Fred Niedner: Jobs (Steve) and jobs on everyone’s minds and phones
October 14, 2011 5:30PM
Updated: November 16, 2011 3:41PM
Jobs. Everywhere one turns these days, this is a lively topic.
Steve Jobs, who changed how we live as profoundly as Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, or Henry Ford, left us to ponder the impact of all the gadgets he gave us when he died last week. A steady stream of tributes has reflected on Jobs’ genius and how his various inventions and applications have revolutionized our work patterns as well as the ways in which we amuse ourselves and stay in touch. My grandparents grew up in a world without automobiles or airplanes. My granddaughter, not yet able to speak in sentences, knows how to make her picture appear on her mother’s iPhone.
Jobs. Too many people don’t have one right now, and part of the reason stems from the ubiquity of the technology Steve Jobs and similar entrepreneurs have sold us. To be sure, Jobs’ accomplishments created a host of new jobs. Thanks to him and a few others like him, legions of techies, none of whose jobs existed a generation ago, appear on the payroll of every business or institution one can name. For 20 years I’ve advised my students to seek a broad education because many of the jobs they’ll soon fill don’t exist yet.
On the other hand, Jobs’ inventions have rendered countless jobs obsolete and also made it not only possible, but easy and profitable, to export jobs and work sites all over the globe.
Some of this has happened before, of course. We didn’t need much whale oil after Edison’s light bulbs proved durable, so the whaling industry took a big hit. Mr. Ford’s Model-T put a lot of buggy makers, horse-breeders and veterinarians out of business. In exchange, however, positions like “electrician” and “auto mechanic” came into being, not to mention a myriad of jobs for those who would build power plants and highways or search out and refine petroleum.
This time, however, the jobs revolution seems to have created enormous gaps between technological haves and have-nots, thanks in part to the way that clever and sophisticated use of technology allows certain kinds of businesses to bring in enormous revenues with little or no need for a workforce or payroll. Indeed, the dream “company” in today’s real-life game of Monopoly seems to be one with an owner and CEO but no employees. Or taxes. Or significant regulation.
In the board version of Monopoly, the game ends when 90 percent of the wealth ends up in the hands of one percent of the players. What happens now that we’ve reached that point in real life?
As I understand it, this is a central concern motivating the new Wall Street protesters. Ironically, like most such movements today, its birth, growth, and direction have come about via PCs, iPhones and iPads, which means its loosely-knit membership has Steve Jobs to thank for the ability to organize and respond quickly to those who would silence it.
Human beings. What a remarkably creative but simultaneously self-defeating species we are. The theologian in me sees all this as evidence that we mostly spend our lives trying to play God and doing a botched, pathetic job of it. I have a secondary canon, however, that helps explain our chronic futility. Fifty years ago this week Joseph Heller gave our habitual state of self-entrapment a name when he published Catch-22.
In most every serious dilemma we face, all our options backfire. I can’t bear to read the business pages these days. Maybe I’ll re-read Heller’s novel instead, on an iPad perhaps, so at least I can laugh at us.