Steve Jobs: Prophet of Consumerism

I am fascinated and mystified by the hagiography of Steve Jobs that is flooding the press these days.  I have never understood the fanatical loyalty and hysterical excitement that his products generated in his fans, but now I am starting to get the idea.  Not that I am a convert – so appropriate that that cult-based word is used over and over – but I am starting to understand a bit what it was all about.

There are many things being said about Jobs – that he changed the human condition more than any person in the last fifty years; comparisons with Leonardo and Edison that strike me as absurd; that he invented this, that, and the other thing which he most certainly did not invent – but leave that aside.  The man was brilliant at marketing, at product design, at keeping his pulse on the finger of popular culture, and at seeing the long-term arc of technological development while the more earthbound around him simply saw the next technological problem to address.  But, that doesn’t explain the sense that a prophet has passed from the scene.

The analogies that come to mind are the great fashion houses and Elvis.  Clothes are objects of utility, but fashion makes them objects of desire.  The fanatical loyalty of Apple buyers reminds me of how people talk about their favorite fashion designers and brands.  Such intense, intimate, and personal commitment to a manufacturer!  Bono, of U2, was also touching on something important when he referred to Jobs as the Elvis of software and hardware.  Whaa?  Jobs was a charismatic, messianic, prophetic figure in the sense that Elvis was.  If that sounds like hyperbole to you, then talk to some Elvis fans.  The point is not that I share this feeling, but that is the role he played.  And to find that niche by manufacturing digital appliances, well, that’s a pretty tall order.

In some columns in the NYTimes, there were more balanced appreciations of Jobs’ talents, and some cranky readers tried to puncture the bubble that everyone else is inflating with some common sense.  They also offered insight to what drove him, including this comment on Microsoft:  “They have no taste.  They don’t even try!”  It just so happens that I was sitting yesterday in a conference room, staring at a large flat-screen monitor displaying the new Windows 7 logo.

It struck me that it was silly – the butterflies, the trees, the rainbow, sort of corporate kitsch.  And when I read that comment by Jobs I thought, he’s right !  So Microsoft made the PC a household item, but Jobs made style a desideratum of personal computing.  People were willing to pay nearly double for the design premium and the style.   And it wasn’t just superficial design, they really were easier to use, for most people.  For engineers like me, they just seem like a waste of money.

Some writers have asked whether there will ever be another Jobs?  One commenter responded:

I am getting so fed up with this treacle. Nothing against Steve Jobs…it’s just plain silly to say that there will never be another like him. There have been plenty like him — Akito Morita of Sony, say, another manager with a nose for elegant, innovative products.

Remember the seismic impact of the Sony Walkman?  It was huge.  Another wondered if the Apple success story would carry on without his driven, dictatorial, dogmatic, visionary brilliance, or, sadly,  if Apple would be regarded in future generations as a special moment in technological design history that had no sequel.  Personally, I’d bet on the latter.  The odds, the economics, the technology, and even the culture – it changes always – are against it.  I imagine that Apple products may come to be regarded with the same delighted awe with which I look at Bugattis and Ferraris of yesteryear.  They don’t make ’em like that today, and they made darn few like that then.

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8 Responses to Steve Jobs: Prophet of Consumerism

  1. Ducky's here says:

    But he sure could market. I believe Microsoft had both the tablet computer and the touch screen technology well before Apple. Nothing.

    Microsoft just couldn’t execute and even though he never introduced any new technology there was something about Job’s ability to get it right.

    As I said:

    The man was brilliant at marketing, at product design…

    L.

  2. Guy Savage says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head. He was a designer. Function follows form and all that.

    As for the media blitz, I think some of it comes from the idea of such an early death for such a phenomenally wealthy man. I had one person tell me that if Jobs couldn’t buy his health, what does that leave for the rest of us. I think there’s a mass identification with mortality.

    • Lichanos says:

      Good point about the media blitz – hadn’t thought about that part of it.
      Form follows function, BTW…

      • Guy Savage says:

        As for form follows function or function follows form, it depends on how you look at it. The nano is so fidley (and at times erratic), I think form takes precedence over function. Form went a little overboard and function takes second place.

        Reminds me of some of those ridiculous fashion shows where the outlandish looks of a garment outpace the practicality of actually wearing the silly thing.

        • Lichanos says:

          Well, what I meant was that Sullivan, and others, were saying that form should follow function. Of course, you are right, it often is the other way ’round, even when the creators claim the opposite. It’s quite a loaded topic in the history of modern architecture.

  3. Mauricio Sousa says:

    Nice post. I was thinking the exact same thing. I believe the appeal of apple products is this futuristic, clean aspect, as you said people were wiling to pay the double for a better design. Remember that in the 70’s and early 80’s, people used to imagine the future, which is now, as a great clean, organized, ethereal-like place. Somehow, the apple products appeal to this kind of collective imagination.

    • Lichanos says:

      Excellent point, MS! Yes, from the 60s (Jetsons) through the 70s and 80s, with all those dreams of the paperless office – I think you’ve hit on something there!

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