The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Part Two

This is Part Two of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey, the 2011 Trading 8s “Journalist of the Year”.


2. “The World Before”
by Mike Daisey 

My only hobby is technology.

I love technology, I love everything about it. I love looking at technology, I love comparing one piece of technology with another, I love reading rumors about technology that doesn’t exist yet, I love browsing technology, I love buying technology, I love opening technology—even when it’s in that bubble packaging—I love it. I love the smell of a new piece of technology—that sort of burnt PVC smell when you run electricity through it the first time?— I love that.

And of all the kinds of technology that I love in the world, I love the technology that comes from Apple the most.

Because I am an Apple aficionado, I am an Apple partisan, I am an Apple fanboy, I am a worshipper in the cult of Mac. I have been to the House of Jobs, I have walked through the stations of his cross, I have knelt before his throne.

And like so many of you who may be members of this religion with me, you may know that it can be difficult, at times, to keep the faith. And I have strayed now and again. Like many of you, I indulged in the Linux heresies. And in the late nineties, I did sleep with a Windows system or two…but who didn’t, really?

But for the most part, I have been faithful. And we speak tonight of the operating system as a religion and I submit to you, how could it be otherwise? Because in this age, when so much of our lives are mediated by technology, I say to you, if you control the metaphor through which people see the world, then you control the world itself.

What I’m saying is, if you have never thought, in a deep way, about your choice of operating systems…you may be living an unexamined life.

And if my time with Apple has taught me anything, it has taught me that to be in love with Apple is a little bit to be in love with heartbreak itself. Because they break your heart, again and again…because Steve Jobs was the master of the forced upgrade.

Just when you think everything is finally working out, just when you think all of your systems are in alignment—not only in their capabilities but also aesthetically—just when you think everything you own can actually speak to one another—he fucks you.

I remember, there was one week in 1999, I looked at all of my systems and I thought,

“Oh! It’s perfect! Everything I own is bulbous and fruit-colored. This will never go out of style!”

But it did. It did!

And Steve Jobs was so good at telling us the story we long to hear, the story of a future where technology actually works.

I’ve never been to that place. I really want to go.

And when the devices rise up on their glass pillars—as though they were born from the mind of Jobs himself! Like one day he’s walking down the street and he’s like, “An iPad!” and MWRRRAAAAP, there it is! —they’re so beautiful!

He was so good at making us need things we never even knew we wanted.

Like I never knew that I needed a laptop so thin I could slice a sandwich with it. I didn’t know that. But then I saw it. And I wanted it.

<<mimes slicing a sandwich>>

And there are some of you out there in the darkness right now, watching me, thinking, “Mike . . . use a knife.”

But I say to you, in a better designed world, I would need only one tool: the tool that Steve has given me.

<<mimes slicing a sandwich again>>

And when I watch the keynotes, I am filled with a curious combination of lust and geekery. I stare into the screen and I have one window open with the livestream running, showing the devices being introduced, and I have multiple other windows open with chat rooms filled with other people—also in their underwear—in apartments all over the world, typing furiously. And when it is over, I rise up, transformed, and I go to the other room of our apartment, where my wife is—who is, I should note, a more normal person—and I try to explain to her what I have seen…and it is like I am speaking in Egyptian:

<<in the voice of the devouring consumer>>

“I want a new router. I want a new router! Because our current router—ha-ha!—our current router is 802.11.g . G! Pathetic G! It’s sooooo sloooowwww. I can’t believe how slowwwwww it is. I didn’t even know it was slow until minutes ago but now that I do know…I can’t even LOOK at the fucking thing! I just want to rip it out of our systems and smash it against the edge of the toilet and flush it away. The new router—ahhhh! —the new router is 802.11.n. N! N is fast. With N, everything is finally going to work the way they always said it would. With N, we’ll finally be able to stream high definition video wirelessly across our apartment from our RAID arrray server!”

And there is a rational voice in the back of my mind saying,

“Michael. You do not own a RAID array server. And you do not stream any high definition video. In fact, the only thing you use your router for is downloading webpages from the internet.”

And I speak to that voice, and I tell that voice to SHUT UP.

Because I want it! Because it is small, and white, and square…and has perfect Bauhaus- inspired design.

And before we go too much further here tonight, I think we should speak, for a moment, about the nature of geekishness.

Because geeks are a little bit like lowland gorillas: they fight for dominance. And out there in the darkness I feel certain that there is someone who believes that they are geekier than me. They’re sitting out there in the darkness, even now, watching me, thinking…

<<in a shrill nasal manner>>

“I don’t think he knows anything about Steve Jobs. I have a tattoo of Steve Jobs’ face on the back of my skull. When I have a USB thumb drive that doesn’t work the way I want it to, I like to write my own drivers for it in machine code.”

You win.

You are geekier than me.

You, out there in the darkness.

If…you made it out of your apartment this evening.

But I do think it’s important to understand where I sit in that hierarchy for the purposes of our story, and so the best way I know to describe it is to say that I am at the level of geekishness where, to relax, after performances like this one, sometimes, I will go back to my apartment and I will field strip my MacBook Pro into its 43 component pieces. I will clean them with compressed air and I will put them back together again.

It soothes me.

So the truth is, I never would have questioned this religion, I never would have looked deeply at this belief system—because it gave me so much pleasure—if it hadn’t been for the pictures.

Because one day, I was relaxing on the internet—which for me means reading Macintosh news sites, which, I should specify, have no actual news in them. They’re instead filled with rumors about what Apple will do next, written exclusively by people who have no fucking idea what Apple will do next, but, for some reason, I find this soothing.

So, I’m reading one of these news sites when this article gets posted. And it’s about the fact that someone bought an iPhone and when they got it, it wasn’t blank—it had information on it from inside the factory. And in fact, in the camera roll, there were pictures on it. From inside the factory. They posted these pictures into the article, and I looked at these pictures, and they took my breath away.

They’re not very good pictures, you know—they’re just testing that the camera on the phone works, they’re not of anything, but I’ll never forget them. There were four of them.

First was of a stack of pallets, wooden pallets, stacked up; and the second was the edge of a conveyor belt; the third was totally out of focus—it could just be an enormous space—and the fourth was a woman. She doesn’t know her picture’s being taken. She’s looking off in another direction, she’s wearing a clean suit, she has no expression on her face.

And I looked at these pictures, and I downloaded these pictures to my desktop, and I put them in a folder on my desktop, and in the weeks and months that followed I found myself returning to them again and again, almost compulsively. I would mouse over, and I would open that folder, and then I would use Exposé and I would fan the pictures across my desktop and I would look at them.

Who are these people?

Because you have to understand, I have dedicated an embarrassing amount of my life to the study of these machines. I’m an amateur, but I am a dedicated amateur. I understand as best I can how the hardware works and how the software rests on the hardware, and in all that time, until I saw those pictures, it was only then that I realized I had never thought, ever, in a dedicated way, about how they were made.

It’s actually hard now to reconstruct what I did think. I think what I thought is they were made by robots.

I had an image in my mind that I now realize I just stole from a 60 Minutes story about Japanese automotive plants. I just copy-and-pasted that and I was like, PWOP, Command-V…it looks like that.

But smaller.

Because they’re laptops. Instead of cars.

I started to think how if this phone has four pictures on it, taken by hand in testing, then every iPhone has four pictures on it, taken in testing, every iPhone in the world. By hand. I started to think. And that’s always a problem, for any religion.

The moment when you begin to think.


Tomorrow: “Part Three: Fruit of Early Pirates”

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Part One

This is Part One of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey, the 2011 Trading 8s “Journalist of the Year”.


1. “Midnight in the Chungking Mansions”
by Mike Daisey

The Mira Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, is exquisitely designed. It’s like the inside of a sailing ship: everything has a place and everything is in its place. I actually find myself opening and closing the little drawers just to see the intricate way they’re fitted together…I can’t help it. It’s just the way I’m wired.

And I head down to the lobby of the Mira Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and I step out into a twenty-first century Hong Kong monsoon season night—the air is so thick with moisture that it’s smearing the ubiquitous neon like we’ve all done just a little bit of LSD—

—and I’m walking down the streets and even though it’s after midnight, there are hundreds of people on every block, and there’s this humid sort of animal smell, the smell of humans in close proximity with one another, a smell we’ve all almost entirely forgotten.

And a few blocks down from the Mira Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, sits the Chungking Mansions.

The Chungking Mansions are a wretched hive of scum and villainy. They sit in the heart of Kowloon; they are nothing more and nothing less than a mall of inequities. Anything you want to get that you probably aren’t supposed to have you can find in the Chungking Mansions after midnight, and I am there, walking up and down the aisles.

It’s like globalism in action. It’s like a pirate-themed Benetton ad.

Sub-Saharan Africans with tribal scars are getting into arguments over garbage bags filled with second-hand cell phones, mainlanders are debating with Koreans over some mysterious root, and in an Indian food stall there are stacks and stacks of tiffins and an off-brand Slurpee machine called a Slurvee.

And in all of this, I am the only minority. Because I am white, and large, and I am wearing…a Hawaiian shirt.

Because you get to a certain point where you realize you just aren’t going to fit in. You get to a certain point and you realize it might be advantageous to just Columbo yourself right into the middle of a situation. I’ve been doing this for a long time, it’s a kind of professional blundering. I just kind of…wot, wot? Wot wot wot wot wot!

You get in the most interesting situations that way. Doesn’t help you get back out of them again, but it does make for an interesting life.

And I make my way up to the third floor of the Chungking Mansions, which is where things start getting a little sketchy. And in the course of half an hour I am offered hashish, opium, heroin, sex with women, sex with men, and sex in a combination only described as “delightful.”

And I decline all these offers because that’s not what I’m here for—I find what I’m looking for in a far corner of that third floor next to a rack of cut-rate papaya…there’s this booth.

And in this booth on strands of fishing wire are hundreds and hundreds of cell phones— as though they’ve been caught by some fisherman—and in a sense they have, because the man in the booth is seated at a workbench, he has a phone in front of him with the back popped off, he has a soldering iron in one hand and a big magnifying glass over his left eye. When I walk in he looks at me and his eye looms at me enormously.

And I speak to him in the only international language I know: I say, “iPhone?”

And he smiles, and there’s his gold tooth, and he reaches under the counter and he pulls out an iPhone…except it’s not an iPhone. You can tell right away from the packaging: the kerning on the fonts is all fucked up.

Then when you open it, the phone itself is a pretty good copy but when you turn it on, instead of the graceful swoop of icons onto the screen, these icons stagger on like they all got drunk in Kowloon. And then when you press one of them, instead of a photo-realistic address book, you get a big blue window and the words “ERROR IS MAKING.”

I hand back the “iPhone” and show him what it I mean: I reach into my pocket and I take out my iPhone and when he sees it, he understands and he reaches out his hand. And I take my baby, and I put it in his hand, and he takes a grimy dock cable and he shoves it into the bottom of the phone and his screens light up.

Because this man is a pirate. He’s a hacker, a jailbreaker, an unlocker, a person you go to to fiddle with the baseband of your phone, a person who writes tailored viruses to crack your phone open and give it back to you again, because—you may not know this—but there’s a war going on right now over all those devices in your pockets. A war over who owns them.

You probably think you own them. Why? Because you paid for them?

Silly! The corporations would see it a different way. They would say the devices run on their networks, so they should control them, and there’s a war going on right now, back and forth, over who will own those devices…and in a war like that, there’s a small percentage to be made by pirates like this one who give people back ownership of the things they thought they already owned.

And as he works, we talk back and forth in broken English, and I ask him if it’s hard to stay ahead of Apple and Nokia and Samsung and all the different technology makers who are always building up their defenses that the pirates then have to tear back down again.

And he smiles…and there’s that gold tooth again. And he gestures, a grand gesture that seems incongruous in this tiny booth, and for a moment—he doesn’t look like a hacker in the Chungking Mansions.

He looks like a warrior prince, and these are all his subjects. He smiles, as if to say, “It’s me against Apple. Who do you think is going to win?”


Tomorrow: “Part Two: The World Before”

It’s Difficult For Me Not To Be a Luddite

by Norman Horowitz

In the early ’50s, a senior executive at Fox was trying to interest his boss Spyros Skouras in “the business of television.” Skouras dragged him over to a ten-inch, black-and-white TV set and said, “Do you think that anyone is going to watch this when they can go to the movies and see films in Cinemascope and Technicolor?”

Screen Gems, the television division of Columbia Pictures, was formed in the early ’50s with the management of Columbia Pictures similarly convinced that television couldn’t compete with the experience of going to the movies. Fortunately for Columbia, Screen Gems not only embraced television production, but they started a television stations division, among many other activities.

Over the years, I’ve tried not to be a Luddite, rejecting new technologies, but like Skouras and Columbia Pictures, it’s a difficult thing for me to do.   Continue reading “It’s Difficult For Me Not To Be a Luddite”

20 Days To Go: Esse Quam Videri (“To Be, Rather Than To Seem To Be”)

If Alex keeps writing this well, he’s going to put me out of my job. Just saying. — AWO

by Alex Nakahara

My girlfriend recently had to write a paper on this question: “Can we be sure that our visual experience tells us how things really are?” Everyone struggles with this question at one time or another, usually after watching The Matrix. What can we be sure of in a world where ‘reality’ is constantly being redefined?

As an engineer, I have an overly pragmatic answer: Who cares? If I’m nothing but a computer chip that thinks it’s a brain inside a nutrient vat that believes it is actually a person walking around in some virtual reality, is it any different for me than if my flesh and blood is real? No, until Morpheus slips me a pill in my rum and coke. Since I don’t usually get that lucky at the bar, why fret about it?   Continue reading “20 Days To Go: Esse Quam Videri (“To Be, Rather Than To Seem To Be”)”