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9.10.11

The Gee-Gaw Man

All hail!  The Gee-Gaw Man is dead!  Stop the presses!  Drop a dime!  The P. T. Barnum of the modern age has queued up in the re-incarnation line.

Don't get me wrong.  Steve Jobs was a brilliant marketeer.  He could package the same old lights and wires in ways that made millions of folks swoon as they plunked down wads of cash for his toys.

But did he change the world?  No.  Did he re-invent the wheel?  No.  Did he cure cancer?  No.  He likely caused more than he cured.  He did, however, find a myriad of ways to cause folks to lose great chunks of their lives to mindless entertainment.

Yes, Jobs helped to popularize the computer.  His unerring sense of market trends gave us computers that weren't the drab grey boxes with monochrome screens and command line OSs, like IBM's engineers did.

He popularized the mouse controller and plugged it into the keyboard, which always made so much flippin' sense to me.  He gave us colorful boxes and put all the junk in one package, so it was easy for college students to lug them around.  He foresaw the popularity of Graphical User Interfaces (GUI), that made computing so much more eye-friendly and fun than typing in strings of cryptic code.

His toys were so popular that Bill Gates ripped off every single idea and made a mint off of it.

I love Macs.  Back when PCs were struggling to render pictures, I was editing video on a Quadra 950 running Avid.  I was cooking with 32-bit graphics while my buddies were struggling to make usable stills in 16-bit hell.  Back when RAM was selling at premium prices, MacOS only launched drivers needed for the task at hand, rather than loading every damn driver in the Universe, like PCs.

P. T. Barnum
I had a NeXT.  I used it to run Macromind Director to create some eye-popping animations in 3-D, while PCs were choking on animated GIFs.  It was a fantastic machine and the operating system eventually became OSX, after Apple bought them out and brought the Steves back into the fold.

Sure Jobs was an amazing marketeer, but it was Wozniak that was the creative force behind him.  Jobs was a pitch man, and a damn good one, at that.  But, in the end, all he did was sell lights and wires in a box.  Arranging those lights and wires into something usable was the force behind him.

Jobs' genius began and ended with cool packaging and keen branding and savvy placement.  He put the cute little "i" on the front of everything and demanded nifty colors and strangely shaped boxes.  All the digi-artists I know stood in line on release days to be the first to have the next slick package.

It took a while, but PCs eventually caught up and even surpassed Macs.  So Jobs switched gears and started slaving the engineers to come up with consumer-friendly toys that played music, or dialed phone numbers, or had touch-screens and auto-rotate GUIs.  And as soon as his Marketeers created it, someone else would come along and make it better and (most importantly) cheaper.

In fact, Jobs marketed Apple into a corner.  They are now in a position where they have to constantly come up with new gee-gaws with minor innovations to stay just an inch in front of the competition.  And frankly, the iPhones are so freakin' big that people look rediculous using them.  It's like a scene from a Zucker brothers flick.

Ed McMahon
All of this isn't to denigrate the fine work that Jobs did, it's to highlight the cult-like status of the pitchman in American culture.  When you look at it, there's almost a mythical and mystical cloud around the Marketeers.  From the general worship of Madison Ave., to the election of Obama, America loves pitchmen.

Legendary names like Ed McMahon, Billy Mays and P. T. Barnum line the Walk of Marketeer Fame.  Don Lapre, though a bit more nefarious, is equally well-known.  Even Benny Hinn, a carnie pitchman, came to fame packaging and selling Jay-Zus.  America worships salesmen.

It wasn't always that way.  Once upon a time, it was the Wozniaks who had the spotlight.  Cyrus McCormick, Jethro Tull, Alexander Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford were the objects of adulation.  They were creators and inventors, thinkers and solvers of problems.  They gave us threshers and reapers, and telephones, mass production and light bulbs.  Somehow, the salesman took over, much like finance defeated industry.  It became the package and not the product which took the attention and fame.  Style over substance, like Pet Rocks.

Billy Mays
Ronald Reagan became the first pitchman to reach the Oval Office.  Among some circles, he still has a virtually religious following, though his leadership was little more than tag lines and jingles.  Yet, he was the template for Clinton, Gore and Obama.  I leave the Bushes out because, well, you could blow in one ear and it would whistle out the other.  Plus I don't cotton to Connecticut yankee carpetbaggers calling themselves Texans and ruining our good name in the world.  But I digress...

Steve Jobs was not an innovator, he was a very creative packager and pitchman.  He did not create computers or gadgets, he simply came up with new and interesting ways to put lights and wires in a box.  That he reached a literal cult status, while the innovator, Wozniak, lurked in the shadows, is symptomatic of what's wrong with Western culture.

The victory of package over product has led to the current crisis in every level of Western society.  From vacuous presidents with silky voices, to McMansions and derivatives, it's all just package.  It's like a beautiful, shiny red apple that's riddled with worms when it's sliced open.  Men who think, create and truly change the world have been made subservient to the hawker, the carnie and the ring master.

Lights and wires in a box
Steve Jobs was an inspired box-maker, but let's keep things in perspective.  Nice boxes don't guarantee value or usefulness.  The iPod was nothing more than a Walkman or Discman shrunk down and digitized.  The iPhone is nothing new, just more bells and whistles.  The Mac computers are nothing different from all the other computers, except the box is cool.

The confusion of packaging with product, and marketing with invention, are at the heart of the current global crises.  We are kids on Christmas Day, wildly tearing into all those tantalizing presents under the tree, only to find they're all sweaters.  Our imaginations were much better than the reality, but the packaging made our fancies take flight.

I'm all for a good pitchman.  If I want to sell something, having a good Marketeer at my side is invaluable.  But please, let's not forget who created the product in our rush to worship the packager.

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