He invented all the devices you love, or insist you hate. Apple’s founder has passed away at 56, and coming to terms with his legacy requires some tricky thinking. A personal tribute by RICHARD POPLAK.
About a year ago, I found myself at table with an Israeli affairs pundit. These are disquieting folk at the best of times—they have the uncanny ability of upending any and all assumptions you may have carried until the moment you sit down with them. For indeed, they have a different understanding of time, an alternate belief in violence and an understanding of the tide of history—its wretched warp and woof—that doesn’t accord with much of polite society.
I was told the Israeli armed forces no longer use maps, they no longer make assumptions as basic as “I am an Israeli soldier, therefore I fight for Israel”, they are no longer interested in the term “enemy”. The theory, according to the pundit, is that the best Israeli soldier will reassess her environment on a second by second basis. What was a house 15 minutes ago is now a bunker. There is no such thing as “real”.
This is our world flayed bare. No past; only an undefined and indefinable future. What we are talking about, said the pundit, is the meaning of postmodern.
As the pundit continued her terrifying, edifying monologue, I was brought to mind of Steven Jobs. The late guru of Apple Inc., a visionary by any definition of the term, was also not interested in “real”. He was concerned with the future on his own terms, defined by innovations that he created, through a vessel that exemplified his understanding of the world, or at least how it should be. He succumbed to complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 56, while the company he was instrumental in creating reigns as one of the most valuable in the world. Such is the inadvertent role of irony in the postmodern.
Behold the wave of grand proclamations and hagiographic bromides—Twitter is athwart with Job-isms like: “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” All of this guff aside, it is culturally vital to acknowledge the following: Steve Jobs was perhaps the greatest postmodernist who ever lived. He employed the art of minimalism to enhance technology; he employed technology to advance the art of the minimal. He constantly revised “now”, as if the moment was a canvas that was stretched only as a palimpsest, to be scrawled over by technological development and a belief in the free market that was second to none.
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His products, at least under the aegis of Apple, have long found a place in the design canon as monuments of our age. (MoMa was displaying the first iPod as far back as 2005, like a Damien Hearst without the formaldehyde.) You cannot unravel Steve Jobs from your daily life—what you don’t use that he didn’t invent was invented as an alternative to one of his inventions. The sweep of his imagination is illustrated by the caprice of his 313 registered patents: power adaptors, laptop hinges, display cases, operating system configurations, packaging, “graphical user interface methods”.
In short, he was the Shakespeare of our time. Five centuries from now, the gasp-inducing sweep of his influence will be contested by humans we can barely conceive of, all using variations of the tools he helped create. No one will believe that one person could do all that he has done. The early work on the Macintosh, which he completed with thwarted partner Steven Wozniak. The vanquishing by übernerd, William B Gates, and his inferior Microsoft. (The epic contest between purity and debasement; genius and expediency.) His years in exile, in which he developed a computer animation company that has created some of the defining narratives of our time. (Pixar’s “Wall-E”? Please note that the heroine of the film resembles an iPod, an act of postmodern recognition one hopes is entirely intentional.) And the remaking of the music industry, not to mention the revision of film and television second tier distribution models, via his iTunes interface.
It is that last act, combined with one of Job’s less significant patents, that sparked the comparison between his legacy and that of the Israeli armed forces—at least as things are defined by my Israeli pundit acquaintance. For Steve Jobs perfected the virtual storefront, along with co-patenting the “glass” staircase that has become a trademark of bigger Apple stores the world over. Virtual and real—a seamless conversation that only he seemed to be engaged in. The feel of a piece of hardware, the functionality of an operating system, and the packaging in which it comes—this confluence was classic Steve Jobs. It was as understanding that few among his peers—the grand crew of geeks who invented our world—were able to grasp. And so he will be remembered as the greatest of them; a wizard who died at the height of his powers, rich to the tune of $8 billion and change—a leader in a time in which his products have become reliquaries.
This said, there was something creepy about Jobs, about the pared down black and white of him—something ungenerous in the parson-like appearance, especially in his rake-thin final years. He stood before a digital screen, with an as-yet unnamed device in his hands, cradling the fortunes of shareholders and acolytes alike. iTunes has always felt like a contraption designed to control consumers, rather than benefit them. There was the element of the dictator’s plaything in iTune’s working model—it has enraged many, and rightly so. For them, Job’s passing will not be mourned—Apple sought control, and could occasionally resemble a regime in its rigidity.
And this from an ex-hippy—from a man who dated Joan Baez, who said his LSD experiences were some of the most important of his life. He was indeed the reformed counterculture kid, a child of San Francisco who became a child of a future of his own making—a prude (no porn on Apple devices!) and a square. The geek who would inherit the Earth.
But Jobs can’t be understood, indeed his influence is meaningless, without a grasp of his postmodernism. He was utterly a man of our age, right down to his demise—a vegan ascetic who lost a battle with gut cancer. This is the dramatic irony that mirrors the irony of his beautiful devices—works of elemental technological purity that force you to shop at one solitary digital storefront, no discounts for good customers and no forgiving late fees. Nothing, in other words, that resembles a human interface.
Steven Paul Jobs defines us. And the prevailing irony of his passing as that we cannot imagine what will come after him. He owned the future, a province we had ceded to him. DM