Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

Knowing by Seeing

             White House Meeting of the “Freedom Caucus”                     

The eye has now fully extended its dominance over the ear, occasionally with interesting results.

The idea that some people are “visual learners” is an old one.  But this observation has special relevance in our age where more media content comes to us in packages meant to be seen as much as read.  What this means in its simplest form is that to see is to know.  We  understand something as meaningful if it comes to us as an image or in a visual frame.  For example, there is new research that indicates that anti-smoking warnings on cigarette packages that include graphic pictures slightly increases the willingness of smokers to quit.

There are obvious and sometimes crippling disadvantages to the idea visual knowledge. Pictures are usually poor at capturing ideas: one reason that local television news often lives up to the dismissive phrase of a “vast wasteland.”  “If it bleeds it leads” is the old phrase that suggests the narrow focus. But for the moment let’s be more positive.  As various visual theorists have reminded us, “presentational media” have the advantage of no “access code.”  We don’t have to be literate to understand feelings and impressions given off by photographs or images.

Appropriation of a visual meme can equal stealing a sacred text.

Television as a pervasive daily presence has certainly played its part in making us ocular-centric. This shift dates from the 1950s, when it became a household necessity.  The new screen in the living room meant that family life would be changed forever. A second milestone in moving toward the visual was the consequential decision by Apple’s Steve Jobs to borrow (steal?) a Xerox research lab’s idea to use graphical interfaces for computers:  what we know as the colorful icons and “windows” that present web content with store-window vividness.   Add in video recording, DVD’s and easy-to-use cameras, and the transition to visual formatting of content was complete.  Especially for younger Americans, the eye has fully extended its dominance over the ear, to the extent that people will sometimes accept bad sound even while they watch super high definition video images.  It’s no surprise that the recent Pepsi ad campaign trading on the images of protest looked bad to so many people.  Appropriation of a visual meme can equal stealing and co-opting a sacred text.

People with good visual acuity can sometimes see what the rest of us might miss. That was surely the case with many readers of a 2017 New York Times column where Jill Filipovic asked us to take a closer look at a recent White House photo of a meeting of the “Freedom Caucus” members of the House of Representatives.  Vice President Pence posted the photo (above), proudly noting that deliberations were underway to replace the Affordable Care Act. No woman appeared in the photograph. What Pence saw as a fitting representation of orderly deliberation Filipovic understood as a representation of unabashed sexism:

For liberals, the photo seemed like an inadvertent insight into the current Republican psyche: Powerful men plotting to leave vulnerable women up a creek, so ensconced in their misogynistic world that they don't even notice the bad optics (not to mention the irony of the "pro-life" party making it harder for women to afford to have babies).

Filipovic went on to argue that that this male power play and its image was evidence of a powerful misogynistic streak. And we can only applaud her ability to see what some of us otherwise might not have noticed.  Reproductive issues are only some of many other concerns that uniquely affect a woman’s health.  White and well-heeled men have been occupying dominant decision-making roles for so long that we may not “see” the gender majority excluded from the room. Thanks to her sense of visual acuity, the group’s decision-making monopoly and hypocrisy looks even worse.

Who Gets to Tell Our Story?

 

Frieze of Columbus in the New World, US Capitol
Frieze of Columbus and Indigenous Americans in the New    World, US Capitol Rotunda

 There is truth in the irony that our most cherished possession is not exclusively ours to own.

We think that our most precious possessions are the things we have acquired or the relationships we have.  But for many people the “right” to tell their own story looms just as large.  Narratives of our personal or tribal lives may be the keys to understanding who we are and where we came from.  But in fact they are not exclusively ours to tell.  We don’t have proprietary rights to our own personal histories.

This is both self-evident and enormously consequential.   It’s not just that we can’t easily agree even about the foundational stories about our collective past.  What Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln actually achieved will always involve contentious narratives.  We can also be unpleasantly surprised by accounts of ourselves offered even by friends or relatives.

It’s apparent that anyone can write someone else’s biography.  Even biographers who are out of favor with their subjects or never met them are frequently eager to weigh in with their own versions.  For example, we are presently surrounded by multiple narratives that recreate the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.  There’s Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography (Steve Jobs, 2011) and the forthcoming Aaron Sorkin film based on it.  Both recognize Job’s  vision for turning computing into a necessary life skill.  And both portray a garage innovator with a knack for ingenious design and an inability to acknowledge his co-visionaries.  Then there’s Alex Gibney’s very different documentary (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, 2015) detailing a single-minded marketing genius reluctant to engage with the unpleasant facts surrounding the Chinese factories that produce Apple products.  Amazon currently lists about ten books on Jobs. The point is that we can count on each version to offer a different person to readers.

The same is true for groups that seek power or legitimacy in the larger culture by presenting what are sometimes very different accounts about their pasts and their aspirations.  What’s the story of Scientology? It depends on who you ask. How has the institutional life of Catholicism evolved since revelations of widespread child abuse were widely reported at the beginning of the new century?  Skeptics and admirers routinely compete for attention to relay their stories.  In many ways the fissures that are spread across the culture deepen over time, often expanding into complete fault lines as interested parties vie for media access to “get their story out.”

There’s a whole lexicon of useful terms to represent these divisions.  We talk not only about “narratives,” but also “contested narratives,”  “counter-narratives,” “preferred narratives,” “backstories,” “storylines,” “myths,” “legends,” “lore,” “rumors” and “histories” that are disputed as “more fiction than fact.”  Facebook champions an individual’s own preferred narrative: a kind of carefully constructed window display of one’s life. Most other digital outlets focusing on the culture of celebrity capture readers by taking a very different turn:  favoring counter-narratives and backstories.  Sometimes they are even true.

Novelists who would seem to have the advantage of exclusive use of the products of their imagination are inclined to end up in tangles of their own making when readers find possible connections to the writer’s biography.  Readers can also be unforgiving if a scribe borrows another’s particularly traumatic narrative.  A few years ago the prolific Joyce Carol Oates came under criticism in New Jersey for embellishing on a news story about a college student found dead in a campus garbage container. The short story, Landfill, was published in the New Yorker, to the chagrin of the student’s family and others in the region.

For all of our hope that our stories can be communicated in ways that bring us the credit we seek, the fact is that we can never claim rights to exclusivity.  Ask anyone who has recently been in the news how well their views have been represented or how they were characterized. You are apt to get a response of mild frustration.  What we see in ourselves is probably not what those who retell our stories are going to report.  For individuals or groups without power this is sad to witness. Groups lose something basic when they lack the means to communicate their preferred narratives.  The rest of us battle on, even occasionally discovering a narrative that gives us far more credit than we deserve.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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