It will, I’m sure, surprise precisely none of you that I didn’t know Steve Jobs in any way. Still, when I learned about his death on Wednesday, I was saddened. This came as quite a surprise to me, since I’m not a sentimental person by nature. Although I enjoy and use Apple products, I’ve typically seen Apple’s innovations as end-user evolutions, rather than technological revolutions. Memristors are revolutionary; Sheffer’s stroke and Peirce’s arrow were revolutionary; the news out of CERN that neutrinos sometimes travel faster than light will be revolutionary if the experiment holds up. Those are revolutions.
iPhones and music pods, pretty computers and user-friendly tablets are not. Indeed, Jobs didn’t so much invent things as communicate them: even the much vaunted Macintosh was cribbed from IBM researchers. But–and it’s a big “but”–that communication was a wonder–an actual honest-to-God wonder. A, “Holy shit, did you just see what he did?” wonder. Steve Jobs communicated wonder. That was his genius. To figure out what was possible and then tell us about it, because most of us simply didn’t know. He brought good news–that all those tangles of wire and mash-ups of plastic could make the world more human, not less.
He told us that engineering could produce more than just engineers and geeks. A consummate salesman, he sold us on ourselves as technological pioneers. We didn’t have to rely on specialists or newly minted grandchildren to help us wirelessly roam suburban jungles. Even the technologically illiterate could email and network, flickr their families and download lost loves. Touch this. Pinch that. Swipe here. And although Jobs had something close to a pathological dislike of buttons, the one button he invested in brought you home. Just one button for that.
Stop for a moment and think about that: think of all the little switches and dongles and zippers on all of the devices in all the wide webbed world before him, and Jobs saw that the only one that mattered brought you home–back to the place you know. The place you can set out from again and again on your way to wherever it is you’re going. That was genius; that was cut-to-the-quick insight into how people work. Click your heels together, and there you are, safe and sound. That was art.
Jobs was often criticized by the tecno-elite for closing off his platform, and isolating his systems from unsanctioned innovations, and I’m sure they have a point. By all accounts, he could be as monomaniacal as Ahab, but Steve Jobs did more to democratize the digital revolution than anyone before him–even Bill Gates. He made the unnatural binary expression of information natural, human–even ordinary. Everyone got to participate in the latest advances, not just the gnomes in the IT department. Jobs stole their pass codes and turned chemistry back into alchemy. Why? Because almost no one cares about the periodic table; they just want to see someone turn lead into gold. Personally, I wish it worked some other way–truly, I love gnomes, and the periodic table–but there’s no reason to lament what isn’t. That’s for teenagers and malcontents. Artists and visionaries have always worked on the possible, hammered it, melted it down and then, after its all slagged and pliant, added just a dollop, the tiniest tincture of the impossible to transform it, turn it into something new. That’s how you turn lead into gold–by whiffs and dashes.
Jobs understood that it didn’t matter what people should do with computers; it mattered what they did do. And like all great artists–and yes, I think that’s what he was, by any definition of the word that has meaning–he didn’t care what we said we wanted–he saw what we wanted and took us there. It’s not the best way to make friends, but there’s no other way to make art. Of course, as an engineer, his art had to obey other rules than the poet’s or the painter’s, different rules than the musician’s or the physicist’s, but his art shared, along with all great art, an approach vector on the truth. And the truth is that we don’t care about technology; we care about ourselves, and we care about each other, and sometimes at our best, we care about ourselves as others and others as selves, and technology that doesn’t get the hell out of the way of that basic insight is like an overstuffed suitcase–necessary but unwanted.
Like I said, I didn’t know Steve Jobs, but I think I understood some part of him. I’m not so sure he changed the world; mostly because I don’t think anyone ever really does. But I do think he decorated it a bit, left it a bit tidier, a little more interesting to look at than when he found it. Really, the best any genius can hope for is to repair a door knob or two, fix a leaky faucet, maybe leave a postcard or a note for the people who take up residence alongside and aft.
I read that he knew he was dying when he resigned as Apple’s CEO back in August. That’s a long two months, a long time to get ready for that last house guest–the one who always reminds us that no matter how crazy it gets, no matter how deep we are in this mess, swiping, pinching and drag-dropping our way through the madness, one button always brings us home.
RIP Steve Jobs.