Monday, February 27, 2012

When You Eat from It, Your Eyes Will be Opened

I have a MacBook myself, but I've never been a member of the cult, so I quite enjoyed reading these two articles.

Maureen Tkacik:

Steve Jobs, the book, is very much a product of its time, which is to say, a product of its subject’s fastidious narcissism and the broader culture’s limitless capacity for nurturing it. With any luck future generations will saddle Steve Jobs, the brand, with the blemish of all the jobs (small “j”) a once-great nation relinquished because of brand-name billionaires like Jobs. But we are not there yet.

...But like all the other internal contradictions that seem to endlessly fascinate the punditry elite about Steve Jobs, this apparent conflict between Jobs’ profound affinity for technology and his bizarre unwillingness to allow it to save his life is another pointless straw man that only serves to further elide the very Jobsian simplicity that lies beneath:

There once lived one of those really obstinate assholes who will constantly tell you he couldn’t change his assholic ways if it killed him. It killed him.

There once lived a pathological liar who convinced the world his particular habits of lying were the foundation of his astonishing business success. That turned out to be a lie.

There once lived a drug dealer named Toxic Bob who taught Steve Jobs how to emit noxious fumes and lie about it. Toxic Bob made billions extracting riches from the earth and leaving the toxins behind for the government to clean up. Toxic Bob now resides in Singapore, where chewing gum is against the law.

Both men stayed very true to their brands.

"Pure" was the ultimate compliment that Steve Jobs could bestow. The word and its derivations appear often in Isaacson’s book. “Every once in a while,” says Jobs, “I find myself in the presence of purity—purity of spirit and love—and I always cry.” For Jobs, ideas and products either have purity—and then they are superior to everything else—or they do not, and then they must be rejected or revised. He wants Apple computers to be “bright and pure and honest.” He orders the walls of an Apple factory to be painted “pure white.” The iPad, he says, must embody “the purest possible simplicity.” He is deeply moved by “artists who displayed purity,” and describes an ex-girlfriend as “one of the purest people I’ve ever known.” Apple, he claimed in 1985, “was about as pure of a Silicon Valley company as you could imagine.” Ive, Apple’s master of design, loves purity as well. He wants his devices not in plain white but in “pure white,” because “there would be a purity to it.” A clear coating on the iPod nano would ruin “the purity of his design.” Ive believes—and says that Jobs shared this belief—that products need to look “pure and seamless.”

...For consumers, to embrace such products was to embrace the higher spirit of modernity—a lesson that Steve Jobs understood all too well. Jobs famously expressed his utter indifference to the customer, who in his view does not really know what he wants. Apple’s most incredible trick, accomplished by marketing as much as by philosophy, is to allow its customers to feel as if they are personally making history—that they are a sort of spiritual-historical elite, even if there are many millions of them. The purchaser of an Apple product has been made to feel like he is taking part in a world-historical mission, in a revolution-and Jobs was so fond of revolutionary rhetoric that Rolling Stone dubbed him “Mr. Revolution.”

There was hardly an interview in which Jobs did not dramatize, and speak almost apocalyptically about, the stakes involved in buying Apple’s products. If Apple were to lose to IBM, “we are going to enter sort of a computer Dark Ages for about twenty years.” Or: “If Apple falters, innovation will cease. We will go into a ‘dark ages’ in computing.” He saw revolutionary potential in the most obscure things; he even claimed he had “never seen a revolution as profound” as objectoriented programming—a niche field that was the focus of his work before he returned to Apple. Occasionally his revolutionary rhetoric spread to non-Apple products as well; Time once quoted him as saying that Segway—yes, Segway—was “as big a deal as the PC.”

No wonder that the counterculture fizzled in the early 1980s: everyone was promised they could change the world by buying a Macintosh. Linking Apple to the historical process (Hegel comes to Palo Alto!), and convincing the marketplace that the company always represented the good side in any conflict, broke new ground in promotional creativity. Jobs turned to the power of culture to sell his products. He was a marketing genius because he was always appealing to the meaning of life. With its first batch of computers, Apple successfully appropriated the theme of the decentralization of power in technology—then also present in the deep ecology and appropriate technology movements—that was so dear to the New Left a decade earlier. If people were longing for technology that was small and beautiful—to borrow E.F. Schumacher’s then-popular slogan—Jobs would give it to them. Apple allowed people who had missed all the important fights of their era to participate in a battle of their own—a battle for progress, humanity, innovation. And it was a battle that was to be won in the stores. As Apple’s marketing director in the early 1980s told Esquire, “We all felt as though we had missed the civil rights movement. We had missed Vietnam. What we had was the Macintosh.” The consumer as revolutionary: it was altogether brilliant, and of course a terrible delusion.

...Jobs, the Modern Man par excellence, did not do market research; all he needed was to examine himself. An Apple manager once described the company’s marketing research as “Steve looking in the mirror every morning and asking himself what he wanted.” That is not just a description of narcissism; it is also the natural consequence of viewing the designer as the medium through which the truth speaks to the world. So what if customers did not like some of his products? Jobs’s mirror told him not to worry. As Isaacson puts it, “Jobs did not believe the customer was always right; if they wanted to resist using a mouse, they were wrong.” He also notes that one of Jobs’s ex-girlfriends recalled that they had “a basic philosophical difference about whether aesthetic tastes were fundamentally individual, as [she] believed, or universal and could be taught, as Jobs believed.” “Steve believed it was our job to teach people aesthetics, to teach people what they should like,” she said. This smacks more of Matthew Arnold and Victorian Britain than of Timothy Leary and California in the 1970s.

As a philosophy, of course, this borders on paternalism, if not authoritarianism—something that Der Spiegel failed to grasp when it celebrated Jobs as a philosopher; but philosophy has no place on corporate spreadsheets. For many people, Apple’s success itself justifies Apple’s philosophy. What’s more intriguing, though, is how a company infused with such conservative ideas emerged as the most authentic representative of the counterculture, with Jobs arguing that he was simply extending the “power to the people” fight to the world of computing. Jobs wanted every household in the world to have an Apple product so that he could teach the bastards proper aesthetics: this was emancipation from the top down. It is a strange way to promote empowerment.