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Steve Jobs vs. Robert ZallerBY: Dan Rottenberg 12.27.2011
Has Robert Zaller’s rejection of iPods, iPads and iPhones made him a better writer or person? Let me answer the question this way: Here’s one contemporary thinker who brings new meaning to the term “engraved in stone.”
Zaller’s Law meets Rottenberg’s Law
“For every advance in technology there is a corresponding cost, and the cost frequently if not typically exceeds the benefit.”
Thus did BSR contributor Robert Zaller proclaim “Robert’s Rule of Technology” in his recent deconstruction of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs.
“I have somehow managed to survive without any of Jobs’s devices,” Professor Zaller elaborated. “I don’t want my world sucked into a vortex that fits the palm of my hand (or, perhaps, yours). Nor do I want to engage the rest of the world that way.” (See “On worshipping Steve Jobs.”)
BSR readers of a subtle cast of mind— both of you— may discern in Robert’s Rule the inadvertent confirmation of Rottenberg’s Law of Technology, to wit: “People who are perfectly comfortable with technology that was new when they were kids feel terribly threatened by technology that’s new when their children are kids.”
Modesty no doubt precluded Professor Zaller from addressing the relevant question he raises: Has Zaller’s rejection of iPods, iPads and iPhones made him a better writer or person? As Professor Zaller’s long-suffering editor, let me take a stab at the answer.
The old-fashioned way
BSR readers often praise Professor Zaller’s essays and reviews for their eloquent style, their careful reasoning, the painstaking attention he obviously devotes to every sentence, every word— yes, even every letter. This I can tell you is no accident: Robert has rejected such instantaneous but shallow writing tools as computers and e-mail. Instead he inscribes his articles on clay tablets and delivers them to my office by oxcart. Small wonder that reading his prose is like savoring fresh-brewed Colombian coffee after a steady diet of instant Sanka. (Or whatever. I don’t drink coffee.)
Many BSR readers have also remarked that Professor Zaller’s erudite discussions of plays, movies and New York art exhibits often appear after the event under review has closed. This is no accident either. Because Zaller has refused to clutter his life with intrusive gadgets like telephones, radio and TV, word of the newest “hot” show sometimes fails to reach him in a timely fashion.
Which is fine with him. “The test of great art,” Zaller constantly reminds me, “is not what’s ‘hot’ but what endures.”
Slow boat to Manhattan
When Professor Zaller travels to art shows in New York, he eschews dangerous and dirty modern conveyances like the Iron Horse or the motorcar in favor of the method preferred by the great Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton when he defended John Peter Zenger in 1735: Ferry to Burlington, thence by stagecoach across the New Jersey wilderness to South Amboy, thence by sail to lower Manhattan.
With a favorable wind, a man can make that journey in just 22 hours, including an overnight stop at an inn in New Brunswick. The downside, of course, is that sometimes Robert’s sloop is blown out to sea for days.
This too is fine with Zaller. “Such delays simply afford me greater opportunity for solitary reflection,” he observes. “Haste makes waste.” Does this fellow see the glass half-full, or what?
A business plan ruined
Needless to add, Robert’s principled refusal to embrace modern technology has blown BSR’s original business plan all to hell. That model assumed that our whole operation could be handled by one editor in a small office housing a single computer that would provide instant e-mail access to writers all over the world.
The back-and-forth editing process with my writers, I figured, would require roughly 45 minutes per article. At that rate, I could post a dozen essays a week in my spare time without jeopardizing my day job as a busboy at the International House of Pancakes.
How was I to know that I would spend hours every week on the roof of BSR’s Center City office building, flashing smoke signals to Robert’s home in Bala Cynwyd? Who could have foreseen that BSR would need three warehouse floors and hundreds of filing cabinets in which to store Robert’s tablets?
If Robert weren’t a really good writer, I’d tell him where he could stick his principled idiosyncrasies. But truth to tell, with Robert’s encouragement I’ve accommodated his principles by exploiting the best practices of the past myself— specifically, the law of primogeniture.
A firstborn’s advantage
As the first son of a first son, you see, I inherited my father’s entire estate intact. This tract contains enough acreage on which to store Robert’s clay tablets and feed his oxen for at least ten years— by which time, thanks to Robert’s principled refusal to use antibiotics, I can reasonably expect that he’ll be removed from the scene.
More important, my father’s estate includes four dozen slaves, whom I have taught to convert clay tablets into Word documents. So things have a way of working out in the end.
Of course, you and I know that primogeniture hasn’t been the law of the land for at least two centuries. I told my Dad as much and indeed offered to split his estate with my younger brother Bob. But Dad wisely urged me to think of the big picture.
Suppose, he said, everybody did as I suggested— that is, divide their estates evenly among all their sons (or, worse, among their daughters as well)? Within a generation all the great estates would be broken up in tiny pieces, and everyone would be forced to scrounge for a living. Society would be deprived of that vital leadership class of gentlemen whose inheritance guarantees them the time and independence necessary for attention to public affairs. The whole world would be a mess!
A younger sibling’s choices
Besides, Dad reminded me, society provides ample opportunities for younger male siblings. Bob could (1) join the army, (2) go to sea, (3) enter the ministry, (4) marry an heiress or (5) cross the Alleghenies and carve out his own estate in one of the less densely settled Western territories, like Ohio or Indiana.
When you think about it, this whole country was settled and then expanded by younger siblings who were cut out of their family inheritances and consequently left home. But who has time to think when you’re constantly on your cell phone?
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