Steve Jobs's Children

Way back in the 1970s, Steve Jobs had a vision for technology in the future.  As part of the hacker counterculture movement, Steve Jobs envisioned the personal computer as an empowering new tool for the mind.

Before the personal computer revolution, computers were large, unwieldy, unfriendly, and accessible only by large, hegemonic computer corporations in bed with big government.  Steve Jobs's vision for the personal computer was to use technology and mass production to bring the cost of technology down and to reduce the barrier of entry for everyday people who were not technologists or computer literate.  But because of Steve Jobs's counterculture leanings, he was also interested in the power of the personal computer to unleash individual human creativity.  Jobs's longtime interest in the Whole Earth Catalog aligns with this quest to empower world-changing creativity through the use of new and better creative tools.  This last point cannot be overstated:

If you want to change the world, make new and better tools for people to use.

Humans are toolmakers.  We use tools to overcome our innate limitation, to amplify our innate abilities, and to empower ourselves to bring the visions of our minds into reality.  Tools allow people to solve problems, increase efficiency, and generally reshape and remold the world around them.  This godlike power to reshape the world in our own image hinges on the success of our tools.

So here I am in the year 2014.  I am part of the first generation to grow up with the personal computer.  The Apple II, the brainchild of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, only a gleam in their eyes just a handful of years before, was created and built and shipped and found itself on a desk in the back corner of my first-grade classroom, an experience shared by many, many similarly-aged schoolchildren around the country in the early 1980s.  Those of us who grew up with the personal computer as part of our core experience in the world were directly influenced and have had our lives shaped and molded by the vision of Steve Jobs.  We are, in a sense, all of us, children of Steve Jobs.

Since then we have seen the proliferation of new computer and communications technologies such as the internet, new and better mobile devices (many of which were also visions of Steve Jobs), and so on.  Many of us, including myself, earn our living from working at a computer.  Even if you don't earn your living from a computer, think how many daily points of contact you have with technological offshoots from the technology revolution Steve Jobs and Apple computer set in motion a small handful of decades ago.  A new tool, that beige box on a desk in every classroom in America, has shaped and molded our society in more ways than one can count.

So we are all Steve Jobs's children.  What does this mean for our lives and for the world around us?  When you sit down at a personal computer, or when you pick up your mobile device, you have before you the single most empowering and enabling tool known to the history of all mankind.  If you have a vision, you can bring it to fruition.  If you have a message, anyone in the entire world with an internet connection can be your audience.  If you want to learn something new, almost anything in the world, the knowledge and tools are a few simple clicks and keystrokes away.  In the whole history of the world, it has never been easier to learn something new or to make something than it is at this very moment.

This is what the personal computer should represent to all of us, to Steve Jobs's metaphorical children; a tool that you can use to empower yourself, to make you more creative, to follow your dreams, and to reshape the world around you, just as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did by making better tools for you to use.

So what are you making with the awesome computing power and creativity-enabling tools before you this very moment, even as you read this time-wasting blog post?  How are you using that power to reshape your own life?  How are you using that power to reshape the world around you, to make it a better place for all of us?  I challenge all of us, myself included, those of us who are Steve Jobs's children, the people whose lives were empowered by his vision of technology in the future.

We are living in that future right now, with tools more powerful than anything Steve Jobs was able to envision in the late 1970s.  Give serious thought to the things you can do to make an impact in the world around you, with the tools and technology you have inherited, that other people thought of and made for you to use improve your life.  Perhaps even become a toolmaker yourself, designing something wonderful and empowering for other people to use and putting it out there in the world.

Have we lost Steve Jobs's vision for technology?  Do people still believe that better tools can make the world a better place for everybody?  Your mind and conscience should feel some anxiety whenever you waste precious time with the tools you have, whether reading this blog post or looking at LOL cats.  How can we use our time with computers more wisely and help to make the world a better place?  The tools are there before you; all you have to do is use them to make your vision a reality.  We are all Steve Jobs's children, but we now have his inheritance and his responsibility.  It is up to us to make the most of these wonderful tools, and to pick up the baton on using them to make our lives and the world a little better and a little more beautiful.

Collaboration: Intrinsic or Instrumental Value?

Much attention is given to collaboration in business and in product development.  The theory is that collaboration has the potential to increase productivity, quality, efficiency, and overall job satisfaction.  After all, if every team member contributes to a project, then more perspectives can be taken into account, and everyone can get some satisfaction from adding value in achieving the overall goal.

White it is undeniable that collaboration sometimes does indeed have all of the benefits listed previously, it is important to distinguish two senses of the value that collaboration can add: intrinsic value and instrumental value.  Something has intrinsic value if it is valuable in and of itself.  By contrast, something has instrumental value if it is useful as a tool for achieving some goal or objective.  So does collaboration have intrinsic value, instrumental value, or both?

Collaboration seems to have intrinsic value from the interpersonal and job-satisfaction standpoints: it can help all team members find value in their role.  However, collaboration seems to have instrumental value only in situations where collaboration genuinely does improve quality and efficiency.  All too often, collaboration is presumed to help ensure that the goals of increased quality and efficiency are met.  But in reality, collaboration can sometimes be a slippery slope toward inefficiency as a result of the "too many cooks in the kitchen" syndrome.  In cases where collaboration actually hinders rather than helps efficiency and quality, collaboration can be said to lack instrumental value.

Many reasonable steps can be taken to ensure that collaboration achieves its full potential as a carrier of instrumental value.  First, teams should be kept small and efficient to ensure that extraneous voices do not interfere with the desired objectives.  Second, team members should strive for clear role definition to minimize wasted time determining who is responsible for what tasks or portions of a project.  Third, teams should use collaboration to anticipate potential issues early in the process and frequently along the course of a project for minor course corrections.  Fourth, team members should trust each other with their respective roles and responsibilities (which is easier if you have included the right team members for the job in the first place).

Small teams of the best people, mutual trust, efficient communication, and clear role definition can go a long way toward ensuring that collaboration has instrumental value, by genuinely helping to achieve your objectives, and not merely intrinsic value at the potential cost of quality and efficiency.

How Comcast Suckers You Back In

I recently experimented with reducing my Comcast cable television service.  However, Comcast's service plan levels are ingeniously set up to sucker you back into higher and higher rates and services.

To begin, I eliminated my high-definition Comcast service and opted instead for low-definition basic cable service, which consisted of only about 30 channels.  This seemed like a great idea until I realized that I had no way to watch my two favourite shows: the new Dallas and The Big Bang Theory.

So I then called Comcast to see what it would cost to get a slightly higher low-definition rate plan with TBS and TNT.  Lo, and behold, there was a special promotional "Triple Play" rate plan available consisting of increased low-definition cable channels, faster internet service, and a digital telephone line.  I explained that I did not need the digital telephone line and I have no plans to use it.  But it was cheaper to take the promotional rate plan with the digital phone like than to have cable and internet without it, so I took the bait and signed up for the promotional Triple Play service (which, thankfully is still less than my high-definition service, just not by much).

Now I find myself longing for watching baseball in high definition, and using my now-returned DVR to record my favourite shows.  Is my longing for ever-higher Comcast services a simple case of akrasia (weakness of will), or has Comcast carefully orchestrated this rate plan song and dance to keep suckering you in to ever higher services levels, all under the guise of irresistible promotional packages?