Friday, October 7, 2011

Stepping in the same river only once: The legacy of Steve Jobs

The reflections on Steve Jobs’ life highlight his emergence out of the counter culture of the 1960’s. Though he was born at the very tail end of the baby boom, the Beatles, Buddhism and the Whole Earth Catalog inspired him. It is interesting that in the 1960’s a radical Marxist philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, published an essay on “the new sensibility” of the period, arguing that through its expression; “Technique would then tend to become art, and art would tend to form reality; the opposition between imagination and reason, higher and lower faculties, poetic and scientific thought, would be invalidated.”

The prose feels utopian, but surely one of Jobs’ great achievements was to bring aesthetics and design to the new technologies, to link beauty and utility.  The connections between Apple’s products and the counter-culture run deeper. Jobs showed how technology could be an extension of human abilities, echoing Norbert Wiener's wish thirty years earlier, that with the new technologies, which he called “cybernetic,” we might witness “the human use of human beings.” By developing the graphical user interface he brought “power to the people” in the sense that the desktop computer was easy to use and extended a person’s reach into the World Wide Web. Jobs, of course, was acutely conscious of these linkages, reflected in his famous -- shown only once—commercial, in which he equated IBM with Big Brother, the leader portrayed in Orwell’s dystopian novel of a totalitarian world. Interestingly, the 1960s was also the time when organizational development, a technology for corporate change, with its own utopian strivings for the end of hierarchy, also emerged.

These connections should lead us to be cautious about thinking that Jobs’ achievements might be duplicated, or that they could become the basis of a new business model. It is the dream of every marketer that his product or service speak to the consumer’s soul, that it express the customer’s way of life. But in truth, brands rarely achieve this unity of product and user. Think of how the tag line of the early sixties, the “Pepsi generation” was rendered. It too referenced the culture’s consciousness of a “new generation” but it referred to a substance, flavored sugar water, and a use, drinking, which were utterly conventional. This kind of advertising succeeds more by stimulating anxiety – “am I a member of the new generation or am I out of it,” than by extending or amplifying a sense of identity.

Steve Jobs strode on the stage just when the question of how the new technologies would reshape experience was percolating through the arts, theater, and politics. It was the prelude to the postindustrial revolution. He had the genius to position himself smack in the middle of this burgeoning cultural debate and expressed the issue pragmatically in product design. The counterculture was the wind behind his back. I think this is the case where you can only step in the same river once.

No comments:

Post a Comment