Twice I’ve tried to write a blog article about Steve Jobs. I was trying to artfully connect an appreciation for his legitimate business and technological contributions to my disdain for how he (and Apple) are objects of veneration. I just couldn’t find the right tone for it.
Actually, the article didn’t start out to be about Steve Jobs. It was going to be about Edward Tufte.
Quick show of hands: who knows who Edward Tufte is? I see you, you there with your hand straight up, doing the Horshack “ooh, ooh, ooh!” thing. You must have gone to one of his seminars.
Edward Tufte is widely considered (among those who consider such things) as the godfather of data visualization. His magnum opus is “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, which he self-published in 1982. He advocated a number of principles in how to display information, with the primary one being the presentation information that works at multiple levels all in one display. A classic chart that he presents as an example (and has distributed at his seminars) is the Carte Figurative (1869), which shows the size of Napoleon’s army on its ill-fated expedition to Moscow in 1812, and then on its ignominious retreat. The army’s size is shown in line thickness, its progress against distance and landmarks (usually rivers). The part that really jazzes Tufte is that it’s mapped against the temperature, to show how that worked against Napoleon.
So what does Tufte have to do with Steve Jobs?
Well, when people listen to Tufte, they become converts to the religion of rich data visualization. They put the Napoleon map on their cube walls and try to apply Tufte’s lessons on mundane data that doesn’t have the six dimensions of the Carte Figurative.
Same thing with Steve Jobs. Sure, he co-founded Apple, invented the Mac (with interface ideas liberally lifted from Xerox PARC), founded NeXT Computer, launched Pixar, and resuscitated Apple upon his return. He also impressed people with his monochromatic wardrobe, his pseudo-spiritualism, and his magnetic public speaking. He managed to convince millions of people that not only are Apple products great, they speak to how different and creative and special you are. You, and the millions of other people who bought an Apple computer or an iPhone. You’re all different and special. He represented perfection in brand creation.
What makes people want to dress like him, though? Or imitate his speech or physical mannerisms? He’s got a pretty remarkable resume, but why the idolization?
I think it’s because Jobs was so comprehensively successful. He not only visualized the products, he could get a team to work to the same vision. Then he could speak to it and sell it. What’s more, he was seen as being deeper. He wasn’t just a tech geek inventing a cool box. He himself believed that he was changing the world. That sort of confidence (and arrogance) can be pretty impressive. A lot of people would like to emulate that. They won’t all be in the right place at the right time (Apple, 1981) or have the money to revolutionize movie animation. So they dress in black mock turtlenecks and buy Apple products.
Jobs was hardly the first in this mold. I’d say there are some strong parallels to Thomas Edison. There’s the engagement in multiple fields (electricity and light bulbs as well as movies, for example). But largely there’s the establishment as an icon of American innovation and technology-is-cool. How many early 20th century engineers do you think got their start by reading about Edison and wanting to imitate him? I even had a classmate in college who was a great admirer of Edison.
Personally, I was always more impressed with Tesla than Edison, and preferred Gates over Jobs, but these men were icons in their own right. The common thread of them all was that they not only pushed their field as far as they could, but they served to inspire the rest of us. No matter what operating system we use.