Last night when I heard Steve Jobs died (through Gchat), I turned to Facebook on my MacBook Pro, like I do when anything happens that’s both culturally of note and relevant to me personally. Say what you will of Facebook — I find it fascinating for a number of reasons that, for the present moment, trump its deficiencies. When something happens which effects the entire culture, such as the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Facebook becomes a national stream of consciousness, a polyphonic chorus of connectedness.
Reading everyone’s responses to the death of Jobs became a kind of therapy–soothing my deep sense of sadness. The same sadness I felt recently upon hearing of his retirement, because you knew it meant death was coming. You also knew it would be soon, if you follow Apple, because he wasn’t the kind of man who would resign to spend the last years of his life not working; you knew it was weeks or at the most, months.
Friends reacted according to personality, and according to their respective relationships with Macs. Diehard PC user friends made either no comment at all, or saw it as an opportunity to once again express their dislike of Macs and/or Apple Culture (which some see as one and the same) Most of them noted that the passing of the relatively young man is “still sad on a human level.” Most have specific underlying reasons why Macs don’t appeal to them. Some are in a particular field of work or study which lends itself more to PC use than Mac use because of the software involved. Certain software does run better on Macs, other better on PCs. Some friends are the sort of people who can’t like a computer unless it begs to be taken apart and tinkered with. (Macs are most certainly not that.) Some simply grew up with PCs and never got curious about the other side. One even referred to the collective sadness as “distorted hagiography,” presumably because he doesn’t see Jobs as we Apple fans do — as a unique genius and visionary.
I grew up using PCs at home and the occasional early Mac in elementary school. They were widespread in classrooms in the 80’s because Apple marketed specifically to schools. In fact I thought of the computers at school as a toy I wasn’t allowed to touch (back then you had something like one computer per two or three grade levels, so the solitary thing got rolled slowly between classes on a library cart like The Lost Ark, rarely to be used by sticky-fingered tiny mortals), whereas the PC at home was, as far as I was concerned, a monolithic calculator on my father’s monumental desk, but for words instead of numbers. I probably only used it to type the final drafts of book reports. That’s probably all it could really do back then.
Until I was in my mid 20’s, I was still on PCs. In fact I didn’t really understand there was a difference. Ironically, around that time, I actually cut out an Apple “Think Different” ad with a picture of Charlie Chaplin directing on it, and taped it on my bedroom wall. I did this because I loved Charlie Chaplin, and I loved that ad campaign. But I didn’t know Apple at all, let alone love it. I knew Apple represented a specific brand of computer, but all computers seemed alike. Somewhere in there I became a graphic designer, and I looked on my computer as a clunky tool I had to put up with to achieve my projects.
Then a friend loaned me an Apple laptop specifically with the intent of seducing me into that world. He had been talking about the thing as if it were the computer of the gods, and through him I became aware that there existed such a group as “apple fans.” I had never met a fan of any other kind of computer, so I thought he was just the sort of peculiar person who grows esoterically attached to some brands. But after playing with the Mac a few hours, I wanted one, badly; I wanted never to have to touch a PC again.
It was as if all my life, I had used male computers, and never knew there were females. It was as if my previous life had been dominated by an electronic box that sat around my ankle like a cold, awkward ball and chain, and I used it thusly, and assumed the experience was a fundamental basis for life with computers. When it broke, I had to run to my dad to fix it — it seemed always to be breaking, always interrupting what I was doing because it appeared to need something before it would allow me to continue. Computers, to me, seemed too high maintenance to be very practical, and I remember feeling this strange nebulous desire for something like a computer, but without all the annoying bits. A desire which was fulfilled by my first Apple, my second Apple, and so on. Everything about the user experience of Apple was intuitive, and nothing man-made in my experience had ever been like that other than a bicycle. Appropriately, Jobs once described computers as bicycles for the mind.
Using it became pleasurable precisely in the places where the PC had felt so awkward. It felt like an extension of my brain and body, and the line between work and play blurred. I didn’t need my father to open it constantly, tweak its insides, and bring it back to life. It simply worked like it was supposed to. On the rare occasion that something would go wrong, something actually was wrong; my Mac wasn’t acting coy, as the PC seemed to do, implying that computers should just be expected to behave badly from time to time or require a license for operation. Yes, I can already hear my PC friends defending themselves. But the truth is, without Apple providing that specific user-satisfaction competition for which they are known, Windows might never have improved as it has over the past several years.
One of the few positives I gained from three years of art school was a more refined appreciation for Steve Jobs’ aesthetic. Every detail I love on a Mac was designed for a specific reason by a tireless and exacting auteur, rather than by committee. It has been said it takes a dictator to create the iPhone, and it does. The way things were done in similar technologies meant bad things for the consumer: that a product is released with a minimal expectation of longevity, minimal expectation of user satisfaction, and a certain disposability attached therein. Indeed, the pitfall of innovation is we’re so caught up with the newest technology, the technology itself drives the experience so that we’re eager to move onto the next technology rather than refine that experience. Jobs was different precisely because he insisted on this business of the human experience driving the technology. He was willing to spend extra time and money getting things right from the beginning, rather than sacrificing details — details that change everything — to the machine of the status quo within manufacturing.
A fictionalized embodiment of Beethoven once said in a biopic, “It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.” I was reminded of that quote when I reflected upon my genuine sadness over the death of Steve Jobs. He was a composer of something that nobody ever thought could be composed: a surprisingly human relationship with technology. The reason this loss feels so intimate, is because the user experience of Apple has felt like being transported directly into one mind — one way of seeing logic and order, one way of looking at things. It may not be everyone’s idea of perfect design, but for those who feel that loss with me, it was a beautiful way of seeing things. Oh, the things he could have done for us if given another 50 years.