Wellfleet’s outer beach is just about an hour’s drive from my boyhood home on Cape Cod. The spot is well known for a steep, 50-foot sand cliff that rises behind it, topped by a gently sloping upland that affords a graceful vista of the Atlantic, exactly the sort of spot that prompted Henry David Thoreau to say of Cape Cod that “a man may stand there and put all of America behind him.” There may be a craggy point or two in Maine that’s technically farther east, but Wellfleet is about as far east as you can get in the continental United States. “Next stop, Portugal!” my dad would almost always say as he got out of our station wagon and pointed to the ocean.
Wellfleet’s relative proximity to Portugal also brought Guglielmo Marconi here in the winter of 1903. From a tower above the outer beach, Marconi successfully completed the first transatlantic wireless communication between the United States and England. The Wellfleet Historical Society placed a bronze plaque on the original site in 1953; and every time we visited the beach, Dad would gather us around it and, in homage to Signor Marconi’s genius, he would read the plaque out loud: “Site of the first U.S. Transatlantic Wireless Telegram addressed to Edward VII, King of England, by Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States.” If my grandmother were with us, she would add that “Signor Marconi was a Catholic, you know,” and we would then descend the steep slope in search of less historically minded pursuits.
Only 100 years have passed since Marconi’s triumph, yet he would hardly recognize the contemporary world: Telegraphy gave way to radio, which gave way to television, which gave way to the Internet. Now I can send a text to an iPhone in Lisbon while I’m lounging on the outer beach or bathing in Oahu or fly-fishing in Juneau. “The world got smaller that day,” Dad would say about Marconi’s broadcast. At the same time, the world became infinitely more complex and frightfully more impersonal. The fathers at the Second Vatican Council addressed this ambivalence in the “Decree on the Means of Social Communication”:
The Church recognizes that these media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God. The Church recognizes, too, that men can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss. Indeed, the Church experiences maternal grief at the harm all too often done to society by their evil use.
So where do Apple and Steve Jobs fit into all of this? Was Jobs another Marconi? In 100 years time will some family on their way to the beach take a detour to Cupertino to read a bronze plaque? If it were left up to John Anderson, perhaps not. In his review of the new Steve Jobs biopic in this issue, Mr. Anderson writes, “Nowhere in the film is a case made that the man made life better for anyone. It would be a hard case to make.” Anderson cites the demise of the music industry and the dwindling number of brick-and-mortar bookstores as evidence that Jobs actually made things worse. For my part, I’m not sure that Steve Jobs should be held to account for all that. But neither do I think that he was “a singular genius who remade the world.” I tend to think that Steve Jobs was much like the rest of us: an amalgam of lights and shadows. Even Marconi had a dark side: He was not just a committed Fascist; Mussolini was the best man at his wedding.
In the end, only God knows whether Steve Jobs was a good man. What I know is that I could write most of this column on an iPad on a flight from Toronto. That, at least, is a pretty good thing.