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Steve Jobs muses on his own obsolescence and legacy in 1994

Jun 19, 2013

A recently revealed video shows a roughly 40-year-old Steve Jobs discussing the nature of the tech business: “All the work that I have in my life will be obsolete by the time I’m fifty.” Perhaps pessimistic, but prescient too. When Jobs died in 2011 at 56, the tech he’d created at Apple before he left in ’85 was ancient history. NeXT Computers, Jobs’ project from ’85 to ’96, is a distant memory to tech geeks and Apple enthusiasts (Apple would buy NeXT in 1996, bringing Jobs back into the company).

The issue of technology’s fleeting relevance is not a new one. For one, it can be intentional in the name of driving profits through frequent upgrades. But that’s its own can of worms. Closer to the heart of the issue, mysterious programmer and internet favorite why the lucky stiff (all lowercase) dealt with this issue in 2009 before spontaneously deleting pretty much everything he did from the internet. why had a few Tweets on the subject:

if you program and want any longevity to your work, make a game. all else recycles, but people rewrite architectures to keep games alive.

The next day, he posted:

programming is rather thankless. u see your works become replaced by superior ones in a year. unable to run at all in a few more.

(Recently, activity on why’s site indicates that he may be planning a comeback, but so far only cryptic letters have been revealed. You can read a beautiful writeup about why quitting programming by Kevin Watters here on Github. Slate also offers some insight.)

It’s depressing stuff, and you can see why. Imagine spending all your time and effort working on something that you think could really change the way people do something, or make life easier or more fun, and then when the hot new computer comes out, it’s worthless and probably replaced.

Architects see their buildings demolished, but the great ones are preserved through photography, literature (even though Victor Hugo suggested that the printing press would kill architecture as a creative form), and literally the history books. Occasionally art, films, and music get “lost” to history, especially older works, but for the most part we’re remarkably good at archiving artwork and making it available for generation after generation (who are still interested in, say, Mozart and Shakespeare).

But in twenty years when no one cares about Ruby (a hip programming language from Japan) anymore, who will care about why’s beautifully written Poignant Guide to using it? Sure, maybe a few nerds—Jobs likens them to geologists digging through a fossil record of old tech—but it’ll be primarily, sadly, useless. Imagine if one day everyone’s outlets changed to a star shape and only new appliances with star-shaped plugs could be used now—every TV, blender, light fixture would be a thing of the past overnight—that’s what software developers have to deal with all the time as operating systems advance, programming languages lose support, and the hardware changes.

It’s hard to get motivated about creating new things when you have to create even newer things as soon as you’re done just to keep from the omnipresent threat of obsolescence always hovering overhead.

But Jobs gives his explanation with a smile on because, to him, obsolescence isn’t so much a threat as it is job security. So long as tech keeps progressing, he’s got his work cut out for him. He understands that this is simply the nature of “the field” and I applaud him for his bravery to put his heart and life into doing what he loved knowing full well the ephemerality of his work.

It’s a very strange business and a very strange endeavor of life.

Jobs certainly loved what he did and was dedicated to it, but some would argue that his pessimistic predictions are just the beginning: Malcolm Gladwell says that in fifty years, no one will remember Jobs, but that there will be “statues of [Bill] Gates across the third world.” Specifically, Gladwell feels that Gates’ philanthropic endeavors set him aside and give him a more permanent piece in history (he is confident that Gates’ charity work may lead to a cure for malaria) whereas, why would the kids in 2063 care about the CEO of a likely bygone computer company from the 1980s to 2010s?

Xerox used to be a huge computer company, even inventing the GUI (graphic user interface)—which is ubiquitous across all modern computers. But here are some of Xerox’s presidents and CEOs: George C. Seager (founder), Gilbert E. Mosher, Joseph R. Wilson, David T. Kearns, Ursula M. Burns. Ringing any bells? Simply put, being a tech leader and even innovator doesn’t mean you get remembered. Can you name the man who developed the world wide web? If you’re tech savvy you might know this one—it’s Tim Berners-Lee (Sir Tim Berners-Lee actually, thanks to Queen Elizabeth II)—but is he a household name?

So technology presents a predicament with no easy solution. Or perhaps the approach we have to take is simply so old we forgot it: Developing technology has become the 21st century equivalent of Zen, which states that desire and attachment are at the root of suffering (it’s no coincidence then that Jobs was a Zen Buddhist). I particularly like the metaphor of “Buddha Boards”—a watery canvas where your painting quickly fades right before your eyes. Every time the ink washes away, the world still stands. You’re still okay.

So perhaps we can find enlightenment through, among other things, avoiding that attachment. Maybe it’s okay to just let go.

[MacRumors and Silicon Valley Historical Association]


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