Yes, Steve Jobs was a genius, but I think a misunderstood one. He wasn’t really an inventor—he was an artist. And like all great artists, he was a tyrannical control freak, an absolute perfectionist. With art, that’s not a problem. Picasso’s Guernica would not be improved in the slightest if I were allowed to add a few brushstrokes.
But the wonder of computing used to be that anyone could make it better. Anyone could take apart their machine and tinker their way to a better machine. Anyone could write code, usually by building on someone else’s code. Anyone could innovate from their garage, and they didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to do so. That’s what allowed Steve Jobs and his hacker buddy Steve Wozniak to create Apple I in the first place. But Apple products aren’t made like that anymore. As elegant and intuitive and beautiful as they are, they are also perhaps the most closed computers ever made—devices without screws, devices with rules, devices that are increasingly better described as appliances than as computers.
Steve Jobs’ journey from underdog to overlord, seen by many as a triumph, will always contain an element of tragedy to me. What might have been if Wozniak’s anarchic, DIY, hacker ethos had survived to temper Jobs’ aesthetic perfectionism? You might argue that Apple’s products would have been muddied and compromised, but I see no reason why a device can’t be both a pliable tool and a work of art.
When a great inventor dies, the life of their invention may just be beginning. But when a great artist dies, that’s it—their body of work is complete. We are left with what we are left with, and all we can do is enjoy it, study it, and yes, be inspired by it. But inspiration is different from collaboration, and we are living in a renaissance of digital collaboration. Steve Jobs was not a friend to this new age, but he was a titan of the last. He was, as Jay Rosen just tweeted, “the greatest modernist of them all”.
I have been, and I remain, a critic of Apple Computers. Yet I type this on a Macbook Pro. There are four in my house.