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Steve Jobs and the Power of Technology

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Like many people over the past several days I was saddened by the untimely death of Steve Jobs, but inspired by the story of his amazing, if too brief, life. Jobs imagined technology as a force to make human lives better. He took technology invented by others and through his genius as a manager and designer, translated those technologies intro transformative commercial products.

Part of what made his vision transformative was that he helped address fears of new technology and brought it from strange geek-dom to cutting edge and even sublime fashion. Apple products made technology accessible by bringing it into the mainstream. The mouse, the touch screen, the idea of commanding the computer with your finger managed to replace complex keyboard commands with a tactile and visual experience. Apple products were distinctive to look at and easy to use.

He brought computers into everyday life, even for those of us who came of age in another century. For example, while lots of young people were comfortable downloading free music from the internet a decade ago, many people of my generation thought it was wrong to steal an artist's intellectual property and wouldn't do it. Jobs and his colleagues invented the iTunes store and the iPod, and thousands of songs later, it's the only way many of us buy music today. People of all ages now i-chat with friends and family, track traffic jams on "apps" we download to our iPhone, and effortlessly take and send photos electronically.

The internet, smartphone and wireless-connected laptop have changed how we live and work. It has changed how we interact socially and professionally. Jobs was a visionary who saw these transformations before they took place and had the skill and luck to make many of them happen. His story has the power to inspire us, but my intent here is not to simply honor his memory, but to predict that there is a renewable energy "Steve Jobs" somewhere in the world. Someone, perhaps with her high school buddy, is working on the problem of small, efficient solar cells and better storage batteries right now. Just as cell phones have ended the use of landlines in many homes, decentralized solar power may someday reduce our reliance on the electric grid and large-scale power plants.

Futurist Ramez Naam wrote about the potential of solar energy in Scientific American earlier this year. According to Naam:

"The sun strikes every square meter of our planet with more than 1,360 watts of power. Half of that energy is absorbed by the atmosphere or reflected back into space. 700 watts of power, on average, reaches Earth's surface. Summed across the half of the Earth that the sun is shining on, that is 89 petawatts of power. By comparison, all of human civilization uses around 15 terrawatts of power, or one six-thousandth as much. In 14 and a half seconds, the sun provides as much energy to Earth as humanity uses in a day."

He also observes that the technology of solar cells is improving and prices are coming down. He predicts that in the next quarter century, solar powered electricity will be far less expensive than power generated by fossil fuels. Now all we need to do is figure out a way to store the energy and distribute it to each other via a smart grid. Once we perform that trick, the energy crisis will be solved. When we fix the energy problem, we will also reduce the danger of global climate change, hydrofracking, deep-sea oil drilling and mountaintop removal for coal.

These are difficult, but not impossible, technological challenges. There are a number of practical problems we need to address related to the efficiency of solar cells and the ability to store power when the sun is not shining. One of the lessons that Steve Jobs taught us was to never underestimate the transformative power of technology and the importance of imagination in translating vision into reality. We must learn to move beyond the paradigm that structures the way we view feasibility. For example, one of the biggest problems we had here in New York City at the start of the twentieth century was the massive amount of horse manure that accumulated on the city's streets. Today, with the exception of a small part of Central Park's southern-most roadway, that problem has been eliminated by the mass adoption of the internal combustion engine. That particular invention caused a number of negative environmental impacts, but it did a good job of solving the city's horse manure problem. If a hundred years ago we had conducted a longitudinal analysis of the growth of horse manure from the 19th century and extrapolated it to 2011, the projection would have had us all buried beneath a pile of... manure. Sometimes the past is an imperfect guide to the future.

It may be that I am placing too much "faith" in the probability of a technological fix for fossil fuels. Moreover, it is not simply technology that must deliver, but organizational management as well. We must learn how to measure and understand the stresses that our economic consumption places on the planet, and then learn how to sustainably manage our consumption and production if we are to preserve the planet's productive capacity. Developing the technology and management practices needed to ensure global sustainability are the key challenges of the 21st century. I am optimistic that we will meet those challenges because I do not think we are a suicidal species and I do not think we have any choice.

The generation of students I teach at Columbia deeply and profoundly understand the need to wean our economy off of fossil fuels. They are not alone. They share that understanding with young people all over the globe. Some are working on this problem in school and starting businesses in their dorm rooms. Some are working on it by downloading free web-based information on their MacBooks and starting businesses in basements, garages and shacks. This avalanche of creativity is visible on every continent. It is of course, Steve Jobs' most lasting legacy. His story provides a wonderful role model and a source of hope for the future.

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