In response to the death of Steve Jobs earlier this week, there has been a virtual flood of great writing reflecting on the man himself, his accomplishments, or his influence on authors’ personal lives. I’ve enjoyed reading all this, but the one source that has caught my attention the most is an oral history interview that Steve Jobs did with the Smithsonian back in 1995.
Although the interview was conducted while he was at NeXT (after he had been forced out of Apple and before he returned), Jobs was asked to reflect a little on his time at Apple. He started by describing what it was like to work there in the early years:
Apple was this incredible journey. I mean we did some amazing things there. The thing that bound us together at Apple was the ability to make things that were going to change the world. That was very important. We were all pretty young. The average age in the company was mid-to-late twenties. Hardly anybody had families at the beginning and we all worked like maniacs and the greatest joy was that we felt we were fashioning collective works of art much like twentieth century physics. Something important that would last, that people contributed to and then could give to more people; the amplification factor was very large.
Notice how he described the way they thought about what they were doing: “…we felt like we were fashioning collective works of art much like twentieth century physics.” For Jobs, there was little distinction between building computers, practicing science, and creating art. The interviewer picked up on this, and asked him to explain why he used the word ‘art’ instead of ‘engineering’. Jobs replied:
I actually think there’s actually very little distinction between an artist and a scientist or engineer of the highest calibre. I’ve never had a distinction in my mind between those two types of people. They’ve just been to me people who pursue different paths but basically kind of headed to the same goal which is to express something of what they perceive to be the truth around them so that others can benefit by it.
The interviewer then tried to clarify this by asking if “the artistry is in the elegance of the solution, like chess playing or mathematics?” Jobs disagreed, saying it was more profound than that:
No. I think the artistry is in having an insight into what one sees around them. Generally putting things together in a way no one else has before and finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight that makes them feel a certain way or allows them to do a certain thing. I think that a lot of the folks on the Macintosh team were capable of doing that and did exactly that. If you study these people a little bit more what you’ll find is that in this particular time, in the 70’s and the 80’s the best people in computers would have normally been poets and writers and musicians. Almost all of them were musicians. A lot of them were poets on the side. They went into computers because it was so compelling. It was fresh and new. It was a new medium of expression for their creative talents. The feelings and the passion that people put into it were completely indistinguishable from a poet or a painter. Many of the people were introspective, inward people who expressed how they felt about other people or the rest of humanity in general into their work, work that other people would use. People put a lot of love into these products, and a lot of expression of their appreciation came to these things. It’s hard to explain.
It may be hard to explain, but anyone who has worked in the computer industry knows exactly what Jobs is talking about. When I started writing software for a living in 1991, I too was struck by how many of my coworkers were musicians, or artists in some other field. We had all gotten into computers not because we had always been nerdy, engineering types, but because we saw the inherent creativity involved in designing and building software, and the amazing flexibility of the computer as an creative platform.
What Jobs is getting at here is the deep link between art and craft, a link that is embedded in the very word we use to describe all that cool stuff that Apple made: ‘technology’. As I described in an earlier post, the greek root of the word is typically translated as art or craft, so the literal meaning of technology is just “the study of art or craft.” In English we use the term ‘artist’ to describe someone who makes decorative things and ‘artisan’ to describe someone who makes practical things, but people like Jobs and his employees at Apple demonstrated just how blurry and permeable that distinction really is.
In fact, artists and artisans are really doing the same thing, just in different ways: they develop “an insight into what [they see] around them” and then put “things together in a way no one else has before…finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight….”
My first computer was an Apple IIe, and I write this now on an iMac. In between I’ve used many different kinds of computers and operating systems, all of which were the products of talented artist-engineers. But Steve Jobs and the “collective works of art” he inspired and directed have probably had the most profound impact on my life. That first Apple IIe sparked my imagination and drew me into a new creative world that changed the course of my life.
Thanks Steve. Rest in Peace.