Sunday, October 09, 2011

Steve Jobs

Eastside Road, October 9, 2011—
LOTS OF RESPONSE in the blogsphere, in the media, even in conversation, about the death last week of Steve Jobs. There's not much question but that in death as in life he was a touchstone, just as was his computer. It's odd how passionately people align themselves for or against certain forces, which is what I think he truly was. You were either a Mac person, or you were not. Apple or PC: like Fitzgerald or Hemingway, National League or American League, in my father's time General Motors or Ford.

Since so many have had so much to say, I'll chime in, in three comments: personal, appreciative, more general.

First: I'm a Mac man. My first computer was a Radio Shack Model 100, which let me see eight lines of type at a time, no matter how much copy I'd written, and then send it, marvel of marvels, over a telephone to the office. I taught myself a little Basic with that machine, too, to use it for various other things. I even began typing out Lindsey's book on it, saving sections to tape cassettes, but that quickly grew too clunky.

So I graduated to a real desktop, a Morrow. Here I began dealing with arcane line-item entries, saving to drive A or drive B, always dealing with terminal commands. The rest of the book got typed out, and even printed, on one of those daisy-wheel jobs on paper with perforated tear-off margins. It was enough to drive you nuts.

Then, in 1986 I think it was, I bought a Mac Plus. The primary reason for this was to take a class in computer composition. Instead of terminal commands, I was mousing, pointing, clicking. I could write music on five-line staffs; I could copy sections, transpose or augment or retrograde them, layer them. I could hear the music played back on an internal synthesizer. And of course I could print it out, too.

Since I've always been intrigued by typefaces and page design, the Mac appealed to me. Soon I learned about Hypercard, and could give up Basic and design little applications of my own to handle other chores concerned with databases, calculation, design, and composition. It didn't hurt that I never had to think about computer viruses. I have remained loyal to Macintosh ever since, going through the AV series desktop, various laptops beginning with the first, and working now on an iMac, an iBook, and of course the iPhone and the iPad, which have served me well on travels abroad.

So I am thankful to Steve Jobs for having had the vision to reify, in hardware and software, practical approaches to computer-based handling of music, graphics, text layout and so on, weathering the scorn of business- and science-oriented criticism that Apple was somehow "only" about games, or art, or hobbies.
Second: Jobs himself was apparently inspired by two or three things that meant a lot to me, too (and I hasten to state that I'm not setting myself up as an unsung Jobs). He was brought up by parents who were skeptical of formal education, though in the end they helped him enter college. His own college career was similarly skeptical and cut short. (I finished, but took a number of years, and turns, before managing.) He was fond of tinkering and learned a lot about that from his dad. When he did go to college — Reed College, in Portland — he was particularly inspired by studying calligraphy.
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus, every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
quoted from Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford, as posted here
In this context, Lindsey brought to my attention a comment made by Malcolm Margolin in the 2009-10 Annual Report of Save the Bay:
…I think that at Save The Bay's root there was something else besides a concern for the environment — it was a concern for beauty. There was something about the fact that people looked out the window and realized the spectacular, poignant, transformative beauty of the Bay. This is what they wanted to preserve — the sense of living in a beautiful place that restored you on a daily basis — the respect for beauty. Today, Save The Bay is rooted in science, environmentalism, social concerns, social justice. But there is still the beauty that inspires this whole enterprise.
"50 Years of Making Waves," 2009-2010 Annual Report of Save the Bay, as posted here, page 6
I believe that Jobs's fundamental sensibility was that of an artist, a maker, a poet, a player; and that it was this that made him misunderstood and, to an extent, scorned by the mainstream worlds of business and the media.

Obviously the history of Apple Computing after its early successes went mainstream in its turn; it's now famously one of the richest corporations in the country. Obviously critics are justified who decry the extent to which such success exploits cheap labor, oppressive working conditions, corporate secrecy and all that. But I think it's a mistake to extrapolate from those observations the idea that Jobs was simply a hypocrite. (Nor do I, or anyone I know, have any idea the extent to which Apple's corporate decisions concerning retained earnings, global marketing and sourcing, and the like were driven exclusively by Jobs, rather than his board of directors.)

What I like about Steve Jobs is that his brilliance was fully in service of a consistent vision: the extension of technological tools to people who simply want them to work in applications concerned with art, entertainment, design, communication, and the like; rather than (more narrowly) statistics, mathematics, physics, and computation. I'm aware a number of people I know manage to use the Windows operating system, on their PC personal computers, to pursue their work in the liberal arts; I hope they realize the extent to which Apple pushed Microsoft in that direction.
Third: All that said, the tremendous, global, across-the-classes outpouring of comment on Jobs's death was extraordinary. I doubt that Jobs would have liked it much, though he might have been wryly amused. As usual, the media reacted far too heavily, too quickly: but that's in the nature of the media.

More interesting was the huge amount of popular expression of love, grief, thanks, and then to an extent repudiation. I think there are two basic reasons for this outpouring, one nationalistic, the other psychological. The nationalistic one is simple: at a time when America seems to be losing its storied leadership in can-do, inventive, meteoric entrepreneurship, it's great to be reminded of a recent personification of all that, and distressing to lose him.

Psychologically, at a time when there's so little to pin your faith on, when governments and banks, corporations, the military, even Mother Nature herself seem to be letting us down at every turn, people the world over seek heroes who manage to counter such obstacles, who rise from little more than their own ideas and hard work, who embody a kind of optimism and drive.

After Mozart it was impossible to go on composing like Mozart. Jobs was no Mozart: he was more like a Cage, a Duchamp, a Stein. He, and his work, challenged the assumptions, picked up neglected ideas and reconfigured them to useful approaches. In the course of this he attracted partisans and detractors; neither camp has much to do with the historical necessity and the eventual impact of what he imagined and achieved. What comes next, remains to be seen.

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

Thanks for this.

I've always been resistant to technological innovation. When our son was
growing up, he hungrily sought to involve himself in every iteration, the
way kids do. I felt it would be a distraction, that "play" would dominate
his consciousness, as it undoubtedly did anyway, for as long as he lived.

I didn't want a cell phone. Didn't want a CB radio. Didn't want a computer
in the house. They were gadgets, I felt, which carried their own demands,
and became, in effect, self-perpetuating diversions. Diversions from what
mattered in life.

At work, the computers came, in predictable waves of increasing
sophistication and reach. The first system we used in the 1970's--intended
to serve several tens of thousands of users, probably had a capacity equal
to a single CRT today! Astonishing.

The internet opened up a world of possibilities which I have yet even to
begin to exhaust, for myself. Where else could people like us share their
interests--as you do with your music, food, travel and theater--with such
efficiency and ease? Perfectly balanced between the private and the public

No one person has been responsible for all of this. But Jobs seems to have
had a hand in influencing the direction of the trends. "User-friendly" has
always been Apple's thing, and if Jobs was responsible for that, we owe him
our eternal gratitude. How many millions of people were literally helped in
this way? It boggles the imagination.