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The Soul of Apple
This week something unusual happened. At the very same time that tens of thousands of ordinary citizens were camping out in New York, Washington, and Seattle to protest corporate greed, and the capitalistic wealth of the very rich, a similar number of ordinary citizens were depositing flowers and spiritual offerings at the corporate stores of the wealthiest company in the world (with earnings larger than most countries), in memory of one of the richest people in the world, the late Steve Jobs. Why would a billionaire elicit such affection and love during this moment of fierce dissatisfaction with global capitalism?
Because Steve Jobs was a CEO of beauty. In his interviews and especially in private, Jobs often spoke about Art. Taste. Soul. Life. And he sincerely meant it, as evidenced by the tasteful, soulful products he created over 30 years. The collective mass mourning and commiseration that erupted on news of his death is due to the fact that his art touched billions of people. Most of the technological gadgets that we experience in life are not ruled by beauty; they are not art; they do not reflect a soul. In fact they seem brutally crass, ugly, and lifeless. But over time, Apple products came to explicitly reflect the soul of one person: Steve Jobs. People cried when Jobs died because they genuinely felt they "knew" him in some fashion when they swiped their iPad, or shuffled their iPod. And they did. Even though some 46,000 other Apple employees did most of the hard work, those lovely designs and intense smartness of the Apple gadgets were extensions of Steve Jobs himself.
Jobs clearly put design and art before money -- and that made his work thrilling. It was not just a gimmick. Jobs was a college dropout, a hippy who drifted in India, a technologist with no training in engineering or software, a renegade who admitted to being transformed by the psychedelic drug LSD, a lousy manager who was fired by the very company he started. In his heart of heart, Jobs was an artist, a misfit, maybe a mystic, a square peg in a round hole. It may only be an accident of fate that the greatest invention of all time, the personal computer, was born in his backyard of Silicon Valley just when he was coming of age, and that this invention's particular needs fit Jobs' odd combination of talents perfectly.
His talents were that he had a designer's eye and the unwavering self-confidence of a genius. Other genius creators such as Picasso, or Mozart, or Dickens never asked their audience what they should do next; they just made their art as true to themselves as they could, and then it would be loved. Likewise, Jobs famously said, "It is not the customer's problem to know what they want." This was Job's problem: to find out what was beautiful, and which beauty others desired. When that worked, the love (and money) flowed towards it.
If a person can do that once, they are hailed as brilliant. Yet Jobs had an uncanny knack for finding an unexpected beauty again and again. Often his designs were so unexpected that they became entirely new industries. The list is long and familiar by now. He helped realize the now universal drag-and drop interface of the personal computer, the musical iPod and its iTunes store, the iPad tablet, the iPhone world, Pixar computer animations, and along the way two remarkably innovative and beautiful advertising campaigns, including what many agree is the best commercial ever produced: the 1984 Mac Superbowl ad, and the campaign that is 100% Steve Jobs: Think Different.
How is it possible one person could do all this? Jobs gave hints of his secrets along the way, but never more clearly than in his commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He claimed his success had nothing to do with technology, or working hard, or being the smartest. Instead he gave credit to failure and death. His failure in dropping out of college allowed him to audit classes in subjects he found fun—like calligraphy—useless knowledge which only later turned out to be essential for making the first beautiful fonts for computers. His failure in being fired by his own company allowed him to jump out of computers and begin to build digital lifestyle devices, which would never have happened if he had stayed. As a aging hippy who always wore blue jeans he said he "wore the wrong kind of pants" to be a CEO, but being a failed CEO later made him an even more successful one. As for death, Jobs said, "Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new...Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."
Jobs was living his own life and that gave him genius. In my experience, greatness is overrated. Greatness always appears in a person alongside great weaknesses. Job's great genius came with the price of being a great jerk at the same time. He was often arrogant, harsh, duplicit, ego-centric, and just plain mean. He was no saint. He publicly berated hard working employees, and it took him years to acknowledge he was the father of his first daughter. But he could be extremely charming the next minute. In other words he was deeply human, but he was just more obvious about his humanity. I believe Job's genius lay in his ability to channel his humanity into very technological products.
He rejected the idea that technology had to look like... well, technology. Technology bored him. In 1996 I had an opportunity to jointly interview Jobs for Wired magazine. This was at a low point in his career. He had been dismissed from Apple, and was re-inventing himself at his new company NeXT. The NeXT computer was utterly beautiful -- a perfect black cube -- but almost no one wanted to buy one. His company headquarters were equally elegant with a bold staircase design he would later recycle in his Apple stores. However this beautiful computational object was a commercial failure. But Jobs thrives on attention, so he was in a rare mood to invite some journalists in to chat. In that wide-ranging conversation I asked Jobs: "What's the biggest surprise about technology?" And his answer surprised me. "We're born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It's been happening for a long time. Technology is not changing it much - if at all."
I saw then that to Jobs computers were not about technology and not about computing. They were not even about communicating. The new things that we make, the ones that have computer chips inside, are about expressing our humanity. Earlier inventions like the microphone and telephone and television extended our senses; these ones like the iPad and iPhone were about extending our imaginations, our minds, and our values. They wanted to harness our full bodies, all our senses including speech, at thinking speeds, with intuition and grace. We should dance with our technology.
But that is now. Back then when I left the NeXT offices, I felt that we would probably never hear from Jobs again. He seemed utopian, quixotic, a total dreamer. I was so wrong. A failure for Jobs was the ideal learning platform it should be for all of us. He had his eye on a much larger vision, one that he felt was an inevitable human destination that could not be derailed by a mere failure. In is eyes, technology made us more human, rather than less. When technology was beautiful, we were beautiful. There was to be more of it so why not make it as beautiful as possible?
It's hard to tell how long Apple will continue without Jobs to create beautiful inventions that make us better people. But I don't think more iPods and iPhones is the long-term legacy of Steve Jobs. It's much bigger. The greatest legacy of Steve Jobs is that he gave permission to everyone else to be a poet of computers, to be a businessman in blue jeans, to be a constructive misfit, a technological artist, a corporate renegade, to think different, and to remember the soul of the machine. Because of him we all have now learned to demand that technology reveal its beauty.
What about the way Steve Jobs lived his life inspires you to live yours in a different way?
Editor's Note: The image above is of the 5th Avenue Apple Store in New York City and was taken yesterday.
Great article. Thanks so much.
Great observations – Thank you for the thoughtful post. To fail is one thing; to learn from those mistakes is another. I see Jobs as humble enough to learn from his mistakes instead of repeating them. Yes, he could be a jerk but the great equalizer is that he expected as much or more from himself as from others.
May we be instructed by his spirit of excellence and prophetic words acknowledging the reality and proximity of death. I pray that he found the Truth that sets Free.
I liked the use of these words, right at the beginning, "Art. Taste. Soul. Life." Kelly then continues throughout his article to reference beauty. Steve Jobs was initially unsuccessful at Apple because he was ahead of his time. He was conceptual in the beginning of the information age. They brought him back because his ability to conceptualize the human spirit into technology was exactly what they needed to over-take the machine that is Microsoft. Anyone who has ever read Daniel Pink's book about the shift to the conceptual age knows that Jobs, a child of the 60's, was conceptual while everyone else was rushing around trying to keep up with the information. It was Jobs innate ability and his poets heart that has put a human face, and touch, on our technological driven age. Kelly's insight was perfect.
"Insanely great" insight, Kello......
After purchasing an iPhone 3G in 2008, and subsequently an iPhone 4 and MacBook pro, I have gone from Apple sceptic to someone who finds themselves critiquing almost every designed object against Apple's design ethic. I remember taking several industrial design classes in college where sometimes we were prohibited or at least discouraged from using Apple or the new iPhone in our case studies. Our instructor would acknowledge that while Apple is the superlative of tech. design world, there were other companies and products we needed to study as well.
While Job's character might be called into question at times (but who is immune to that?) and might not have been the best reflection of God's character, his attention to beauty and elegance is what continues to inspire me, and that does reflect God's character!
I find his flair very inspiring, if not beguiling, but his complete failure to respect the human rights of those who continue to build iPhones and iPads in the Foxconn sweatshop in China, this inspires me to make the West more aware of the human cost of our beautifully stylish technology.
“I should be honest with you,” says Foxconn CEO, Terry Gou, about employee suicides, “The first one, second one, and third one, I did not see this as a serious problem." (there have been 15 suicides in the last year) “..a harsh environment is a good thing”, “..hungry people have especially clear minds."
LESS IS MORE!
i love Steve AND you Kevin!
Thanks for the great description of a brilliant man who defined himself not by his creations but by his love for life and his passion to inspire others to live well.
Here is the link to the 1984 Superbowl Mac commercial
"We're born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It's been happening for a long time. Technology is not changing it much - if at all."
Nice. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences of Steve Jobs.
Nothing he has ever done means anything if he did not know Jesus Christ as his lord. I hope he did. Its what we do for Christ that transforms people lives. I really am starting to believe this web-site has lost its way. I to think the guy was a genius, and I think his products are magiacal. But i dont think he took any with him, and I dont think they necessarily made life better for the average guy. In some ways it could have actually made life more difficult for the hard working joe. Remember he was just a man like you and me. Had his faults like you and me. Each day we wake up we should ask how we can glorfy Christ today. If not then why are we here. Surely not just to impress each other.
I would add that Michael you are right. We really dont know Steve Jobs the man. We are putting an almost idolic spin on a man who makes "stuff". How can you say it was not about the money. Come on people, Love the man,,,sure. But dont be so blind.
Even though I own several Apple products (which I enjoy) and recognize the impact that Jobs had on our world, one must also realize that most of these devices are devices of consumption. I'm not against better ways to listen to music, or watch movies, or surf the internet, -- but after reading most articles on the web (and related comments), you would have thought that he cured cancer.
I wonder what will be said of Bill Gates, whose gadgets/devices/software have not been "cool," but who dedicated almost his entire fortune of 58 billions dollars to charity (which is approximately 58 billion dollars more than Jobs did).
Again, I love Steve's dedication and his love for top-notch design, but no need to give him the keys to Heaven :-)
C. A. Beninati
You make a valid statement about the comparison of Jobs and Gates in their charity donations, although perhaps it could be said that Jobs donated culture, while Gates donates money.
I would, however, differ on your statement that "most of these devices are devices of consumption". In fact, most of these devices are devices for consumers. The great difference is that the devices themselves provide options for consumption: music, video, games, but the Mac, the iPod touch, the iPad, the iPhone- these provide a platform for art, which need not be limited to mere consumption. In the end, it is the user who decides how to respond to the device, and its content.
As a developer for iOS for education and museums, I have found the iPlatform to be nothing less than a canvas for my own artistic expression. For me, it is a device of creation. But, in all that I do with my creation, I can allow others to better interact with the world (be it a museum exhibit, or a classroom), and to more effectively contribute to the lives of others.
In the end of course, there is no good thing nor great contribution to man nor culture that can replace the redemption we have in Christ Jesus.
Thank you mr. Kelly, I could quote every single line of this article.
@C. A. Beninati
Yes, your points are valid. I guess I'm saying that the fact that his devices (and Pixar) entertained an entire populace is why the adulation is so high (even though educational/productivity apps are available).
The last 20 years has a number of personalities that have set the groundwork for personal computing, or the internet, or operating systems (e.g. Bill Gates), which in turn provided our entire age/culture with new opportunities and ways of life (still often seen in 3rd world countries where Apple is less prominent). But none of these people will attain the level of pure adulation that Steve has received (across both secular and Christian media) because America is a middle-class, consumer-based culture.
This is not meant to be a slam in any way -- just an observation that people are judged by the type of culture they live in -- in this case, a consumerist one celebrates Steve to the ultimate degree. On the converse, we find many innovators/authors that die unknown and uncelebrated because they were in a culture that did not fit their focus.
Many people say that while Gates gave away his fortune, Jobs gave to culture. But that's a false dichotomy because Gates also influenced our generation -- probably to a greater degree as 98% of businesses ran off his platform in the 80s/90s/00s. Even this site here (QIdeas) runs on .Net -- a Microsoft technology. And then he decided to give away his entire fortune as well.
It's perfectly fine that Jobs didn't choose to donate his wealth, but you can't deny that all technological greats have contributed to culture as well.
C. A. Beninati
You are absolutely right. Jobs, from within the middle-class consumer culture, is ultimately celebrated. I was just trying to clarify that, while his devices and market may be labeled "consumer", it is the user, not the device that makes it consumer. In the case of the overall middle-class consumer demographic, the devices may be perceived as simply for consumption, but as believers, we can and should be critics of the value and culture of these creations and use them to contribute to the creation and preservation of culture itself. (Loosely based on the philosophy discussed by Andy Crouch in his "Culture Making" book and website.)
As for your "observation that people are judged by the type of culture they live in", I couldn't agree more. A very excellent point indeed. It is a shame to think of some of the really true greats who have been lost to time, although their ideas and/or creations may have shaped generations for better or worse. This almost happened to Jobs with his departure from Apple back in 1985, and I wonder what would have happened if he had given up and cut his losses.
This also makes me wonder- If an idea is great, profound and perhaps even revolutionary, but is not accepted by its culture, then was it really a worthy idea? (i.e: What is the value of an idea without action, or maybe faith without works?)
Thanks for your feedback, I have enjoyed thinking about it (Even if it has brought my mind down some strange rabbit holes... :) ).
I haven't heard or read anywhere that Gates gave away his fortune and Jobs gave to culture, I was just implying that it might be said (and possibly erroneously at that).
There are many ways to impact culture, but I would ask if that impact was beneficial and improving on culture, or just impacting? My comment was referring to an idea that there is a standard by which we can measure the success of a contribution to culture. I believe that standard to be based on nature itself, and the ways in which things exist because they come from the Creator. Simplicity, harmony, elegance. These are some of the ways through which we can observe the goodness of a cultural artifact or idea.
In reference to Microsoft corporate (or even consumer) market share, that only demonstrates that they were able to preserve culture. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Where have they, however, significantly or intentionally contributed to its development, improvement and innovation? The Microsoft model was/is a solid business model- to generate profit. Apple's model was/is the same. The difference lies in the people who created these companies, and ultimately that brings us to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs respectively. Gates engineered a software business. He did well at it, and now uses his reward to encourage and enable innovators to do what they do best. For Jobs however, everything he did from Apple to Pixar to choosing a washing machine was a spiritual endeavor. He didn't love technology, he loved art.
In the end, Bill Gates hasn't given away his entire fortune, and Steve Jobs is not the only man to positively influence culture. Gates has given away a fortune (possibly greater than any other living man), and Jobs has had a greater direct influence on culture than any other man of his time.
Thanks for sharing your reflections, I enjoyed them very much. Per the conversation between some of the commenters about how much and to what extent Christians ought to regard Jobs's life, I'll offer a few thoughts of my own. I wrote an essay considering that very question in the days after his death. If you'll forgive the shameless self promotion, I'll drop in a link to it here:
Does not our Lord make good use of the works of man, whether Christian or not?
Does He not stir our hearts to somehow do something about slave labor in China that provides Apple products for us?
The fact that we even care about the workers in China, says a lot about the people that use and pay attention to Apple.
Those same factories make products for many other companies, but they are rarely ever quoted in the press (Dell being the prime example).
I am sure Apple has been working hard to improve things over there (in fact, apparently Apple petitioned for a wage increase and better working conditions at Foxconn - and they also tried to convince them to open plants in Brazil with less humanitarian issues).
We tend to assume a lot when it comes to other countries, but I don't think this is a simple problem. It's not easy to change a culture or a financial structure or an economy in which it allows companies like Foxconn to exist and thrive.
Apple cannot force them to change, and cannot realistically not use them because their products would then cost twice as much to build and three times as much to buy, effectively putting Apple out of business.
There's a reason these products are not built in North America, and we are witness to the democratization of China due to the press this is generating.
In 20 years, people may look back and recognize that because of the changes in China (due to the publicity of these Apple problems), they were able to improve working conditions and standards throughout the country.
This is like my third time visiting your Blog. You should write more please, this information will help me and others. Try proof reading a couple of times before publishing. Keep writing though.
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