Opinion: Jobs humanized technology, made the magical common
I used my first computer sometime during the late 1970s. It was an Apple II, and it amazed me. I was in elementary school, and it was at a friend’s house on a farm in the midwest. I point out the time and the location because in retrospect, I find it fascinating that my first exposure to computers, at the dawn of the PC era, wasn’t in a school or a business, and it wasn’t in the sort of setting most people would associate with groundbreaking technology. It was in a farmhouse surrounded by corn and bean fields, a few miles from a town of 2000 people, and much farther from anything you’d rightly call a city.
I’d like to think that anecdote would have brought a smile to Steve Jobs’s face. If he had an overarching goal in his life, it was to take technology and make it accessible. Oh, and lovable. Not in the creepy “I’m infatuated with this inanimate object” kind of way, but in the “This amazes me every time I use it” way. And I loved that computer from the first time I watched it start up.
I'm tempted to be dramatic and say that I knew at that moment that I’d be working with computers for the rest of my life. But grade-school me, unlike Steve Jobs, wasn’t enough of a visionary. In fact, had the idea occurred to me, it would have seemed preposterous at the time. A world where everyone used computers? A world where I could earn a living writing about people using computers? A world where futuristic gadgets were so pervasive that someone would pay me to play with them? This was beyond The Jetsons. It would have been a little boy’s fantasy.
Yet here we are, and here I am. Not only are computers and their offspring ubiquitous—in the office, the school, the home, and even the pocket and the hand—but many people can’t imagine life without them. And that’s a big part of the legacy left by Steve Jobs. Not because he invented all (or, some might argue, any) of these things, but because he had the vision, the persistence, and the discipline to bring them to people other than the techies.
I don’t think you can overstate what an accomplishment that was. And yet Jobs humanized, if you will, not just the computer industry, but one industry after another: personal computers, animation, media players, media distribution, mobile phones, PDAs, smartphones, retail, tablet computing, software distribution. And those are just the direct influences. Over the past 25 years, industry after industry has adopted—or, in many cases, attempted but failed to adopt—Apple’s focus on both visual design and human-technology interaction. Apple’s influence has become so pervasive that we take it for granted. It’s even become hip to argue that it’s overstated.
Similarly, it’s difficult for those in my generation to have objective perspective on Steve Jobs’s influence and legacy—we’re simply too close. We lived alongside him. We celebrated and benefited from his successes, and we witnessed (and, to be honest, some celebrated) his failures. We read, over and over again, about his character flaws. He was one of the first technology celebrities, in part because of his brash personality, but also because of his compelling story. We won’t have to read his biography—though many of us certainly will—because we followed his life as it progressed alongside our own.
Consider: If you came of age in the late 1970s or early 1980s, you likely can’t remember a classroom that didn’t have at least one of his creations in it. If you’re 35 or younger, you’ve never lived in a world where Steve Jobs wasn’t an American icon. If you’re 25 or younger, chances are that between home, work, and school, you’ve used several of his products on any given day you can remember. And if you’re reading this, a quick look around you will surely reveal a good number of objects, tech and not, influenced by Steve Jobs, the companies he’s guided, and the people who’ve flourished under him.
This really hit home for me last night as I was playing with my two young children. They’ll grow up in a world without Steve Jobs, but they used Apple products before they even watched TV. To them, “phone” is equivalent to “iPhone,” you store music on an iPod, and a home computer is an iPad. They've never seen a Game Boy, but they frequently use an iPod touch. It doesn’t amaze them—indeed, they expect—that I can tap a screen a few times and have their favorite song play in whatever room we’re in. (That it happens wirelessly has never crossed their minds.) It’s only natural to them that when I take a photo or video of them on my phone, it can instantly appear on our TV; and they don’t understand why, when we take photos with the “real” camera, it takes so long for them to appear on the iPad. They may grow up in a world without Steve Jobs, but he’ll be a part of their lives every day.
As he will for all of our lives, for it’s not an exaggeration to say that Steve Jobs was my generation’s Edison, Disney, Ford, and Iaccoca—flaws and all—with a little bit of Barnum mixed in. He was a giant of imagination and invention, the rare visionary who not only anticipated amazing things, but endeavored to make those things commonplace. Indeed, for all the times he took the stage to talk about magical, incredible devices, his ultimate goal was for those things to no longer be magical and incredible, because they had become normal (though a very, very good normal). His legend is dominated by the story of how he saved Apple, but his true legacy is how, in the process, he helped change much of our world—in many cases by saving technology from being too, well, technological.