Steve Jobs is Gone. Will Our Dreams be Next?

| Hidden Dimensions

“If you can DREAM it, you can DO it. ” — Walt Disney

Where have our technology dreams taken us? What kinds of dreams should we have? Who’s doing the dreaming these days? Are our hopes and dreams that consumer electronics technology would make life better suddenly obsolete? Are companies too big nowadays to dream at the expense of profits? We can only name a handful of American companies that we admire and dream along with us. Why is that? This is what I want to explore.

How it Started

There was a time, right after World War II, when technology was cobbled together with vacuum tubes, copper wire, solenoids, electric motors and a soldering iron. For a long time, the best we could do was to build rather large, brute force devices: vacuum tube computers, aircraft carriers, radars, rockets. Even so, despite our technology limitations, we could still dream of something better and cooler, and we did.

Permit me to cite just two examples for brevity*. The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein dreamed of, amongst many things, robot vacuum cleaners and “electronic drafting boards” in the late 1950s. Now we have them. Gene Roddenberry, who wasn’t the first by any means, dreamed of starships in the 1960s in which the crews had tablets, communicators, and voice input computers. Again, we have many of those gadgets. Arthur C. Clarke popularized geostationary satellites. Today, we have satellite TV.

We got these gadgets because our mainstream social consciousness came to be integrated and helped us decide, pretty much, what we wanted. (Even if flying cars remain out of reach.) It’s become virtually an art form. The dreamers dream, the young engineers are inspired, and eventually we make it so.

In these visions of the future, our social, technical dreams, technology inspire us, serve us, enable us, and lift us up. They don’t betray us. We face the future with enthusiasm instead of dread. We think about what we may achieve as humans.

Technology Out of Balance

These days, however, the process has changed. The pace and capabilities of technology, silicon and software, have allowed companies to turn our devices against us. The corporate vision is simply more money and any behavior that reduces the revenue by even a smidgen must be abandoned.

For starters, social media now tends to overly homogenize what we want. Dreams that used to come from the bottom up by a few rare, talented individuals, now come, as clever marketing from the top down, exploiting technology (and the customers) for financial gain.

For example, our mobile phones that were once analog walkie-talkies are now UNIX computers that can report on our every position and desire while both marketing to us and nickel and diming us. Another example is GPS. At first we utilized technology for a useful purpose: turn-by-turn navigation, but we’ve also become very good at selling the location data to merchants who might be nearby and want to invite us to lunch. Our Browsers, our DVRs/TiVos, grocery store loyalty cards, surveillance cameras and even OnStar can spy on us and report our activities.

USs Enterprise

Source: Paramount Pictures

It’s gone even further than that. Facebook turns the customer into the product. Google turns our personal needs into a marketable entity.

Finally, for a company to have lots of lots of employees is no longer considered a feather in the corporate cap; instead, they’re a revenue drain. A group of key, brilliant engineers can leverage the Internet and develop a technology that’s used by millions, for example, Twitter, Groupon and Facebook. On top of that, the historical restrictions of space, time, and attention by customers have been relaxed by the Internet. That is, we used to flatter ourselves that some things we could do are better left undone. Our limitations supported our sensibilities. Now, if something can be done, it will be done — even if it’s unwise.

Companies are so good at doing that these days that unprecedented assaults are made on our privacy and dignity in miserly exchange for the luxury of the original technology dream.

Cashing in on the Dream

In 2011, we’re seeing the unexpected consequences of inspirational dreams come true. We are now very busy monetizing the mainstream dreams of the past because, well, we can. As a result, I’ve seen a tendency to shift from dreaming the future in the last century, and hoping that technology can bear fruit to using our technology today solely as a means to obtain wealth. Just look at the trillions of dollars Microsoft, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, Intel, Google, Oracle and Apple collectively have in the bank.

The dreams we paid for have moved our wealth into the hands of companies with no dreams of their own. Except to get richer.

So now the question becomes, what drives our dreams? Where do our dreamers come from? Will the next generation of dreamers offset the effects I’ve described?

The Stuff of Dreams

I greatly admire people and companies out there that aren’t looking first and foremost at how to make some money from technology that was, at first, a dream about something better for everyone. Apple is an example.

Steve Jobs was great at building the dream first, then the revenue stream afterwards. He dreamed about what we needed before we realized we needed it because he could ascertain that we were locked into a mode that benefited those companies without dreams. So he cut them out of the picture. Mr. Jobs re-imagined how to buy and play music, interact with a mobile phones, and expand our minds with an iPad. As more and more people came to embrace the dream of Steve Jobs, Apple prospered. Just look at the flavor of Apple’s iPad commercials compared to the competition’s.

Apple’s iPad commercials are about dreams. About learning. About life. About creating. About family. About connecting. Those commercials, narrated by Peter Coyote, speak to our innermost hopes for ourselves and our children. Technology is a means, not an end. It becomes transparent instead of conspicuous. Steve Jobs has said on many an occasion, “This is why we do what we do.” The competition, on the other hand, is often focussed on technology for the sake of technology, one-upmanship, geek fascination and selfish absorption.

That’s why Apple’s FaceTime commercials show friends or family members on the other end and not the pizza delivery guy.

I know that other companies have asked consultants how they can compete against Apple. The answer is simply that if the CEO doesn’t have that heritage as a dreamer, if he or she isn’t obsessed with making things better, and all they can do is count the cash, then competing with Apple is hopeless.

Dream Creation Equals Job Creation

Why and how entrepreneurs create a company is important. In these frustrating and difficult economic times, we even more urgently need people dreaming about something that takes humans to the next level. Something that captures our imagination. Something that serves us more than it betrays us. With personal robots on the horizon, that’s crucial.

Apple’s executive team, without Steve Jobs, will be challenged to strive for creative, inspirational dreams. When we see those Apple products of the future, we’ll smile. We’ll see a company that continues to invent the future, but does so in a way that’s true to the human spirit rather than a crass exploitation of its customers. In the past few years, Apple customers came to get that idea more than ever. That’s why the retail stores are so crowded.

Indeed, any company has to make money. The difference with Apple is that Steve Jobs taught us how to dream first, then create a customer following. Walt Disney did it. John Lasseter at Pixar does it still.

Companies like Apple create a place where employees are building on a dream instead of being merely a revenue drain. The mantra of Mr. Jobs and his employees has been to change the world. It takes a lot of hard working people, teaming together, to do that. That’s why, in contrast to many American companies, Apple hasn’t had significant layoffs during the recession.

When inspired people create new companies to make their dreams a reality, jobs are created, not destroyed. A vision for something better is more powerful, more complete than a vision for riches. We shouldn’t just sit back and let big companies leverage technology, derived from hard won dreams of the past, for their financial gain. New companies, in the spirit of Apple, should have a sense about where humankind should be headed and how technology can remain our servant and inspiration.

What are you dreaming about?

____________

* I acknowledge the fabulous work by thousands of others in science fiction: books, movies and television over the previous decades. There just isn’t space here to go into detail.

Comments

FlipFriddle

Nice article. It’s true, that the Big Idea? is an endangered species. Unfortunately, dreaming involves the risk of failure, and risk is not rewarded in today’s quarterly-results driven business climate. I think private companies or the lone entrepreneur are where the dreams lie. It all comes down to risk; and we are very risk-averse right now. The space program is a good example of that.

CityGuide

I’m dreaming the rest of the corporate world you described comes to its senses and realizes we collectively cannot go on this way. The continued chase for mad profit inspires the Occupy movement, helped push French banks to their current shaky position and was a large factor in the mortgage mess. I would love to see CEOs call a stand-down in their companies and challenge employees to use technology to which they have access to build a stronger, more efficient organization - and have it funded by a percentage of executive compensation each year. Call it ‘dream globally, act locally’ with an emphasis on creating jobs by creating value, functionality and objects within each company’s market. And as much as possible keep those jobs local with a pricing model that fits the dream.

mhikl

Just some ruminating prattle after a darn good read, John.

Why is Apple so much better at what it does than the others who attempt to emulate or copy Apple? I think you have answered that question very well, John. I have noticed a bit of a pattern with Apple, however. When it is entering a new phase in its products, either with a new product or a major iteration of a stable product, there can be changes that make earlier iterations obsolete or orphaned. Had I realised this I would not have bought my MacBook or my second iPod touch when I did. They weren’t quite perfected yet. I am about ready to make the plunge to the MBA and maybe the iPad 3 in the coming spring because I think the MBA and the iPad 2 are so well perfected. It seems to be taking Apple fewer iterations to get things right.

Tony Fadell’s Nest Learning Thermostat would have brought a smile to Steve’s mug had he seen it, I suspect. This type of real vision is what Apple is all about and more original stories may result because of Apple’s aggression against common perception. The Google and MicroSoft kind are probably not going to be able to think outside their prisons but others, who see the value of Apple beyond the hype and chagrin of the old hurry and copy crowd, can do better and we all shall be rewarded.

GM and their electric car of the seventies looked like it was decades ahead of its time and should have shifted the automobile paradigm, but then GM got scared it would lose its after sales service income and chose to destroy its future; but the auto industry may be making some of the right moves again. Interesting how a good shakeup to industry may destroy so many old business ways but then opens the door to greater ideas and new wealth. This shift in thinking is Steve’s legacy and the sooner his way becomes the norm, the sooner we will truly be entering such a brave new world.

O, wonder!?
How many goodly creatures are there here!?
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,?
That has such people in’t!
-The Tempest V,i

Gareth Harris

Not all of this is new, John. When I was a boy growing up in my father’s machine shop near Atlanta, I was taught “Only perfect is good enough.” You don’t find that attitude any more. Apple is different because Apple is a throwback to earlier times - when product quality and customer service mattered.

Most businesses now belong to absentee owner corporations. They have no pride in their products, indeed I would be ashamed of their products too. I have actually stood outside a door at closing time and begged an employee to open the door and sell me an expensive product, while he pointed to this watch and walked off. You can bet if a small business owner had a customer with money in his hand at the door, he would not walk off. How many business do you call now where you cannot get a human on the phone?

The dreams you referred to stem from the pride we feel when we create something - and give it our very best. This is affirmed when others acknowledge our work and want our creations. It is personal, something which does not exist in the world of faceless corporations.

I have apologized to my children for the mess my generation has made. We have let large institutions run amok, plundering not only our economy but our very dreams. Maybe our children can clean it up. We certainly seem gutless to do what is needed.

other side

A question for everyone:  Name the last movie or TV show that inspired you technology-wise?  Something that made you say “Wouldn’t THAT be cool if we could have it someday”?

Yes, it’s been a while…

Lancashire-Witch

” ... Apple?s iPad commercials are about dreams. About learning. About life. About creating. About family. About connecting. ...”

I’m not so sure this is as strong as it once was. iWeb and the Gallery are great tools for the rest of us to keep in touch with friends and family around the world. The transition from MobileMe to iCloud has taken the edge of sharing my stuff with others. With iCloud I have to buy more hardware so I can keep all my devices in sync; which often seems pointless.

Where features are about sharing, those same friends and family need Apple devices in order to participate. All my family can see my website and photo Gallery; but I can’t “FaceTime” or “iMessage” with any of them. Pity.

I wonder if the Pizza delivery guy has an iPhone.

John Martellaro

other side:  I’ve always wanted to live on the engineering deck of the Next Generation Enterprise, hang with LaForge and Data.  Occasionally go to dinner with Dr. Crusher.

mhikl

Apple is different because Apple is a throwback to earlier times - when product quality and customer service mattered.

I partially agree, garethharris, but I do believe such attitudes are basic to the core of our humanity. There are people who shuffle off the least their effort can muster. There are others like Steve, with the sights of perfection at their core. My dad is one and my best childhood friend was, too, my favourite aunt, and a couple of teachers, all lessons I shall cherish and pass along. Pride and honour are all round us but are too often overwhelmed by expediency and shallow expectations.

I can empathize with the underpaid servant not taking the time to open the door; even the hurried CEO who will get his bonus spanked if the quarterlies don?t meet the expectations of a board harried by stakeholders.

Standards need to come from the top, salted by expectations from the bottom.

furbies

Occasionally go to dinner with Dr. Crusher.

I’d get Dr. Crusher to give me something to block empaths/telepaths, and then I’d go hit on Deanna Troi, not that I’d have much of a chance there. Besides Riker would beat me to a pulp

Lancashire-Witch

Cashing in on the Dream ...  ” Just look at the trillions of dollars Microsoft, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, Intel, Google, Oracle and Apple collectively have in the bank….  “

Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, Apple - Yes.
Citigroup, J.P. Morgan - No. When I dream about bankers it quickly turns into a nightmare.
Google - I don’t even think about it; they could be collecting my thoughts.

mhikl

Google - I don?t even think about it; they could be collecting my thoughts.

Cleverly said, LWitch.

wab95

John:

Great piece. One of the problems with field work is that I get so little time to read and respond to articles like those on TMO (assuming I can even get an internet connection).

Very briefly, you pose excellent questions here that deserve thoughtful answers, which time constraints afford me but little opportunity to provide.

That said, I am reminded that in the Star Trek universe created by Gene Roddenberry, humanity pulls itself together out of the ashes of a global conflagration (WWIII) and solves its most vexing problems, such has poverty and hunger (recall ST DS9 where Sisko, Bashir and Dax go back in time to earth’s 21st Century), war, discrimination, etc. In short, through the collective will to better itself, humanity puts its technology and resources to work as servants of human interest. I believe that Roddenberry, if not prescient, is at the very least, right on sequence.

Technology is value neutral. It can be put to good or evil, poetically speaking. Humanity must first have a vision of what it can be, and a desire to get there, which in turn is buttressed by a road map of specific objectives both near and short term that serve that vision.

Just as John F Kennedy, in describing the goal of reaching the moon, itself feeding a vision of what not only America, but mankind, could achieve, he correctly asserted that it would require materials and technology that had not yet been invented. The great technological leaps that followed were born from the welter of the collective pursuit of this goal.

The moral and ethical morass to which you refer in relation to corporations is real, but reflects a social inertia of moral and ethical turpitude against which these companies are not willing to fight, but rather exploit for their own short term gratification and profit.

I predict, and am persuaded, that a ‘spiritual’ revolution is on our horizon, the evidences of which can be seen in a number of global movements, that will be characterised by the nobler aspects of human nature, such as inclusivity and reciprocity, tolerance and mutuality, unity and diversity - all of which will conduce to a certain measure of peace and opportunity for growth and healing, relative to the feverish and mindless aggression, bigotry, intolerance, anger and outright hatred that characterises too much of 2011. It may not be the conflagration envisioned by Roddenberry, but it is a worldwide malaise nonetheless, and humanity is gradually coming to realise that it does not have to be this way, ergo the Arab Spring.

We will become one. And when we do, we will dedicate ourselves to those nobler goals of ensuring that all have greater opportunity than they have today to fulfil their capacity and contribute, as self-sustaining members of a global community, to human advancement.

Technologies will be invented to serve those goals. To be sure, technologies will continue to exist that distract from that purpose, but so be it.

The choice will lie with Apple, whether it chooses to create technologies that contribute to that advancement. My hope and my belief is that it lies within Apple’s corporate culture to do so. If it does, then it will continue to be a valued member of that brighter future. If it does not, then it will rightly viewed as part of the detritus from which we have to mature and move beyond.

Got to run.

furbies

We will become one.

I’d rather not be “Borged” thanks. (I maybe part swedish, but no thanks)

Lily Sloane: Borg? Sounds Swedish.

Lily Sloane: Definitely not Swedish. [after having seen the Borg]

And while Gene Roddenberry had great hopes for humanity (in the Star Trek Universe) human avarice & frailties I think preclude the future he wrote about and perhaps hoped for.

wab95

I?d rather not be ?Borged? thanks. (I maybe part swedish, but no thanks)

Furbies:

I’m glad I can respond to your pithy and humorous retort. But no, becoming ‘one’ is not to be assimilated. Besides, the Borg vision is one in which human aspiration has no place in that ‘biological and technological distinctiveness’ the Borg identify as perfection.

Let me apologise up front for going somewhat off topic relative to John’s piece, but on topic to your point.

Rather, the intent is to become one in freedoms and rights, one in shared basic values of human dignity, worth, individuality, choice, and the pursuit of happiness, and therefore one in purpose.

I live and work in parts of the world where I have the happy, if at times dangerous, opportunity to see this live. For the first time, I am seeing men jailed for brutal crimes against women and children where even a decade ago, they (women and children) were deemed little more than property. No longer. Laws are being revised and enforced as people see the unhappy consequences of an unjust society.

One has to only go back and review American history to see how prevalent was the belief, amongst the colonists and observers, that the original American Colonies could never be brought together as ‘one’ nation. The process was painful, but necessary for the better survival of the whole. And yet today, the States are as diverse as are the people who make them up. A good thing, in my view.

Avarice be damned. When exigency requires, humanity can be infinitely creative and resourceful in achieving the necessary. Whether we wilfully embrace it, or are dragged to it kicking and screaming, a measure of global unity in freedom and cooperation is on our horizon. On this score, the Borg may have it right, resistance is futile (just ask a bevy of dethroned Middle Eastern dictators). Again, a good thing, in my view.

And it is, after all, just my opinion, but one based on empirical observation.

ibuck

John (and wab95),

I dream about altered company structures that create local jobs and that “honor the human spirit.”  Corporations, IMHO, cause / contribute to many of our society’s woes, including pollution, economic downturns through layoffs and offshoring, severe corruption of our government through bribes, err, campaign contributions.  Corporations began as means to serve public purposes, usually in making risky investments that benefit the public. But they’ve been twisted to damage the public’s interest and to protect corporations from paying taxes. And then corporations help twist politicians and governments.

Benefit Corporations “are required to create a material positive impact on society and the environment and to meet higher standards of accountability and transparency.” A half a dozen states have passed laws defining such B-Corp’s, and at least 5 more are considering it.

Tax and investment incentives and government purchasing preferences will accelerate growth of sustainable business. Benefit Corporations could also be encouraged by discouraging “crass profit” corporations (P-Corp’s, if you will) whose sole requirements are profits. This could be done by outlawing P-Corp’s, making shareholders liable for damages due to their untoward actions, or by surtaxing them, at say 10% of their revenue (not profits).

wab95

Benefit Corporations ?are required to create a material positive impact on society and the environment and to meet higher standards of accountability and transparency.? A half a dozen states have passed laws defining such B-Corp?s, and at least 5 more are considering it.


This is good stuff, ibuck. I was not aware of this, but I do see it as part of that sustained trend, however painfully slow, of an emerging ‘spiritual’ (in the sense of those nobler human traits) revolution worldwide. Thanks for the link.

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