Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs, an appreciation

I first started using Macs when I was in college. Macs were brand new. My family had had an Apple IIe (I think that was the model), but I never used it much. I remember my Dad being amazed that we had upgraded all the way to 64k of memory. But the screen was the classic green screen, and you couldn't do much more than type. But you could do lots of stuff with a Mac.

I wrote a paper in college about James Joyce's Ulysses. I argued that Joyce had achieved in literature what Einstein had achieved in physics. One of Einstein's great insights was that space and time were not separate, but were part of a continuum. Joyce, I wrote, understood form and content the same way. They are not separate, but part of a continuum. The (possibly pretentious) way that I put it was that form is infinitely refined content, and content is infinitely refined form. I'm not sure I could explain that today as well as I did then, so you're going to have to trust me on this one.

Part of Steve Jobs' genius is that he understood the relationship between art and technology in the same terms. Most people think of design and engineering as separate; Jobs understood that they are not just inextricably linked, but inseparable, and one informs the other. It's easy to design a machine without thinking about it's design; it's easy to design a machine without worrying about how well it works. It's very difficult to combine both. But, as Jobs understood, it's worth it. And because it's so hard, it's important to do it really, really well. Steve Jobs was not just a perfectionist because he wanted to be one; he was a perfectionist because he had to be one.

But it wasn't just art and technology that he understood as being parts of a continuum. He had the same understanding of art and commerce. The fact that Apple products are visually appealing isn't just a nice side effect of good design; that is part of what makes them useful. It's really easy to use an iPhone. The concept of a "user-friendly" computer was revolutionary in 1984. That simplicity is both aesthetically pleasing and technologically empowering. Again, that combination is very hard to pull off, but also worth it. And worth high prices. It's not just a nice idea to make something that beautiful that people also like using - it's a great business model.

Finally, this idea - that art and technology combine to make great products that are worth their price - is what drives Steve Jobs' other great contribution to American culture, Pixar. It's very technologically challenging to make a Pixar movie. But the fact that it's so technically difficult also means that the story has to be just as good, to justify the cost. Computer animation is nice to look at, but the charm of the images won't get enough people in theaters. Just like Apple, the perfectionism at Pixar isn't there just because the people there are neurotic obsessives. They're perfectionists because, like Steve Jobs, they have to be.