Since Steve Jobs passed, I haven't really felt like saying anything about him but have been astounded at how people in general have responded so emotionally and publicly. Perhaps that is because they realise something of the importance of what has been engendered in society through computational technology.
Tonight I was thinking about history and in particular, my role in it. It occurred to me that one of the reasons I have been so astounded at the general public’s response to Steve Jobs’ death is that it actually took people quite a long time from the time the introduction of the initial idea of the computer as we now know and experience it to be taken up as an everyday experience.
From my perspective, it is really quite straightforward what Steve was doing. He kept building the same computer regardless of whether people liked it or not. Having identified with the idea of what modern computational technology enables, essentially from its beginnings as the “personal computer”, what I learned from these experiences is that if you stick with an idea you feel passionately about, eventually people do get it, as evidenced by Apple's current market capitalisation and dominance. Here is a small version of that story from my experience:
In 1985 I graduated from Boston University and one of my first jobs was with Fidelity Investments in Post Office Square where my role was to convert Apple Lisa files to Apple Macintosh files. I guess I am a geek because I loved my job and was very excited to be working with these systems. This was a dream job for me. I don't know how many of you even know what a Lisa is. It was Steve’s appropriation of the Xerox Star. It was a lot like the computer you likely use today.
The Apple Lisa was a commercial failure and preceded the Macintosh, which in many ways was a fallback position to the multitasking Lisa.
By 1988 I was at Apple in Cupertino, where I developed marketing programmes for Apple dealers in vertical markets and thought a lot about what might make a lawyer, musician, engineer, or small business person buy a computer. Taking this pluralistic perspective seems to have set the tone for my career. Sadly, I did not find working at Apple as enjoyable as I thought it might be. I found a lot of cloak and dagger going on in my group, which was not enjoyable. But I learned that despite the fact that the company might have desirable corporate values that some people within the company may not always ascribe to them. I learned how to successfully deal with such annoyances and proceeded onwards.
In the early 1990’s when I was at NeXT UK, I knew that NeXT was the computer of the future and this was the reason I was there. I worked on multi-user systems that provided real-time information to users in London, New York, and Tokyo where their previous “system” had been a fax machine and administrative assistants. NeXT is how I originally got involved in collaborative systems development and one of the main drivers to why I subsequently chose to study computer science.
NeXT Cube and Megapixel Display
Yet NeXT was a commercial failure as well, and while much of this can be attributed to the way in which Steve alienated software vendors at that time, I believe more of this had to do with the way society seems to respond to the new. People do not always take up the new even if it is an improvement. Also, people like to choose for themselves and prefer not to be told what to do. As we often now read, people are social beings and their behaviours influence each other. All of these factors played a part in NeXT's demise.
Time went on, I continued to deepen my relationships with technology and people and somehow Steve ended up back at Apple and put NeXTSTEP into Macintosh OS X, where it still resides. I can only imagine how he made all that happen.
I think it is quite easy to look at where we are, now that much of the vision of computational technology as imagined in the 1950’s and 1960’s by Vannevar Bush, JRC Licklider, Doug Engelbart, and Ted Nelson - at least from a hardware and software perspective - has been achieved. It is right to thank Steve for much of that.
But I don't think that the larger part of that wider vision about employing technology to augment human intellect has been taken up seriously in research, commerce, or society - and I believe this is something that must be done. And that, by the way, is why I am now a doctoral researcher.
As Earth population grows and as investment capital economies teeter it becomes clearer that the ways we have done things historically are not sustainable. Change is inevitable, albeit bumpy. Complexity scientist Brian Arthur wrote an interesting piece for McKinsey recently suggesting that it might be useful at this juncture to shift “from producing prosperity to distributing prosperity.” We could do that. It is technically possible.
So as I have observed people lauding Mr Jobs (presumably because they use the products he helped bring to market and have some identification with them) and considered my role in this unfolding history, I realise that my focus has always been different than his. Steve was here to embed technology in society. I am here to support society in developing productive relationships with what has been embedded. Related, but different.
What we can all learn from Mr Jobs is that regardless of any apparent or multiple failures he held a consistent vision towards his goals and it is clear that the world has adapted towards these.