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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs isn't the one who made us stupid

As someone who toiled for many years in classrooms where competent reading and writing were the controlling objectives,  I note that truly stupid people are actually quite rare.  Reaching those objectives was done by pointing out to students where slovenly habits contributed to poor reading comprehension or to fatuous statements that were less than credible to alert and astute readers.  Seldom did I encounter a student who made the choice to defend a stupid interpretation or statement.  In nearly all cases, students made efforts to correct and amend errors of reading or writing.  Computer systems were a great boon to this process, because they provided a way for all students to actively participate in class discussions, and they did not want their responses to reading or assertions they made in writing to appear stupid to their peers.  

My colleagues claimed that my observation that truly stupid people are a rarity was based on a self-selected group of people and did not describe the human population as it occurs in the larger world.  Students, they pointed out, came to college for the purpose of becoming informed and to avoid the morass of stupidity that thrives on bad information and thinking.  They, for the most part, made a conscious choice not to be stupid and concerned themselves more with the processes of disciplined thought and expression.  The opinions they ended up with were less important to them than the rigors of arriving at them.

When Steve Jobs  made the Apple IIe available for use in schools, he helped establish a technology that greatly facilitated education.  Professors in prestigious universities used it.  Elementary teachers used it.  I used it.  My first computer was an Apple IIe that I still miss for some of the things that it could do.   Desk top computing has advanced far since then, particularly with multi-media and printers, but the Apple IIe changed the way we thought about and delivered instruction.  

In those early times, some college faculty belittled those who used Apple's user-friendly systems as being too mentally slow to grasp the basics of computing.  I used both:  IBM-based at work; Apple at home.  Apple's user friendly system made it possible to focus on the work to be done; the IBM system then required much fiddling around to achieve the results one wanted.  Apple users were more interested in computers as tools that could greatly facilitate work.  IBM users were often more interested in them as toys that could confer some kind of technological status.  The disputes among faculty regarding the systems were silly.

With  my own Apple, I was able to take advantage of the first mustering of the Internet.  I joined a database through which one could exchange documents and post messages.  That early system was very expensive and full of bugs.  Each connection made to the data base was by a long-distance telephone call.  And if you had call-waiting, an incoming call would disconnect the modem on the computer.  But it was useful.  One time I rushed off to deliver a paper at a meeting and when I got there, I found I had taken an early draft of the paper, not the finished one.  The draft I wanted was on a disk at home, and I was able to retrieve the finished draft from my computer at home at the computer lab of university a thousand miles away.  

There are some detractors of Steve Jobs who blame him for the unleashing digital gadgets on the world that distract people from more useful and constructive pursuits.  The New York Times asked people which Steve Jobs invention mattered most to them.  The huge majority of the people commented positively on the ways Apple products enabled and enhanced their pursuits. But there are a few detractors.  One person commented that "he made people think they needed increasingly expensive gadgets to do unnecessary things and added to the economic mess and greedy world."  Another said, "there is a portion of society that cannot afford Mr. Jobs products.I have never seen one of his products produce a grain of rice or clothe..."

Those comments are incredibly obtuse and stupid.  They have no conception of how Apple products have contributed to the productivity and efficiencies of the people who use them as tools.  Those, comments, however, are illustrative of the down-side of technology.  They enable small-minded people to register their ill-informed and ill-formed opinions and lower the level of discussion with their clutter.

When one looks at the messages posted on discussion boards and the social media, one finds that my colleagues who give humanity so much credit for stupidity are apparently right.  The rule of freedom of speech disillusions many people into thinking that anything they utter is born from applied knowledge and intelligence, and there are times when Internet threads give good evidence of a huge mass of people who have chosen stupidity as a way of life.  

Steve Jobs did not make them stupid.  Nor did he create those people who careen around town in their cars with their cell phones plastered to their ears, or text while driving,  or constantly spew out twitters and posts that are incomprehensible probably even to them.   Their use of technology gives us definitive insights into their intelligence and character.  And such glimpses are depressing.  

Our conservative compatriots like to harp about people taking responsibility for their own lives.   People are free to choose ignorance, stupidity, and meanness as the ruling standards of their lives.  What Steve Jobs provided us is a way to tell who they are. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States