The Steve Jobs Phenomenon

The passing of Steve Jobs has generated mountains of gushing comment, some of it well deserved. We would have heard similarly generous statements at the death of Thomas Edison and have to acknowledge the equally astonishing shift that Steve Jobs caused in our world by truly bringing us into the digital age. L’Osservatore Romano wrote of him: “Talent pure talent.” His early death at only fifty-six from pancreatic cancer, a particularly hard way to go, cannot help but move our sympathy for him and his family.

But beyond all that, let’s hope that his passing leads to some reflection on the influence of technology in our culture. Technologies are not neutral and we should always ask whether they expand our humanity or degrade it?

After all, we are always dealing with sinful and concupiscent human beings here, even if they are brilliant innovators. As Hans Urs von Balthasar the Swiss theologian, put it, we and those around us, in the “long-standing experience of the Church . . . often do not want to become mature in the Christian sense because Christian maturity does not mean just a serious obligation towards all of the ministries inspired by the Holy Spirit and also conferred as tasks: it also presumes a supernatural maturity that can be achieved only through much prayer and sacrifice.” This has special importance for all of us who have now become regular users of ever advancing technologies.

In the longer view, perhaps creating a computer the size of a banana does not seriously enter into the real human struggle. Indeed, it may become a distraction from it. Since we only have a finite amount of time on this earth, this is not a trivial consideration. Leander Kahney has observed:  “Everyone who buys a Mac says ‘I’m going to write my novel, I’m going to edit my movie. I’m going to cut that single.’ It speaks to our creative streak. In reality, all they do is sit around and watch Netflix on it.” (Cult of Mac)

Thomas Aquinas makes a striking comment about imagination:  “because a man seeks to occupy a higher grade as to accidentals, which can increase without the destruction of the subject, he can also seek a higher grade of nature.” Here is the heart of the problem:  for all its usefulness technology is accidental, peripheral.

         Pope Benedict XVI learns to use an iPad

Yes, I too appreciate twenty-first century medicine and the car and other technological gains. But that is not the real business of becoming more human. It’s telling how many people show an odd identification with Steve Jobs. The BBC calls it a cult. Some people built their lives around Apple technology. This is not like a locomotive driver whose life depends on the locomotive. The driver still produces useful services for society. But those in a cult? Not so much. The focus of the Jobs cult seems not the great spiritual struggle, but simply a fashionable way to fill time, to connect with people who are not here (perhaps while not connecting with people who are here), to get caught in the flow of facts and not to achieve real knowledge.

The higher development of our natures does not come from advances in technology. As Benedict XVI put it (Forty-Third Communications Day Message):

In the light of the biblical message, [using new communication technologies] should be seen primarily as a reflection of our participation in the communicative and unifying Love of God, who desires to make of all humanity one family. When we find ourselves drawn towards other people, when we want to know more about them and make ourselves known to them, we are responding to God’s call – a call that is imprinted in our nature as beings created in the image and likeness of God, the God of communication and communion.
In other words, there is a higher principle, one that cannot be manipulated by us, that illuminates our use of manmade things – if we attend to it.

This means following “the better angels of our nature,” but even more it is following something that has been given to us in the Death of Christ, namely grace. And von Balthasar once remarked that:  “just as grace knows no upper limit, so its challenge knows no upper limit.” The real struggle of life lies in learning how to cooperate with grace, something that by nature is not in our control.

Unlike technology, grace is pure gift and it is not something that appeals to our senses. Grace is scattered with a generosity that crosses all boundaries between people. And yet it is the only route, the pope has emphasized, for entering a “life [that] is not just a succession of events or experiences:  it is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this – in truth, in goodness, and in beauty – that we find happiness and joy.”