Steve Jobs: an imperfect perfectionist

IN THE present context, the metaphor may well be an anachronism; nonetheless, I will begin with bookends drawn from my personal relationship with Apple products. The computer on which I have typed the words you are reading is an Apple MacBook Air which I bought this week. The first piece I ever composed by means of the personal computer — an essay on metaphor in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species — was typed over twenty years ago on an Apple II. I am no lover of computers, and even less a Mac enthusiast: and yet here I am a citizen of the Empire.

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In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, an editorial cartoon (above) rather caustically summarizes the “vast and profound legacy of Steve Jobs” by depicting a family of four at the dinner table, each fully absorbed in an Apple device, two iPads, a MacBook Pro, and an iPhone. Today a thoughtful person can not but feel ambivalence about the microchip and its progeny, an ambivalence which logically and necessarily extends to the very idea of material progress. Does technology advance or retard the material and emotional wellbeing of the human individual? In my opinion, both. This ambivalence furthermore extends to any honest accounting of Steve Jobs himself, a former Buddhist and a lover of beauty who by all accounts was a micromanaging dictator and all-around pain in the ass.

There is nothing either original or attractive, to me at least, in the cliché of an intolerable perfectionist whose fanaticism and rigidity yields extraordinary business success. Everything of this nature that I have over the years learned about Jobs I expected. Of course he listened to no one and yelled at his employees and made others feel bad. Jobs was so awful that he had to be fired from Apple by the CEO he had himself lured from Pepsi in 1983. But by then Jobs had transformed Apple Computers, headquartered in his parents’ garage, into the billion-dollar-a-year Apple Inc.

Jobs had considerable help along the way. The Steve Jobs / Steve Wozniak partnership is the business equivalent of Lennon-MacCartney, a fact of which Jobs was well aware. Wozniak’s genius as a circuitry engineer might have gone nowhere beyond hobbyism without Jobs’ vision of the consumer potential of home computers. Jobs took the objects Wozniak was making in his computer club and turned them into viable commercial products. It’s hard to imagine either of these men succeeding quite so well on his own, Jobs lacking entirely both Wozniak’s knowledge of, and interest in, computer circuitry — and Wozniak being less than enthusiastic about the prospects of a computer business empire.

The man who looked back fondly to the 1960s and to his LSD trips was also the man who returned to Apple in 1997, after an eleven-year exile, eliminating all of the company’s philanthropic programs. Any supposed contradiction between ‘sixties nostalgia and the elimination of philanthropy is misplaced: more remarkable is the consistency of the man who always fashioned himself as “counter-cultural,” in this instance counter to the culture of corporate giving. We are led to believe that Jobs obsessed over this matter of culture, and that he apprehended consumer electronics as a species of poetry. A New York Times article quotes Gadi Amit, founder and principal designer of New Deal Design in San Francisco, as follows:

Most people underestimate his grandeur and his greatness […] They think it’s about design. It’s beyond design. It’s completely holistic, and it’s dogmatic. Things need to be high quality; they have to have poetry and culture in each step. Steve was cut from completely different cloth from most business leaders. He was not a number-crunching guy; he was not a technologist. He was a cultural leader, and he drove Apple from that perspective. He started with culture; then followed with technology and design. No one seems to get that.

This perhaps explains the irksome snobbery that invariably attaches to Apple products, which are first and foremost “lifestyle” statements. Whether Jobs must be blamed for creating this mess, or whether the mess was already there and merely exploited, I am unable to decide. He himself seemed hardly to be either elitist or ostentatious. He lived for example in a mostly unfurnished house, and you may have noticed that in near every photo he is dressed the same, and for that matter not very stylishly, wearing a black mock turtleneck and Levi’s and New Balance sneakers.

Despite his apparent lack of personal sartorial style, there is no doubt that aesthetics did matter to Jobs. According to his own claim, the Mac was inspired by a calligraphy course he once attended. It happens that I am something of a fanatic myself when it comes to typefaces, and so I can fill in intuitively what for others must be the logical gaps in this declaration. For me the printed word is a physical object and therefore an aesthetic experience. I never read a restaurant menu or a street sign without noticing the curves of the minuscule Gs. I feel pleasure whenever I see the Art Deco rendering of Toronto street names in the subway. I seek out the ligature and the small cap (the real small cap, which is a separate font requiring a special design). When it comes to fonts, I have a foot fetish and I therefore always notice the crafting of the serif. For these and other reasons, my favourite font is Adobe Jenson, and my favorite character within that font set the regal and confident small caps number 1 — which looks rather like a Grecian column, or the capital I.

Maybe then I am just the sort of nerdy, nitpicking and differently-thinking weirdo for which the Mac was created. In any case, the thought that a Mac, and for that matter the career of Steve Jobs, in the end might be “about” the human business of perceiving and delighting in shape and line and form is infinitely more pleasing to me than the more common assertions — that Macs are “better” because they are faster and more efficient. The contemporary economic-cultural fetish of efficiency, productivity and quantitative gain, usually at the expense of more human and humane things like pissing about and just plain being for its own sake, is much deserving of a counter-cultural stand. Think different, indeed.

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