It’s now been a year since Steve Jobs died, and as time passes, speculation seems to be more prevalent: what if Jobs had lived? How would Apple or their product line be different? I’m now going to join this chorus, but I’m not going to limit myself to Apple or its products; I’m going to offer some whimsical speculation on what I believe was his ultimate plan for society.
In October 2011, as the obituaries and tributes to Steve Jobs were flooding the media, you may have seen this photograph. It’s a picture of Jobs sitting in the living room of his Los Gatos house. It was taken on December 15, 1982, by Diana Walker, who was a White House photographer at the time. The accompanying quote by Jobs was “This was a very typical time. I was single. All you needed was a cup of tea, a light, and your stereo, you know, and that’s what I had.“
This photo illustrated, as well as anything, Jobs’ desire for simplicity. Jobs was a Zen Buddhist and one of the tenets of Buddhism is that simplicity is a way of life.
And now, The Bob Angle… I’d like you to consider this: Jobs’s was not merely selling gadgets, music and movies to the public – from the very beginning, he was taking us all on a journey with him. He wanted us to embrace the same spiritual philosophy, and take the same path he was taking: to first achieve, and then embrace the simplicity in our own lives. Both Jobs and Leonardo DaVinci believed that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. I’d therefore like to propose to you that Steve Jobs’ ultimate goal was to place us, the consumer, in that 1980s living room with him, and have us share a similar physically spartan, yet emotionally and spiritually fulfilling existence. Unfortunately, he died before he could accomplish this far-reaching goal, which is why we don’t recognize what may have been his long-term plan for the world.
About 2-3 years ago, I first heard of an initiative called the 100-Possessions Challenge. In an effort to eschew materialism, it’s a bold call to action – try to live your life as normally as possible, with one hundred or fewer possessions. This total includes all that you own: shoes, clothes, toiletries, cutlery, dishes, books, magazines, records, CDs, DVDs, family photos, furniture, paintings, gadgets – everything.
Obviously I’m not a candidate – my book collection alone would disqualify me. Besides, my books are more than possessions – they are like old friends to me, and I can’t bear to part with any of them. Collectors of any kind would also be disqualified. Whether you collect vinyl LPs, DVDs, coins, stamps, beer bottle caps – or limited-edition, instant-heirloom Elvis Presley plates that you’ve mounted lovingly on your walls (as you wait patiently for them to appreciate in value) – your collection will likely consume or exceed your entire 100-possession quota. Most of us also have sizable media collections, so our shelves of CDs, DVDs, magazines and books would also be an impediment. In fact, I doubt that any of us woule be able to rise to this challenge. We are undeniably voracious consumers; in fact, the term “shopaholic” was coined in the 1980s.
The 100-Possessions Challenge seemed hopelessly ambitious. Who could sustain a decent quality of life and own so few things? That is, until I saw this cartoon.
That’s when I began to connect the dots. As I gazed once more upon the living room photo, I saw a glimpse of what I believe is Steve Jobs’ true genius. Yes, it is possible to simplify our lives, even to this 1982 example. While the cartoon above is humourous, it does illustrate an underlying truth. Our lives are already changing because of this convergence in technologies. Secondly, as RAM and storage costs continue on a downward path that seems to follow Moore’s Law, the ability to digitize exponentially larger amounts of data will accelerate the simplification of our lives. To wit:
Bookcases: There are free e-book reader apps available for laptops and tablets. Most e-books average 1MB in size. Even if you had 500 books in your bookcases at home, you could fit everything onto your tablet or PC and use only 1GB of space. You may now subtract up to 500 of your possessions.
Stereo System: Computers, tablets and smartphones generally have built-in MP3/AAC players. Assuming that a typical MP3 song is about 4MB, an expansive collection of 500 LPs and CDs, with 12 songs per album/CD, would total 6,000 songs – that’s 24GB. Subtract another 500 of your possessions.
DVDs: A DivX video file uses about 10MB of space per minute of video (more or less, depending on the encoding rate). This means a 1GB file for each 100-minute movie. Even if you owned 1,000 DVDs, your entire (encoded) collection could fit on a 1TB hard drive, and count as only one possession. Subtract up to 1,000 possessions.
Photo albums: If you own a scanner then all of your family photos could be stored on your PC, tablet or mobile device. Let’s say that scanned photos are about 2MB each (more or less, depending on photo size and the DPI setting), so a collection of 2,000 photos would take up only 4GB of space. Subtract up to 2,000 of your possessions.
Telephone / Cell Phone: They are (obviously) already included in smartphones. PCs and tablets can simulate a phone with FaceTime or Skype.
Gaming Consoles: While games seem to be migrating to “the cloud” these days, you can still load older games onto your laptop, or download simpler game apps for your smartphone or tablet. Subtract up to 100 of your possessions.
Take a look at the living room photo again, but instead of the stereo and LPs, imagine a media server, and a router, and then either a laptop or a tablet lying on the floor in the middle of the room (although I’m sure that Jobs would insist that only the latest iPad will do). The giant speakers in the background are replaced by high-end headphones. With convergence and digitization, you could theoretically live that same spartan existence that Steve Jobs did in the early 1980s, while still enjoying your 21-century digital lifestyle – access to your music collection, movie collection, photos, books, social media, e-mail, streaming radio stations, and the web. You could live a life of material simplicity and informational richness at the same time.
Yes, it’s purely speculation, but this is the living room (and by extension, the world) that I believe Steve Jobs wanted to us to experience with him. He was remarkably prescient, and recognized it before any of us did. Despite the incredible advances in technology and storage during the past generation, he knew that this convergence and simplification would take place, and that we would eventually come, full circle, back to that spartan living room.
Furthermore (I know… more wild speculation), I believe that the new Apple headquarters he designed was not merely an ecological statement, but a tribute to the full circle. By the time construction is scheduled to be completed in 2015, the full circle created by this material simplicity and technological convergence will also be complete. The new headquarters will be the symbol of, and Jobs’ ultimate tribute to: technology, the environment, Zen Buddhism, his philosophy of life, and the convergence of simplicity and sophistication in our lives. At that point, Jobs could have looked back and said “My work here is done”.
Sadly, fate intervened and denied him the opportunity to view the completion of the full circle, and the completion of what I believe is the journey that he wanted us to take together.