MONDAY, JUNE 12, 2017


The genius of the mass

Everyone knows Steve Jobs as the founder of Apple, but what else makes him stand out as a computer world creator? By Dirk Burckhardt

No pioneer of computer culture has engaged the collective imagination more than Steve Jobs. Apple’s journey from the garage to the most valuable company in the world has become a modern myth, endlessly sung about, told and filmed. Even if the biography of the creator is slowly fading, Jobs’ products (from Macintosh, iMac, iPod, iPad, iPhone, and iTunes to the App Store) have become icons of everyday life. The masses who make the pilgrimage to the Apple Stores see themselves as members of a community that could be disparagingly called a church of nothing, but could just as easily be called the founders of a lifestyle. Or even more strongly: a social sculpture.

And perhaps this way of looking at things comes closest to the vita, but also to the self-image of Steve Jobs. For he saw himself less as an entrepreneur than as an artist. But in what did his art consist? In that he understood his products not as dead things but as animated beings, as a magic mirror in which the user, in refined form, recognized himself. For him, the snow-white of a device was not a surface phenomenon but a soul turned inside out; likewise, he understood the unpacking of a device not as a meaningless act but as an event that had to be staged and protected by means of patents.

No compromise, anywhere! Because he couldn’t stand having inferior things around, Jobs thought for weeks about buying a washing machine, or made his guests sit on the floor in the absence of seating worth buying. That this striving for material perfection took place in a world that was dematerializing and dissolving into a social sculpture may seem paradoxical – but in Steve Jobs’ world of imagination, the highest maxim was: it is not being, but design that determines consciousness.

It may be that the genius loci also had a hand in all this. Growing up in Mountain View, California, where William Shockley had founded the first semiconductor company and Robert Noyce had launched first Fairchild and then Intel, not half an hour away from Douglas Engelbart’s Stanford Research Institute or the premises of Xerox Parc, Steve Jobs belonged to the first generation to breathe the spirit of Silicon Valley – without knowing it. What shaped him was the Eichler house in which he grew up: inexpensive, modern, of that simplicity in which form allows function to emerge (just as the iMac would later reveal its innards through its colored transparent shell). Jobs was an intelligent but rebellious child and developed a sense of chosenness in addition to strong willpower. Which probably had to do with the mysterious origins of the rejected adopted child.

Surrounded by marvels like solar cells, transistors and radar, Jobs’ youth exploded his generation’s attitude toward life. So, as a young man, he began experimenting with LSD and a lot more: primal scream therapy, vegan diet, Zen. So deeply was the consciousness of the renegade ingrained in him that when he once found himself marginalized in his own company, he raised a pirate flag over his department. Even as the CEO of a billion-dollar company, Jobs felt that he was not part of the establishment, but rather a protagonist of the counterculture – a rebel who surrounded himself less with controllers and management consultants than with artists and designers. In the context of Silicon Valley, art was not a museum event, but a practical utopia. Like Marcel Duchamp, who saw industrially manufactured things as ready-mades that could be ennobled into a work of art with the stroke of a brush, Jobs understood the world as a construction kit that could be reassembled at will. Basically, it was no different than when he had wandered the junkyards with his adoptive father (a mechanic who souped up old cars) looking for precious parts.

Jobs distinguished himself less as an inventor or ingenious programmer than as the person who grasped the opportunity, the big picture, with a quick eye. When the seventeen-year-old met like-minded Steve Wozniak in the Homebrew Computer Club, who had succeeded in assembling his own computer from commercially available parts, a friendship began that (like everything in Jobs’ biography) had the hallmarks of appropriation. Or as the affable Wozniak said, “Every time I developed something great, Steve found a way to turn it into sounding coin.” The starting point for their collaboration was the discovery that a certain sound frequency could be used to trick telephone companies into making long-distance calls for free. While Wozniak had a circuit in mind, Jobs grasped the product: a blue box that could make free phone calls to anywhere in the world. And because this wonder thing was selling like hot cakes in student circles, Jobs recognized the potential for starting a company.

After a job at the Atari computer company, he had first squandered his parents’ college fund at an expensive private university (where he attended only calligraphy classes), then lived for a while in a commune where he was responsible for pruning the apple trees, and finally he had made a pilgrimage to India. There Jobs had found Buddhism and the insight that was to accompany his life: God is in the details. Simplicity means the greatest sophistication. Apple trees thrive when pruned. Returning to America, the college drop-out developed unimagined activities. Within a short time, he transformed his father’s garage into a manufacturing facility where he, his father, and Wozniak soldered together the first fifty copies of the “Apple I” computer. In January 1975, Popular Mechanics magazine had introduced the first computer kit; in that respect, it was only a matter of time that daredevils would set about the task. Jobs had been able to convince the owner of the Byte-Shop, a small retail store, to order a few copies of such a homebuilt computer.

In some ways, his garage activities were less revolutionary than the result of a mysterious blackout. After all, Xerox, after spending millions on research, already had a PC in 1973 that Apple would not develop until a decade later: with a mouse, a graphical user interface, a text processing system and an Ethernet connection. However, when it came time to present the machine to the company’s superiors, the gentlemen of the board got to see bearded, long-haired scientists working at keyboards. Since something like this was considered secretarial work, the company’s top management agreed: This could not be a serious product. This inertia was the opportunity for hobbyists, who could now purchase the necessary components (which had shrunk from the room-sized monstrosities of the 1950s to fingernail size) from Radioshack stores.

What set Steve Jobs apart from the competition was that he was eager for a beautifully designed, easy-to-use device from the start. Every detail, from the case to the power supply, even to the aesthetic design of the board, was carefully considered. And because, unlike Wozniak, he didn’t program himself, Jobs was also concerned with what user experience meant from the start. Consequently, empathy, the intimate connection with the device, was the maxim of the newly founded company: “We will understand your needs better than any other company.”

When the young company presented its prototypes at a trade show in 1977 (an event that Jobs staged perfectly), the response was great. Very soon, venture capitalists were on hand to provide the founders with the necessary start-up capital. Despite the great success, however, Jobs understood that the Apple computer still fell far short of what the Xerox Parc development department had produced. And now he achieved his real masterpiece: Jobs secured the rights to use the Xerox patents for 10,000 Apple shares, and he was also able to recruit the most talented scientists (such as Alan Kay and Larry Tesler) for Apple. A great artist, Jobs has stated flatly, doesn’t copy, he steals. Of course, this sentence did not come from him, but was stolen from Picasso.

When Apple went public in 1980, Steve Jobs was a made man. This was not his merit alone. The rapid drop in prices and advances in processor technology had meant that dwarves could now also stand on the giant’s shoulders. Not only did Jobs seize his chance, he also became the face of the revolt, giving the purchase of a PC the stamp of a mind-expanding measure. For the launch of the Macintosh, director Ridley Scott contributed a commercial in which a young female athlete hurled a hammer at a homogenized crowd controlled by an Orwellian Big Brother figure. As the projection screen flashed through, the screen went white – as if a flash of inspiration had wiped out any memory of the dark, totalitarian past.

With this commercial, introduced to the public during the 1984 Super Bowl, the computer became a mass product, an easy-to-use cuddly fetish device that got stuck in your head, got under your skin, and got caught in the web of neurons. While Steve Jobs became the patron saint of all users, he behaved like a tyrant within the company. His outbursts of rage, his body odor, and his habit of sticking his feet in the toilet to relieve stress still fell into the realm of the all-too-human; more serious was the fact that he was almost compulsively busy betraying his friends, belittling coworkers, and declaring other people’s ideas to be his own achievements. It was a standing adage in the company that in the world of Steve Jobs, you were in a reality distortion field where fiction and truth could be bent at will.

His bizarre behavior eventually led the board to turn against its own founder and relieve him of his duties. But then the story of the ingenious marketer took a turn that had nothing to do with capitalist reason, everything to do with his vision of animate things. For the fact that the animation company Pixar, which had been founded by renegade Disney employees and in which Steve Jobs now invested part of his fortune, was to become a triumph was by no means foreseeable; Jobs’ unshakable faith alone made films like “Toy Story,” “Ratatouille” or “Wall-E” possible.

Soon the Apple company, run down by controllers, was begging its founder to come back. Jobs’ return was a never-ending triumph. Because whatever he picked up became a success, which occasionally (as in the case of the iPhone) had world-changing features. In his hands, products were transformed into fetish objects, just as the Apple Stores (which Jobs had designed as snow-white Snow White coffins) became places of worship, to which consumers made pilgrimages as believers once did to holy sites. If capitalism is a religion, Steve Jobs was its prophet: the one who still made the disappearance of things a cult event. It was not the product that was to be the focus of the Apple Store, but what could be done with it.

Here lies the key to its success: a product is a fetish that has been studied for its ability to project until it becomes a mirror of its user. So when Apple stores generate more revenue per square foot than any other department store chain, it’s evidence that the attention economy no longer revolves around things, but around narcissistic fantasies of grandeur. However, the logic of seduction only works where one faithfully succumbs to it, i.e. the magic mirror remains a misunderstood, dark object of desire. Not coincidentally, Jobs was careful from the start to ensure that his devices did not use commercially available screws so that unauthorized people could not take them apart. Following this logic of closure, Apple itself became what Jobs had always fought against: a black box, a sinister, impenetrable pole of power. But how can a closed system exist in a world of open systems? Quite obviously for as long as the artist’s magic lasts.

The previous installment of our series on computer world creators appeared on March 16.