Saturday, October 22, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Esthetics of Computers

When Apple co-founder and longtime CEO Steve Jobs passed away earlier this month, the tributes, laments, and commentaries were all out of proportion to the usual “captain-of-industry” obituaries. That’s because Jobs was not just a captain of industry, though he was that. More than anyone else, he was identified with the esthetic associated with everything Apple, including the Macintosh computer.

Pardon me if I get shamelessly nostalgic for a moment. I saw my first Macintosh at the home of a missionary friend of ours in North Carolina in the late 1980s. Because the first Mac came out in 1984, this must have been either a Mac Plus or perhaps an SE. Anyway, the minute I saw how the mouse worked and how you could escape the hated DOS magic words by just clicking on things on the screen, I fell in love with it. In fact, one day not too long after that, my wife found me in flagrante delicto in bed—with a rented Mac. Despite her initial objections to my taking a computer to bed with me, she soon came around, and when she found out you could do really cool graphics on the thing, she started to learn drawing programs on it. This eventually turned into a full-time job for her at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I worked at the time, and she became the staff technical illustrator for their College of Engineering.

Through thick and thin (notably thin in the 1990s during Jobs’ absence), we have stuck with Macs ever since. As Bill Gates and Microsoft came to dominate the non-artistic consumer and business computer world, I eventually had to buy a PC or two to run software that was not available on the Mac platform. But I always sort of mentally hold my nose whenever I have to do that, putting up with the cheesy-looking graphics, relatively speaking, and the just-good-enough compromises that characterize Windows products compared to Apple stuff.

That is pure personal opinion, and while the Mac-versus-PC battles have largely subsided since the turn of the twenty-first century, there is an odd analogy between what brand of computer one uses and the religion one subscribes to. Ideally, a religion shapes one’s entire worldview and positively influences one’s daily life. The mechanical reliability and elegance of Macintosh products and the style of the OS X operating environment do those things for me, on a small scale. And the fanatic perfectionism that Steve Jobs was famous (or infamous) for is no small reason why Macs and other Apple products such as the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad are so easy to incorporate into one’s life.

Jobs was as much an artist as he was an engineer or entrepreneur. His superabundant talents allowed him to metaphorically zoom along at 80 in a sportscar while most people were still on foot, whether the task was designing a motherboard, inventing a new form of entertainment medium, or rescuing a moribund company.

It’s interesting, though not always illuminating, to inquire into a famous person’s faith, or at least evidences of it. By most accounts I’ve read, the faith Jobs was most often associated with was Buddhism. He ate no meat (only fish), and in his early years made a pilgrimage to India to an ashram. Why someone deeply influenced by Buddhism would wind up inventing world-changing people-friendly hardware is not obvious. There are plenty of Buddhists who have not done anything like that, so Buddhism alone isn’t the answer to the “why” of Jobs’ career.

But I think the style of Apple can be traced, at least in part, to elements of Buddhism.

The essence of the old DOS operating system was the command. You typed in a command, and the computer (presumably) obeyed. But you had first to learn all those commands, so in a way the computer was in charge, not you, if you didn’t know any commands. So the first thing a person had to do in order to use an old-style IBM PC was to go to school to learn some arbitrary commands cooked up by programmers, who were the real commanders of the whole business. It was a hierarchy: the programmers, the user, the computer.

Now, hierarchies have their place. I’m a Christian, and in many places the Christian universe is portrayed hierarchically: God at the top, then angels, then mankind, then the lower animals, plants, and inanimate objects (the Great Chain of Being, so called). But it’s not necessarily the best way to organize computing for the average person.

The Apple esthetic is to subsume the programmers, the technical junk, and the magic words into the invisible interior of the machine. What the user sees is simplicity, elegance, and hardware and software that is seamlessly integrated, both with each other and with the natural way humans do things: we point at things we’re interested in, we touch things to get stuff, our visual field focuses in on things of interest, and so on. With Apple machines, you get the feeling that people come first. The hardware and software are only means to the end of accomplishing something truly beneficial to humanity, with the rough edges smoothed off. To the greatest extent possible, the average person’s native abilities are often sufficient for the task. The highest compliment an operating system can get is that it’s “intuitive,” and that is true of most Apple designs.

It’s not a coincidence or fluke that after his difficulties that led to his leaving Apple in 1985, Jobs found success with the movie studio that eventually became Pixar. The vital thing in movies is to appeal to as many people as you can, tapping typical emotions that the vast majority of us have in common. This sense of what the average person wants to do, and what they’ll think is funny or appealing, was at the heart of everything Jobs did, whether it was encouraging innovative animation at Pixar or innovative hardware design at Apple.

How is that more like Buddhism than Christianity? Well, it’s certainly not hierarchical. The Beatles, who were heavily influenced by Buddhism, made famous the phrase “Let it be.” Jobs let human nature be, and adapted his signature products to the way people are, not the way some programmer wants them to be. And the world is richer for all he did. Not necessarily in the sense of more wealthy, though that has happened too. But richer in the way that every truly meritorious work of art makes us all richer. Recquiescat in pace.

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