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September 24 2012

Steve Jobs, Romantic

“… the season
Wherein the spirits hold their wont to walk
the fruitful matrix of Ghosts …”

      — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Steve Jobs died a year ago October 5th, and we can expect his ghost to appear in any number of recollections and assessments as the anniversary approaches.

I’d like to talk here about a spirit that Jobs carried within himself. It’s a spirit he relied on for inspiration, although he seemed at times to have lost track of its whisper. In any event, what it says can tell us a lot about our relationship to machines.

I refer to the spirit of Romanticism. I spent much of this past summer reading about the Romantics — the original Romantics, that is, of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — and it’s remarkable how closely their most cherished beliefs correspond to principles that Jobs considered crucial to his success at Apple.

Intersection of technology and liberal arts sign from iPad 2 announcementIntersection of technology and liberal arts sign from iPad 2 announcementWhat Apple does that other companies don’t, Jobs often said, is infuse the technologies it produces with human values. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said during one of his famous product introductions. “We believe that it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

Jobs can be forgiven for never getting very specific about what he meant by marrying technology to the humanities. It’s by definition a subject that’s hard to pin down, though not especially hard to understand. Basically he was saying that Apple’s products have soul and that people are attracted to those products because they can feel that soul, both consciously and unconsciously. These are things the Romantics thought about a lot.

That the creative artist can bring life to inanimate objects was a central conviction of the Romantic poets. (I’m speaking of the thrust of the Romantic movement in general; individuals within the movement disagreed on specific issues.) For them, the inanimate object in question was words; for Jobs, it was technology, but the basic point — that a work of art, properly executed, carries within it an invisible, living essence — was the same. Devoid of this essence, said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, what’s produced is as lifeless as the “cold jelly” of a corpse.

Put in contemporary terms, soul from the Romantic perspective is an emergent quality, a product of the harmonious, organic relationship between constituent parts. Even when those individual elements are familiar in other contexts, as the elements of Apple’s products were often said to be, combining them with due attention to essence can bring something new into the world. As Coleridge put it, the true artist “places things in a new light… What oft was thought but ne’er so well exprest… [He] not only displays what tho often seen in its unfolded mass had never been opened out, but he likewise adds something, namely, Lights & Relations.”

By “Relations,” Coleridge meant unity. Each part is completely faithful to the creation as a whole. To construct a work in accord with some “mean or average proportion” is to dilute its essence, said William Hazlitt, “for a thing is not more perfect by becoming something else, but by being more itself.”

This supports Jobs’ insistence that Apple maintain control over both its hardware and its software, a policy that insured they would work seamlessly together. Soul emerges on its own in nature, but not in art. The unity on which it depends is concealed, as one critic put it, beneath “a surface world of chaos and confusion.” To reveal essence requires not only vision, but also focused attention and deliberate action. Coleridge coined a word to describe the unifying power of the creative imagination: “esemplastic,” derived from the Greek for “to shape into one.”

Nor will essence emerge on the strength of reason alone. Indeed, Romanticism was explicitly and decidedly a revolt against reason, a rejection of the empirical presumption of the Enlightenment. Coleridge considered the “Mechanico-corpusluar philosophy” his lifelong enemy; its endless reductionism smothered, he believed, any trace of vitality. What remained wasn’t art, he said, but “a lifeless Machine whirled about by the dust of its own Grinding” — a fair description of how Steve Jobs viewed the products of Apple’s longtime rival, Microsoft.

There’s no question that Jobs was intimately familiar with and sympathetic to the Romantics’ convictions, if only because they were shared by two of his most formative influences, Eastern religion and the 60s counterculture. This is not to say he was directly aware of that coalescence; I’ve seen no interview with Jobs in which the Romantics are mentioned. Nor is there evidence to suggest he recognized how freely the streams of the three philosophies intertwined. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, wrote poetry based on the Bhagavad Gita and paid tribute in person to Coleridge and Carlyle. Autobiography of a Yogi, a book Jobs claimed to have read annually since he was in college, quotes Emerson several times. Values regularly celebrated in Romantic texts — passion, spontaneity, authenticity — were counterculture touchstones as well.

Jobs’ philosophy, then, overlapped with the Romantics’, whether he knew it or not. Coleridge famously said that every person was either a born Platonist or a born Aristotelian — the Romantics were Platonists, Bill Gates would qualify as an Aristotelian — and that no one changed from one orientation to the other. It may be that Jobs was, as he and many others contended, an exception to that rule, able to play successfully on both sides of the technology/humanities divide.

There were signs that Jobs wasn’t finding it easy to hold on to his Romanticism as his business career progressed. In Apple’s early days he’d been a believer in the messianic promise of the computer revolution, convinced they could be the greatest force in history for human liberation. In more recent interviews, he dismissed suggestions that computers were going to solve the problems of the world, and he was stung by critics who said that some of Apple’s products were more about consumerism than creativity. He was also disappointed in the narrowness of vision he saw in the students who came to hear him speak on college campuses. The only thing that seemed to impress them, he said, was how much money he’d made.

Jobs’ weariness speaks to a point I’d mentioned at the beginning of this article: that the spirit of Romanticism can tell us a lot about our relationships to machines. To believe that technology can be our savior was a minority opinion in the counterculture. The predominant sentiments of the time were more in tune with the Romantics, who believed that salvation was to be found not in the power of machines, but by living as simply and as closely to nature as possible.

Pastoral retreat on any substantial scale isn’t likely at this point. Our technologies are with us to stay. Living more simply would seem to be an option, though. We might also consider the possibility of constructing those technologies more Romantically. That would entail recognizing, as Steve Jobs did, that the things we create really do have souls and that they speak a language we can hear.


Books that were especially useful in research for this reflection were Richard Holmes‘ two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp, David Newsome’s Two Classes of Men: Platonism and English Romantic Thought, and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.

Photo: Screenshot from Apple’s iPad 2 announcement.

Related:

October 06 2011

Why do some people really hate Apple | Charles Arthur

Few companies inspire such strong emotions, but is it Apple's profile, design or technology that pushes those buttons?

You don't have to go far on the web or even everyday life to find people happy to say it: they hate Steve Jobs and all he stood for, and those who buy things from Apple – the "sheeple", in an oft-used phrase – are simply buying stuff for no reason than its marketing, or advertising. Apple, they say, is a giant con trick.

Why do they care? Because, says Don Norman, an expert in how we react emotionally to design, buying or using products that engage our emotions strongly will inevitably alienate those who don't share those emotions – and just as strongly. Norman, formerly vice-president of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple, is co-founder of the Nielsen/Norman Group, which studies usability. He's also an author of books including Emotional Design and his latest, called Living With Complexity.

Apple, he says, excels at generating strong positive emotional reactions from those who use its products. The iPhone was a classic example with its revolutionary touchscreen control – which wasn't the first, but was the best: "Touch is a very important sense; a lot of human emotion is built around touching objects, other people, touching things," says Norman. "I think that we've lost something really big when we went to the abstraction of a computer with a mouse and a keyboard, it wasn't real, and the telephone was the same, it was this bunch of menus and people got lost in the menus and buttons to push and it felt like a piece of technology.

"Whereas the iPhone felt like a piece of delight. It really is neat to go from one page to the other not by pushing a button but by swiping your hand across the page." He adds: "The correct word is intimacy; it is more intimate. Think of it not as a swipe, think of it as a caress."

But just as physics sees an equal and opposite reaction to every action, so strong emotions engender adverse emotions in response. Take this comment by Aaron Holesgrove of OzTechNews about the iPad: "Actually, the iPad succeeds because it enables you to read websites whilst sitting on the toilet and play casual games in bed. It's a toy. You can't eliminate complexity when there was never any complexity in the first place – Apple went and threw a 10in screen on the iPod Touch and iPhone and called them the iPad and iPad 3G, respectively." Critics say Apple's products don't have as many features; their technical specifications aren't comparable to the leading-edge ones; they're more expensive. In short, you're being ripped off. And what's more, Apple is exploiting workers in China who build the products.

By contrast, ask someone about other comparable products out there – Amazon's new Kindle Fire, RIM's PlayBook, HP's TouchPad – and you'll get indifference, even if the prices are the same, or they're made in the same Chinese factories as Apple uses.

Norman says that the reaction – both the love and the hate – comes from Apple's designs. "This is important. It's something that I have trouble convincing companies of: great design will really convert people, but it will also put off other people. So you have to be willing to offend people; to make things that you know a lot of people are going to hate."

Apple's focus on design, which is principally expressed through the objects it sells – the iPods, iMacs, MacBooks, iPhones, iPads – drives those extreme reactions, he says. (And it's notable that nobody ever complained about Pixar's products – even though Jobs was chief executive there too.)

Part of why people like the devices so much is that they can personalise them: "The iPhone, being your mobile phone, is part of you, like the iPod is but even more so, because you're carrying everything around, not just your music but also your contacts and the ability to contact people – because people have observed that mobile phones are a very personal item."

By contrast, other companies that try to cater for and please everyone are guaranteed to fall short – and so won't excite emotion. "Many people try to make a product that everybody will love; Microsoft is a good example," he explains. "If you make a product that everybody loves – you do all your market surveys, and when people don't like something about it you change it – you end up with a bland product that everybody will accept but nobody truly loves."

Apple isn't like that, he says. "Apple says 'We're not going to even worry about it. We're going to make something that we ourselves love. We just assume that anything that we really love, lots and lots of people will love. And if other people really dislike it and hate it, so what. Tough on them.'"

But what about the criticism of the lack of specifications? When the iPod was still a hot seller, before the iPhone, I asked Phil Schiller, then as now Apple's head of marketing, about the lack of extras such as FM tuners and voice recorders – which rivals did offer, even though their products made no headway in the market.

Schiller put it simply: extras like FM radio were "a technology in search of a customer". He explained: "We're very careful about the technologies we bring to our products. Just because there's a new technology doesn't mean you should put it in your product. Just because our competitors have put it in their product – because they need something to compete with us, because they're losing on everything else – doesn't mean we should put it in the product.

"We should put new features in a product because it makes sense for our customers to have that feature, and because a significant percentage of our customers will want that feature. Otherwise, not. Remember, all these features cost money, space and most importantly power, and power is a really big deal."

At Apple, the executives' view is that "a lot of product suffer from featureitis": that it's easier to try to sell a checklist than selling a better product that does what customers really need to do. As one explained it to me: "We try to be very careful not to get caught up in a 'list of features war'; we try to focus just on what makes a great product for the customers, what do they really want to do, and focus on that like no one else. If we think some features aren't that great, and don't really work that well, and involve trade-offs that customers won't want, we just don't do it. We don't just have a checklist on the side of a box."

It may be significant that the strongest criticism of Apple tends to come from those most engaged with the nuts and bolts of technology. Apple's staff have probably got used to having their products called toys by now. As long as they keep selling, though, they'll keep ignoring the critics in favour of the fans – which will, of course, inflame emotions on both sides even more.


guardian.co.uk © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


How Steve Jobs put the seduction into technology

Apple reshaped the personal computer from a wobbly, Professor Branestawm-like contraption into a kind of digital jewellery

I wrote this just a few weeks ago when Steve Jobs announced he was quitting Apple:

"The Macintosh turned out so well," Jobs, who resigned as the CEO of Apple last night, once told the New York Times, "because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians who also happened to be excellent computer scientists."
And the people who bought the first Apple Mac computers were often architects, designers and journalists. One way or another, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the creators of the Apple Macintosh computers in the 1970s, came up with a line of products that – though clunky at first – had great appeal and continue to excite those engaged in design and the media – those who were best placed to sow the Apple seed.

Steve Jobs died on Wednesday. I'm writing this on an Apple desktop computer. When I rush off to work on another story today, my personal Apple MacBook will come with me. I also have an iPad, a Christmas present that has insinuated itself into my working and private life. With all these Apples about, it can be like living in a digital orchard.

As someone who still loves his Olivetti Lettera and who has learned to come to terms with the digital world slowly and cautiously, Apple has eased the transition. It's not just that the technology is "user friendly" to writers and millions engaged in what are known as the "creative industries", but that the physical design of Apple gizmos is seductive.

The iPad is like some magic tablet that comes alive and glows as if a genie has answered at least some of your wishes. Invented by Jobs and his team and styled by Apple's Jonathan Ives, it is one of those products that I like to imagine transporting back in time and showing our equally inventive ancestors as they built a pyramid or engineered a Gothic cathedral. Look what we've learned to do!

There would, of course, be one major snag. With no electricity, cables or satellites, let alone service providers and all the rest of the digital panopoly, the iPad's screen would remain resolutely dark, its crisp and gleaming plastic and metal case holding little interest for the architects of the Great Pyramid of Cheops or Salisbury Cathedral.

So Apples are very much objects of our time, so much so that each has been superseded by the next at a speed that might suggest a policy of built-in obsolescence. It's not that, although any company wants to sell us its next product or go out of business. It's more a case of design and technology moving on rapidly. And, in Jobs's case, of making Apple products indispensable in the way a wristwatch, handbag or wallet are to so very many millions of people.

Jobs, with incisive assistance from his design team, reshaped the personal computer from a wobbly, Professor Branestawm-like contraption lashed together at the back of a garage, or from an early Moog synthesiser lookalike, into a kind of digital jewellery.

Machines that, when he was growing up, were the stuff of men in white coats poring over punched paper tape and whirring, tape-recorder style reels in sealed, air-conditioned rooms are, thanks to Jobs, sleek hand-held devices that slip into handbags – wallets in the next couple of years, no doubt.

The very first Apple computer went on sale in 1976, its digital gubbins protected by a wooden casing. That was just a generation ago, and yet the latest Apples design make it look as though it might have been a tool used by medieval masons.

George Stephenson did not invent the steam railway locomotive, but when he and his son, Robert, shaped Rocket in 1829 – a pretty canary yellow and white design – they made this revolutionary machine aesthetically and emotionally acceptable to a largely suspicious and sceptical public.

Jobs has done much the same thing with Apple and the personal computer. There is, of course, something almost touching about the fact that most of these gleaming, seductive 21st-century devices are charged, when plugged into walls, by electricity generated by the mighty stationary steam engines we know as power stations.

Not everything under the digital sun is new, but Jobs knew how to make it shine into our offices, our homes and our private lives.


guardian.co.uk © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder, dies at 56

The mastermind behind an empire that has revolutionised personal computing, telephony and music, dies in California

Steve Jobs, billionaire co-founder of Apple and the mastermind behind an empire of products that revolutionised computing, telephony and the music industry, has died in California at the age of 56.

Jobs stepped down in August as chief executive of the company he helped set up in 1976, citing illness. He had been battling an unusual form of pancreatic cancer, and had received a liver transplant in 2009.

Jobs wrote in his letter of resignation: "I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple's CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come."

Apple released a statement paying tribute: "Steve's brilliance, passion and energy were the source of countless innovations that enrich and improve all of our lives … The world is immeasurably better because of Steve."

Bill Gates, the former chief executive of Microsoft, said in a statement that he was "truly saddened to learn of Steve Jobs's death". He added: "The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come.

"For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it's been an insanely great honour. I will miss Steve immensely."

He is survived by his wife, Laurene, and four children. In a statement his family said Jobs "died peacefully today surrounded by his family … We know many of you will mourn with us, and we ask that you respect our privacy during our time of grief".

Jobs was one of the pioneers of Silicon Valley and helped establish the region's claim as the global centre of technology. He founded Apple with his childhood friend Steve Wozniak, and the two marketed what was considered the world's first personal computer, the Apple II.

He was ousted in a bitter boardroom battle in 1985, a move that he later claimed was the best thing that could have happened to him. Jobs went on to buy Pixar, the company behind some of the biggest animated hits in cinema history including Toy Story, Cars and Finding Nemo.

He returned to Apple 11 years later when it was being written off by rivals. What followed was one of the most remarkable comebacks in business history.

Apple was briefly the most valuable company in the world earlier this year, knocking oil giant Exxon Mobil off the top spot. The company produces $65.2bn a year in revenue compared with $7.1bn in its business year ending September 1997.

Starting with his brightly coloured iMacs, Jobs went on to launch hit after hit transformed personal computing.

Then came the success of the iPod, which revolutionised the music industry, leading to a collapse in CD sales and making Jobs one of the most powerful voices in an industry he loved.

His firm was named in homage to the Beatles' record label, Apple. But the borrowing was permitted on the basis that the computing firm would stay out of music. After the success of the iPod the two Apples became engaged in a lengthy legal battle which finally ended last year when the Beatles allowed iTunes to start selling their back catalogue.

Jobs's remarkable capacity to spot what people wanted next came without the aid of market research or focus groups.

"For something this complicated, it's really hard to design products by focus groups," he once said. "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

Jobs initially hid his illness but his startling weight loss started to unnerve his investors. He took a six-month medical leave of absence in 2009, during which he received a liver transplant, and another medical leave of absence in mid-January before stepping down as chief executive in August.

Jobs leaves an estimated $8.3bn, but he often dismissed others' interest in his wealth. "Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful … that's what matters to me."


guardian.co.uk © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


August 29 2011

Wochenrückblick: kino.to-Nachfolger, Button-Lösung, Like-Button

Die Staatsanwaltschaft Dresden kann kino.to-Nachahmer nicht verfolgen, die Bundesregierung präsentiert die Button-Lösung für Internet-Geschäfte, der Streit, der Datensch

Weiterlesen

August 25 2011

Steve Jobs: iDesigned your life

iMacs, iPods, iPads – the Apple CEO took us from beige plastic to sophisticated and desirable design in every sphere of our lives

"The Macintosh turned out so well", Steve Jobs – who resigned as CEO of Apple last night – once told the New York Times, "because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians who also happened to be excellent computer scientists." And the people who bought the first Apple Mac computers were often architects, designers and journalists. One way or another, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, creators of the Apple Macintosh computers in the 1970s, came up with a line of products that – though clunky at first – had great appeal, and continue to excite those engaged in design and the media; those who were best placed to sow the Apple seed.

The very first Apple computer to go on sale in 1976, in a wooden casing, had a lashed-together look that hinted strongly at its roots in a Californian garage. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it might have come from an old Buck Rogers comic book. When Apple II emerged a year later, boasting colour graphics and a plastic case, these revolutionary computers – compact, easy to understand and use, and entertaining – began to sell in larger numbers.

But the real revolution in easy-to-use desktop computer design was the Macintosh 128K, launched in January 1984. It featured a mouse, a separate keyboard and a tiny screen with graphic commands that even an exhausted Fleet Street journalist could adapt to. And yet despite their ingenuity, and the revolutionary impact they had on millions of working lives, no one could call early Apple products things of beauty. We used them to produce early issues of Blueprint magazine, a monthly devoted to architecture, fashion and design, yet they seemed lacklustre compared to many of the gleaming 80s designs we published. But everyone was fascinated by Jobs and Wozniak, these awkward ambassadors for a new era in design and media.

One of Jobs's greatest contributions to design was the promotion of Jonathan Ive, the brilliant young British designer, to senior vice president of industrial design at Apple Inc in 1998. Jobs had been away from Apple for some years – creating Pixar and thus Toy Story in the interim – yet when he came back, he teamed up with Ive to create a range of hugely appealing products. The first was the colourful iMac of 1998, a bold attempt to break away from the dull world of beige and grey plastic computer cases. With its oddball marriage of boiled sweet colours and transparent plastics, the iMac was certainly eye-catching, and it also sold – two million in the first 12 months.

But Jobs and Ive really got into their stride in 2001 with the iPod MP3 player, a small, minimalist design that evoked the work of the legendary German designer Dieter Rams, who had done so much since the 1950s to make Braun products, from record players to electric shavers, sell in prodigious quantities worldwide. The iPhone (2007) and iPad three years later have seen the Jobs-Ive design partnership come to fruition. These lightweight yet well-made, jewel-like objects, with their crystal-clear screens, finally imbued the design of computers and digital gizmos with a seductive quality. Once seen and touched, sales were made. Packaging and advertising were all of a piece with these sleek new products, as are the latest Apple showrooms – as much clubs as shops for Apple customers.

The minimalist quality – that has worked so well aesthetically and commercially in recent years – is what Jobs had been seeking all along. An unostentatious man, he has worked over four decades to fuse the complexities of computer operations with an ease of use and finally a gracefulness and beauty that must have seemed not so much out of the question or improbable in the mid-1970s, but irrelevant. What mattered then was to make new technology work for everyone, and like the first steam locomotives, aircraft, typewriters or telephones, Jobs's first designs seem archaic today. His contribution to both technology and design has been enormous. Amazing, really, how quickly those artless wooden and glum plastic boxes have become – with a little help from friends and colleagues – objects of modern desire.


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