“Attic Salt” for Aug. 26, 2012

My summer reading consists of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.

It’s hard not to talk about the book, even though I’m just a little over halfway through.

Steve Jobs embodied what’s right and what’s wrong with America. I’m talking about the America that has a tennis net stretched across the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico.

Once the home of the free (to succeed or fail) and of the brave (men and women not afraid they’d never work again), our land is now a continental tennis court with Republicans trying to shoot aces past the Democrats and the Democrats lying in the gap to lob scores over their opponents’ heads.

We, my fellow Americans, are the ball boys and girls standing with hands clasped behind our backs waiting for the game to be over or for the players’ hearts to explode from the exertion of trying to best each other.

Steve Jobs grew up in a country not so concerned with party affiliation but what marvelous things came out of some people’s garages.

From Jobs’ garage came wonderful toys for adults, computers that taught you how to use them, which led to more toys that people came to feel they could not do without.

Jobs made some classic blunders, blew money on overpriced designers, renovated and refurnished corporate offices that had just been renovated and refurnished, fathered a child he refused to acknowledge at first, betrayed friends and made moves that Wall Street and Jobs fans applauded but had thousands of workers making the short walk from Apple Acres to Layoff Land.

Not an engineer but an innovator who demanded that underlings create works of computing art from his sketches, Jobs made a lot of money for some of those close to him by making ordinary things like the real furnishings on our real desk tops into virtual desktops that slipped into a pocket.

All this convenience, all this the-world-at-the-touch-of-a-button means squat in the hands of people standing in the unemployment line.

Yet, I keep turning the pages. Jobs and Joan Baez were lovers. Jobs had an extensive collection of bootleg tapes of Bob Dylan concerts. Musicians who became The Grateful Dead are glimpsed in the book as a pickup band at a party.

What Isaacson does that is SO Steve Jobs is grab the America of Jobs’ youth and the country that loves the whiz bang stuff that Jobs created and stuffs both bulging into a duffel bag.

It’s all inside the duffel bag, contained, understandable, ready for emulation until it’s dumped onto the floor like laundry to await the next Steve Jobs to iron it into usefulness.

What troubles me about innovation driven by design, rather than engineering, is that some day soon we won’t have the option of hanging on to a phone that just makes and receives calls.

No, if we want a mobile phone it will have to take high res pictures, report the weather and tell us the bus is late. If we want choices, the choices will be some shade of neon.