Steve Jobs is Gone. Will Our Dreams be Next?

“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.