transformed into what we now know as Zappos.com. Tony’s dedication to Zappos (even when business logic told him it is a losing proposition) was inspiring. It made me want to buy shoes at Zappos.

Before you readers get too inspired and leave this review to buy the new Nike Frees, I want to give what annoyed me most about this book: Tony Hsieh himself. He is an arrogant, condescending, and strange man. He is smarter and richer than you, and he makes sure you know this. He loves to refer to his friends as his “tribe” (so annoying), and tells of the epiphany he has in a rave. (Tony makes it clear that he liked raves before they were popular). Somehow, that trippy experience inspired him to provide excellent customer service.

Hsieh pontificates how amazing the Zappos culture is, and, frankly, I don’t care. While I appreciate good customer service, let’s keep in mind that they are selling shoes, not running the United Nations.

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