A few weeks ago, Reuters TV called me up to record a segment for their Steve Jobs obituary. It's the first time I've ever been asked to eulogize someone who was still living, and I found that task, plus the necessity of boiling down a modern titan's life into a quotable snippet, somewhat unnerving. Nonetheless, i was proud to contribute my little bit to what would undoubtedly be a global outpouring of grief and hagiography, and I tried hard to say something that would both resonate and do some small bit of justice to the man.
I'm not an Apple fanboy -- for instance, I've long been a critic of their music retail strategy, which has served them well and everyone else rather poorly. But I do use a Macbook Pro, iPhone, iPad and several other Apple-produced pieces of hardware and software, and I consider each of them a marvel of engineering and design. This is fortunate, because I probably spend the majority of my waking hours holding, watching, listening to, and communicating via one of these devices.
But to simply point to all the pretty boxes and say "Mr. Jobs made some nice machines" is not enough. It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Jobs had on business and culture at large, especially over the past 15 years since his storied return to the company he cofounded. Socially, he demystified -- and therefore democratized -- computer use, dragging the silicon chip from the desks of dedicated geeks to the pockets of the people.
He did this by meeting his customers halfway -- obliterating the command line prompt and impersonal packaging for the intuitive interface and the sleek, chic curves of haute design. I say "halfway" because he also forced us, coders and users alike, to conform to his vision. We had to adjust our hands and minds to the folder and the swipe, and we had to shun the freer pastures of the GPL and Linux for a walled garden full of proprietary delectables.
Steve Jobs built an empire -- one of America's largest -- on this "halfway" principle, and on the proposition that computers -- the cold, calculating (literally), impersonal tools of eggheads and hackers -- could be reimagined as warm, fuzzy, and even sexy. I'm currently teaching a masters-level course called "Critiquing Marketing Communications," and a few weeks ago I had to institute a ban on using Apple as a brand example, because my students would barely talk about anything else.
Whether we're headed for singularity, cyborgism, fragmentation or obliteration, there's no question that the future of humanity and the future of the digital computer are firmly and irrevocably intertwined. It's impossible to imagine a tomorrow without ubiquitous processing, and yet impossible to fathom the degree to which our fates and those of the machines will continue to blur. If we're able to contemplate this astounding proposition without despair and abject terror, we have Steve Jobs to thank for it.