Features

Steve Jobs: The Products


On 9/11/11, I was detained on my way to the U.S. Open women’s final. Security was tight and all spectators were patted down and relieved of food, water, and backpacks. A guard felt my jacket, discovered a hard, deck-of-cards-sized object, and, before I could remove it from my pocket for her to inspect, exclaimed, “Oh, that’s an iPhone!” Then she smiled and, in an action emblematic of the relationship between America and Apple (AAPL), waved me through—as though nobody with such a device could have evil designs.

Apple is now synonymous with American values and enterprise. But it was not always thus. Apple users long constituted less than 6 percent of the market, even at the mid-’80s peak of the Macintosh. Before owning my first Mac, I wrote code in BASIC and grudgingly learned DOS commands and keystrokes—which required such awkward finger placements it was like playing a jazz chord progression whenever one backed up a file. Apple was already figuring out the seemingly obvious: Computers are meant to work for us. Apple products were simple, but only a rabid minority seemed to care.

Now, thanks to a faultless execution of that principle, the whole world has fallen for Apple. Still simple in appearance, Apple products have the feel of precision chronometers or gunsmith-forged, by-appointment-to-Her Majesty-grade firearms, with none of the exclusivity of such things. A couple of weeks ago I saw a man in filthy clothes lying on a Manhattan sidewalk, fiddling with his iPhone. It looked as though it may have been his only possession.

The conventional notion about Apple is that the company’s devices are powerful, intuitive, beautifully designed, and somehow free you to be more … yourself. They are also dazzling, which I am using in the original sense, as in “they confound with their brilliance.” Certainly, there is something not quite rational about the desire they evoke. And I am speaking from experience. There are at this moment six in-use Apple devices on my desk. I estimate that I’ve owned $30,000 worth of hardware from the company: four PowerBooks, a G4 tower with Cinema Display, two MacBook Pros, a first-generation iPod, the first black iPod, an iPod shuffle, a G5 tower, the old iPhone, an iPad, the current iPhone, and a MacBook Air. I am a stockholder. I am, it almost goes without saying, writing this on an Apple. And it’s increasingly likely that you are reading it on one.

With each Apple purchase, I’ve always thought: They can’t possibly make anything better than this. And they then produce some new thing that appears to have descended from on high, a child of immaculate gods. At which point the formerly gorgeous thing, as in the case of the 11-year-old Cinema Display that I still use today, just starts to look wrong, despite its ongoing utility—the mix of gray and transparent plastic sad in contrast to the brushed steel of the latest, like something left out in the rain. And so the consumerist reincarnation: There’s always going to be a new product coming out. Nothing ever dies, it just gets replaced.

Growing up in San Francisco, 40 miles from Silicon Valley, my first digital experience was on an Apple II Plus. Others may have been crunching spreadsheets on VisiCalc, but I was calculating the launch angle and velocity of a flashing white dot. I typed in coordinates, pressed “Return,” and a projectile was fired at an enemy missile battery, operated by a friend on a networked computer. I was nine, it was the late ’70s, and I had a future in ballistics.

The first logo had a line from Wordsworth inscribed around the border, about Isaac Newton: “A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought—alone.” Now, on each box comes, “Designed by Apple in California/Assembled in China.”

As a San Franciscan, the “Designed in California” part makes me proud. Apple couldn’t have flourished in any other place. It is of my home state. Like so much about California, though, it is not always what it seems. It is user-friendly, but not … friendly. Beloved, and rich, the company is famously tightfisted. And any sense of openness is certainly an illusion—whatever’s inside headquarters, at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, is as closely guarded as a Soviet secret city during the arms race. One former Apple employee, quoted by PC Magazine, summed up the company as follows: “It’s a culture of silence.” A monastery.

 

The chief officer of my local police precinct told the neighborhood’s most recent community council meeting that there had been 39 robberies over the previous month, and the majority of them involved Apple products. Numerous people have been violently, surreptitiously, or otherwise dispossessed of their iPhones, iPads, and, in at least one case, a computer. Most common, and striking to me, were incidents wherein texting or talking pedestrians simply had their phones snatched out of their hands. In street parlance, an “iMugging.”

The chief discouraged the use of white headphones and urged residents to engrave serial numbers and “NYC” on portable electronics as a prelude to registering them with the police, who were offering to loan out an engraver for the purpose. When I told my wife all this, she said she had no interest in participating. “If my iPhone gets stolen,” my wife said, “I’ll be psyched because I’ll get to buy a new one.”

Designer Alan Kay, inventor of the laptop, had this to say upon the iPhone’s release: “Steve understands desire.”

Apple computers are beautiful and work beautifully. They may or may not, to quote Jobs, be putting “a dent in the universe.” Apple computers are simply pleasurable. It’s fun to be able to see ourselves as a pulsing dot of significance in a world of fascinating destinations, or to board a plane without waiting in line to get a piece of paper, or to figure out what awesome music is playing in a restaurant without having to be so uncool as to ask. Apple understands how we wish to see ourselves, and a pleasing sense of omnipotence comes of all this power and ease. We feel that we are masters.

As for dazzlement, sometimes I find myself sitting before my computer’s screen in a posture previous generations would only recognize as prayer, and doing nothing—as though I’m waiting for it to tell me who I am, what the future will bring, to enlighten me. The moment elongates. I am mesmerized. This is weird enough solo; but it’s commonplace to disengage, without warning, from a conversation or meal or steering wheel in the presence of an iPad or iPhone. And who hasn’t been disquieted observing their fellow Apple users gathered together, each looking into their own screens, faces lit with a ghostly glow from below? It’s a culture of silence.

 

Last year, a teacher I respected warned my wife and me against “screen time” for our daughter. She instructed us to avoid videos because flashing lights “activate the fight-or-flight instinct,” wherein “endorphins are released, your judgment is impaired, your senses are all heightened, your heart rate increases.” In making her point, she went so far as to say that screen-centric children could become anesthetized to true experience and to true danger. I have no idea if this is true. But it is plausible, and it certainly goes a long way toward explaining why it has been so easy for neighborhood thieves to snatch up so many iPhones.

George Churinoff, a venerable Buddhist monk, splits his time between a monastery in rural Wisconsin and, when the Dalai Lama is in New York, a relative’s apartment in Lower Manhattan. He also works as a Mac specialist. Venerable George, as he is customarily addressed, has loaded hundreds of rare texts from the Indian Library of Congress onto iPads for the perusal of Buddhist clergy.

Churinoff told me, “I got the idea when his holiness the Dalai Lama was in town teaching. I was looking at my iPad. Richard Gere sat next to me, and I said, ‘Why don’t you get one of these for the Dalai Lama and he can read the texts?’” Churinoff then set out to do this for a number of high-ranking Buddhists. “The lamas were excited and thought it would give them easy access to the entire canon,” he said. “One lama was even prepared to offer a tantric empowerment”—a sermon that initiates devotees—“using the text on his iPad.” This would be roughly equivalent to the Pope preaching mass with a Mac.

Perhaps one thing shows above all others how remarkable Apple is: Any assessment of its value, culturally, is as much a referendum on the value of us all. This singular company has been so fully embraced, is so unquestioningly loved, is taken so personally by so many, that it may as well be a stand-in for our own values: speed, ease, and the self-regard we tell ourselves is individualism. Apple, as John Lennon (also co-opted by the company’s advertisements) once described the Beatles, is “more popular than Jesus.” What other publicly traded entity has ever been able to achieve such a thing?

Jobs was well-known for his unbending, and sometimes odd, aesthetic sense. He once rejected the design of some internal Macintosh hardware, invisible to users, based solely on aesthetics. The novelist Mona Simpson, subsequent child of (and raised by) the same parents who put Steve Jobs up for adoption, modeled a character on her brother, and described him in the book’s opening line as “a man too busy to flush toilets.” (Jobs told an interviewer, “About 25 percent of it is totally me, right down to the mannerisms.”) Simpson’s novel is centered around the daughter of a brilliant Silicon Valley executive and her misbegotten efforts to connect with her father. Jobs’s eldest child, Lisa, wrote an essay in The Southwest Review, mentioning, among other things, the dietary habits bequeathed to her. She describes how Jobs “spit out a mouthful of soup after hearing it contained butter” (though it was vegetarian). “With him,” she went on, “one ate a variety of salads.”

In the same essay, Lisa Jobs describes a dinner with her father in Tokyo. They are in the iconic ’60s-modernist Hotel Okura—a space that so exemplifies Apple’s design ethos that I conflate it with the interior of a Macintosh. Seated in the restaurant “with its high ceilings and low couches,” they abandon vegetarianism and eat cooked eel and sushi:

“He ordered too many pieces, knowing we wouldn’t be able to finish them. … It was the first time I’d felt, with him, so relaxed and content, over those trays of meat; the excess, the permission and warmth after the cold salads, meant a once inaccessible space had opened. He was less rigid with himself, even human under the great ceilings with the little chairs, with the meat, and me.”

If there is a connection to be drawn between this anecdote and our own experience as consumers of Jobs’s products, perhaps it is the push-pull Steve Jobs embodied that has always animated America, a country of opposed forces: sybarites and skinflints, puritans and hedonists, natural grandeur and heedless development.

He was a monk-like man who seemed to give everything to bring us, as consumers, as followers, everything we wanted. Occasionally he was also “even human.”

Wilsey is the co-author of State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America and author of Oh the Glory of It All.

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