Image by Charis Tsevis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
It took me by surprise that I cried when Steve Jobs died. I was surprised to feel so moved by the loss of someone who was essentially a modern industrialist. But of course, his acumen as a businessman was not what I was mourning. Jobs’ work has moved us in ways that the work of his contemporary Bill Gates never has. Gates’s influence on our culture has been just as powerful, but has not touched as profoundly. Why?
The vast digital domain that we think of when we imagine information technology is essentially non-physical in nature. It is, by definition, incorporeal. But like all incorporeal things – our thoughts, our dreams, our faith, our souls – it relies on bodies for manifestation in the physical world. The digital needs the analog to express itself.
And this is what Steve Jobs did better than anyone else. He built beautiful bodies for our digital dreams. He understood before we did that we craved elegant containers for our disembodied hearts and minds. Every device he ever created, from the Apple 1 to the iPhone, was an expression of his deep, aesthetic commitment. And here he stood on the shoulder of giants, from Aristotle and Aquinas up to modern information theorists who assert that the best code is the simplest and most beautiful. As Keats so famously wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Job’s aesthetic began with the analog form of the device and then, quite naturally, extended into the digital function — the UI or user interface. The icons. The navigation. The information architecture at heart of the Apple OS. Analog and digital, form and function, hand in hand. Jobs was not just constructing bodies; he was giving them very particular and beautiful expressive capacities that are connected to something radically new in human experience; they plug us into a shared digital landscape filled with us and everything we bring to it.
Technology is our connective tissue. It joins us, hearts and minds. Jobs enabled this connection in a new way. He did not create the content that fills the devices he designed. He left it up to us to write songs, create art, make movies, write blog posts and emails and essays, send tweets and texts and build websites.
Jobs was a perfect reflection of our times. He made stuff that is so attractive, so enchanting, that he created a vast global desire for his products. His medium was technology and the context was capitalism. He made a lot of money for himself and for many other people. But by all accounts, the money wasn’t the point. The money was simply a validation of the fact that his vision was spreading throughout the world. And that vision was that the digital and the analog could be a thing of beauty when married with skill and vision.
The danger in the global mourning of his gifts is that we become so enchanted with the devices that we get lost in the interface and forget that the real point is what lies on the other side of the threshold. The devices are doorways into a larger, enchanted world of our shared creativity. They are not ends, they are beginnings.
Jennifer Cobb is a business consultant specializing in marketing and strategy for public and private sector organizations. She has a degree in ethics from Union Theological Seminary and is the author of Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. She lives in Berkeley, California and blogs regularly at The Spruce Blog.
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