Life's Best Inventions

Like everyone else, I listened to Steve Jobs' Stanford commencement address and was moved and awed. The stories of his spectacular inventions and reinventions from scratch, combined with his willingness to do battle with his own failures, death and even Microsoft -- this is a paradigmatic image of a meaningful life in our times. Like everyone else, I came away with the phrase "Death is very likely the single best invention of life" echoing in my ears.

Yet there was something about it that bothered me. Not the mortality part, really, though I do hope I can manage a reasonably dignified exit. Rather, it was the idea that "living with the results of other people's thinking" is "dogma."

So, what about living with the results of Steve Jobs' thinking?

Notoriously, we Americans love the idea of individuals starting from scratch, not being indebted to hidebound traditions, sweeping away the past and continually reinventing themselves. We hear all the time that it's the ideal upon which our country was founded. Thanks to the inventions of Hollywood, it's now part of global culture.

I'm not going to venture into the thorny thickets of revisionist history to explore the authenticity of this image. But the unquestionable truth-force of Steve's words also inspires me to come to a quiet defense of not starting from scratch. His stories also illustrate the inestimable value of debts to the past and to others. He talks about the connection between laboriously learning the classic art of calligraphy and his ground-breaking approach to typography in the early Macs. And as I am sure he would have been the first to acknowledge, countless people over the years helped him to do the work he loved, work that has shaped the way we live now.

My mom sent me this clip of the living bridges of Meghalaya, asking if I'd seen them in my travels in India. I hadn't, but now I'll never forget them. I hesitate to weight these tangled, slender living traditions with further words; the images and faces speak for themselves. What I see in this video is work that is loved, work that beneficially shapes the way people live, and work that depends on both individual initiative and "other people's thinking."

I would like to put into words a fear that I think many of us entertain -- at least those of us who recognize that our era of unprecedented connectivity and complexity is entangled with destructive practices. Let's be as unflinching as Steve Jobs. Even as we buy or want to buy the best possible means of access, the infosphere is flickering with messages telling us that the real price isn't the price tag. It's the carbon-energy footprint, destructive mining, diminishing supplies of clean water and exploitative labor practices -- all of which are now threatening Meghalaya, by the way. Our ways to connect, communicate and exchange goods and ideas diversifies exponentially, and Steve Jobs will be remembered as having helped launch that diversification. Yet, the diversity of everything else is shrinking.

On our computers, we watch, enchanted, as a man in Meghalaya teaches his niece how to care for a living bridge, coaxing a tree root across a seasonally swollen stream. Yet few of us really want to be that little girl. We are entranced because we both idealize and fear that kind of responsibility for the future. "Our culture," however we identify it, fetishizes the fastest to come up with something new. Yet true adaptation to changing conditions is held hostage by the inordinately powerful 1% that is heavily invested in non-renewables.

The 1% are unquestionably the directors of corporations and financial institutions who have steadily pursued deregulatory aims over the last 30 years. But it is also the 1% or more in all of us, the part that sees the means of connectivity and "feeling alive" as the latest new product, not as something cultivated through many generations.

My mother in Hawai'i sends me a video about Meghalaya, my friend in Iowa sends me a link to Steve Jobs' talk, I sit on a couch in Sydney writing this on an Apple laptop and then I post it online, weaving it into the flickering bridges of HuffPo. As Steve encouraged those 2005 Stanford graduates to do, I've made sacrifices to keep doing work that I love and haven't "settled." However, it is no longer possible to look away from the fact that the options and mobility available to my generation -- Steve's generation -- came at an unacceptable cost to other beings, human and non-human.

As Steve said, death is the "change agent." I'm just praying that we don't have to start from scratch. Do we still have the option of reviving the long human tradition of skillful adaptation? I honestly don't know -- do you? But I'll try for a dignified exit with a final quote from Steve: "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."