“Be kind to strangers,
lest they’re angels in disguise.”
verse from Shakespeare and Company song
Offbeat questions arise while minding my bookshop in winter on the Oregon coast. Like — why does our calendar year begin with a month named after a double-headed deity who looks backward and forward at the same time?
I met Janus online, at Wikipedia. Few folks worship him, yet each year we summon his likeness to re-assess events and assure ourselves that man’s toehold on the future is sound. We do this in part by affirming the legacies of climbers who’ve died.
Steve Jobs, for example. Count me among the toastmasters of Janus who salute the late silicon-slinger who built Model Ts for the information highway. What do his contributions tell us about ours?
I first heard of Jobs in the 1980s, while waiting in line to use the computer lab at college. There, massive machines munched on data I’d gathered and spit back graphs correlating declines in species of winged creatures with human crowding.
It felt quantitatively cool, just saying the word “data” around the biology department. Paired with objectivist text those computer-generated graphs made my papers look as credible as George Will’s baseball columns.
Jobs replaced those IBM-sized beasts with portable critters that help us correlate data while sitting at home. I’ve spent much of my life communing with those critters, sharing bites of knowledge in leisure environments.
What does Jobs’ death at age 56 tell us about our brief tours of life on Earth? The question inspires me to compute in a different light.
Consider the following data. The morning I learned of Jobs’ death I was traveling in Le Luberon massif, a small mountainous area in southern France. My family and I had awoken to an agrarian view from the window of a bed-and-breakfast in a 1,000-year-old abbey.
Our host Christophe shared the news of Jobs’ death by way of a little white cross he cut out and taped to one of the delicious apples he offered us for breakfast.
“Were you a fan?” I asked.
“Not really,” he replied with soft-spoken frankness. “To me he was just another big capitalist. But his death is all they are talking about on the radio this morning.”
“Here are some of my favorite American authors,” he said, handing me a cup of coffee. On a nearby counter he had erected a pyramid of books by Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and John Kennedy Toole, all in French translation. The sight of Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” quickly prompted a soul handshake.
Over two days we discussed a myriad of topics — from archeological finds in the nearby fields to dry stone masonry, the Arab Spring, Gertrude Stein, homeless kittens, and visual art we coaxed Christophe to bring out despite his claim that he’s no longer an artist. I was captivated by the web of code woven into his work titled “Saint George and the Dragon.”
“I am the dragon,” he confessed in a humble learned tone, like something a janitor might mutter to himself while fixing the hinges on the door to the school library.
Our exchange of information in Christophe’s kitchen will be treasured for the rest of my life. And it happened, in part, because we learned about his lodgings on our little computer.
So here’s to Steve Jobs, who dove into capitalism’s belly and personalized the beast.
Wait, there’s more. I’m compelled by love of beauty and truth to toast a lesser-known legend who lived Apple’s “think different” slogan long before the corporation’s founders were born.
I raise my glass to George Whitman, the late proprietor of a bookshop in Paris named Shakespeare & Company. My family would not have even heard of Le Luberon had it not been for an exchange with new friends at Whitman’s labyrinthine store of knowledge.
The files were downloaded at a gently mad tea party that started in his apartment above the shop. Whitman didn’t feel up to an appearance that day, yet he set the stage for a spirited salon of language arts aficionados. I sat beside a toppling stack of tomes crowned with an early edition of “A Moveable Feast.” On the other side perched John Kirby Abraham, an English expatriate who knew Josephine Baker and wrote a biography of the cultural icon.
That social flurry at Shakespeare & Company is now lodged in my mind, along with the exchange in Christophe’s kitchen. My synapses are upgraded as a result of those interactions.
Not long after our visit, Whitman celebrated his 98th birthday and then died in that same apartment. In his wake he leaves six decades of info-connoisseurism and an un-graphable influence on visitors, many of them free-radical scribes. By Whitman’s own estimate, he provided transient lodging to 40,000 writers who slept among his shelves in exchange for work and tolerating his notoriously bad pancakes.
In an organic light, Whitman’s shop stands as an exquisite living computer rivaling anything manufactured in Silicon Valley.
Still recreating in France, Janus assures me this mainframe view of life offers future apps for all travel destinations.
He predicts 2012 won’t bring a Mayan cataclysm here to the north coast of Oregon. It will, however, mark the end of public trust in top-down methods of data processing. People will realize the numbers we’ve used to quantify growth aren’t as cool as we figured — meaning they don’t correlate with median incomes.
As the future unfolds, mass faith in the syndicated press will falter. More people will explore alternative means of processing news and opinion. Strange and complex tangles of personal experience will become a more prominent part of communal discourse. The art of conversation will be revived and integrated into online social networks.
There may be blood. Some oil tankers of intel won’t navigate as swiftly amid the flood of freelance communication. In some quarters the deluge of democratized data may look like the end of the world. Let’s hope George Will maintains his composure by thinking about baseball.
For my part I’ll surf the flow of shared ideas here in my offbeat bookshop on the Oregon coast. I’ll correspond with bohemian friends and encourage them to visit Le Clatsop-Nehalem massif. We’ll work to make sure tourism in our part of paradise is as compelling as it is in Le Luberon.
Humans are adept at language innovation when faced with dead-end programming. Put our heads together, we might meet anonymous angels, keepers of Eden who suddenly realize it’s time to open the door.