Once a hacker, forever an artist. RIP, Steve Jobs. - Macleans.ca

Once a hacker, forever an artist. RIP, Steve Jobs.

BROWN: What if Wozniak’s anarchic, DIY, hacker ethos had survived to temper Jobs’ aesthetic perfectionism?


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.

Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown


Once a hacker, forever an artist. RIP, Steve Jobs.

  1. ‘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’???

    No…they couldn’t. And they didn’t. Steve Jobs did.

     “The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented”   President Obama

    ‘Wozniak told Morgan that Jobs’ goal was to give “mankind the most useful, helpful tools we’ve ever had in our history, the one that we would enjoy most, ones that we not only use, but we love.”

    Steven Jobs



    • WOOSH!
      The sound of the finer points of an argument going right over your head.

      • More like the wind rushing through your ears.

  2. Art must have no other purpose but itself, so I agree that Jobs’ work was art, but not that art can also be a pliable tool.

    So maybe now Apple can either lead the way in providing pliable tools that improves people’s understanding of computers and electronic devices instead of dumbing it down, or let someone else do it.

  3. Apple Inc. dropped Computer from their name on January 9, 2007. [Channeling Steve who would want to ensure accuracy.]

  4. If Apple had let their computers be “open” as you would like, they’d either be as mediocre and problem-filled as other platforms, or a small time company that makes products for hobbyists. Or more likely, they’d probably be out of business.

    95%+ of people don’t want to open up their computers for anything other than upgrading a hard drive or RAM (if they even ever do that!), both of which are relatively easy on almost every Mac (except Macbook Airs). If you want to buy your own computer parts and make a Linux box, you’re welcome to do that, and I don’t think Apple cares much if you do. But for the 95%+ of us who have other things we want to do with our time, having a computer that “just works” and that doesn’t get in the way of our productivity and creativity is a wonderful option to have (and I say that as someone who’s built a hackintosh from parts). 

    Your complaint about programers not being able to program on Macs is also absurd. Where do you think all of the apps on Macs come from? You do know that Apple makes developer kits, hosts events for developers, gives them advance builds of OS updates, access to all of their API’s etc., right? 

    And the tight ship that Apple runs on their App Store has made their iOS pretty damn solid, unlike Android, which is plagued by malware. But again, if you want to wade into that open source world, you’re welcome to and I don’t think Apple cares. They don’t think that everyone in the world needs to use their products, though they do seem to be tired of other companies so closely copying their designs.

    Apple is not marketing to sell to everyone. They don’t want to make iPhones for everyone in the world. Their focus is on making mid to high end devices that are beautiful, intuitive, and well made. If you want cheaper or more open devices, there are plenty of alternatives that Apple has not chosen to compete with. That decision is a huge part of their success.

    I’ve liked your articles on almost every other area of the tech world, but I have to say that anytime you write about Apple, you come off sounding more like a PC or Linux fanboy than a well-informed journalist. It’s fine to have biases (if not good and necessary), but when they’re based on a lack of facts or understanding of what you’re writing about, it really diminishes their value.

    • Your taunts of fanboy seem rather hypocritical. You may not be a card-carrying Cult of Mac member, but you seem unable to see the extent to which you’ve internalized Jobs’ rhetoric and passed it off as your own. Jobs heavily promoted the idea that closed systems and authoritarian control are necessary to make things “just work.” That’s not a tenable philosophy, but rather a clever marketing campaign. For all intents and purposes, the Android environment is entirely comparable to that of iOS. I switched from an iPhone to an Android device a few months ago, and absolutely nothing has changed about the way I use my phone, or what I can do with it. Actually, that’s not true… Flash works.

      What’s worse, is that in spite of his rhetoric, Jobs “borrowed” countless ideas that were invented on open platforms. To begin with, the Mac OS is Unix-based, so it never would have existed if it wasn’t for open source programmers. Also, many of those little desktop tweaks that help your computer “get out of the way” were invented and implemented on Linux systems first. Spaces? Linux. Expose? Linux. Hot corners? Linux. Webkit browsers? Linux (and don’t even get me started on Safari — the only modern browser that doesn’t let you search from the address bar). For a man who constantly spoke of the supremacy of closed systems, he does seem to have taken a lot of cues from open ones.

      The idea that Macs somehow make you more productive or creative (and how exactly does Apple measure the abstract notion of creativity?) is such a myth. There may be an argument that things are a tiny bit easier provided you do not stray outside of the walled garden, but that’s not really possible for most people. Can’t afford an iPhone? Good luck transferring your .m4a files to your generic mp3 player. Have to use Windows at work? Have fun trying to open a Pages document in Word or OO. Wanna watch a movie you downloaded? Quicktime does not recognize that file format.

      In a world where multiple varieties of hardware and software co-exist, interoptability is efficient and productive, and closed systems are precisely what “get in the way.”

      You seem to like Apple products. That’s great, but stop conflating your personal preferences with objective truths.

      p.s The battery on my new Macbook just died. Can you tell me how to replace it? 

      • I have no doubt that I’m pro-Apple biased (though I do wish that they’d have made a mid-priced tower so I didn’t have to resort to building a hackintosh, as interesting as that was). I’m very aware of how much I agree with Apple’s design philosophy, as well. It’s not something I’ve passively absorbed without awareness, but something that comes out of years of using different computers and being the unofficial tech support person in both my professional and personal social settings. That’s not to say that it’s universally or objectively true.

        I have no problem at all with people using Linux. I think it’s great that some people prefer using, programming, or tinkering with open systems. I have no doubt that Apple and others have taken technologies and insights from there, and a number of other sources. I hope that people continue to pursue any number of other systems, open and closed, as competition and variation only create more options and innovations. Again, what I wrote was not meant to be, in any way, an attack on the principals or achievements of open source.

        My issue with the article is that he seems to think that an open source OS is ideal for everyone, and I don’t think that it is. I can guarantee you that neither my brother, father, or wife would prefer an open source system.  As their tech support, I can personally report that I almost never receive calls anymore since they’ve switched from Windows boxes to Macs. For just that, I’m deeply grateful to Steve and Co.

        I get the feeling, and I may be wrong here, that the author is a bit like a classical music snob who doesn’t like that ordinary people have gotten into what used to be his niche thing. And his claim that Apple is anti-digital collaboration is just bizarre. Sure, you can’t modify a Macbook Air (designing a laptop like that really makes upgradeability more difficult) or his MBP’s, beyond their RAM and HD (how many laptops more modifiable?). Apple is not so dominant that they are removing the ability to modify computers and use different OS’s (in fact, you can install other OS’s on Macs). They’re one option, and if you want a more open OS or tinkerable computer, you’re more than welcome to make one. Nothing Apple is doing changes that, and everyone knows (or at least should) how upgradeable (or not) their Mac is when they buy it.

        And beyond the OS, anyone is free to develop software for OSX. People making software for OSX are more than welcome to make their work open source. I have no problem with people doing that at all. If the software’s good, it’s great for everyone. iOS is a bit more closed, obviously, but thousands of developers have managed to get apps on their App Store. 

        Macs don’t make anyone more creative, but having a computer (whoever it’s made by) that “just works” does (unless you’re an open source programmer, perhaps). If you can get right to your work without your computer getting in the way, that’s a huge boost for a creative. As for my own creativity, Logic is unbelievably wonderful for writing music. Every musician that I know uses it for composition. Of course, Apple bought the software when they bought eMagic, but they improved it vastly and it’s an amazing deal price-wise for a great sequencer and tones of wonderful synths and effects.

        Re: your issues with formats: iTunes will convert .m4a files to mp3s (I’ve also never seen someone with a non-Apple mp3 player, but that’s besides the point). Pages documents can be easily exported as .doc files (I work with a lots of Windows users, and it’s never been an issue for me), or PDFs, RTF, etc. You’re also welcome to buy Office for Mac.

        And regarding your battery, if your Macbook is still under Apple Care (1 year if you didn’t extend it) they’ll replace it at an Apple Store for free. They replaced my old MBP’s battery and power cord  when I was more than a year out of warrantee, and even paid for the shipping (the nearest Apple Store was about 1000kms away at the time). Try calling Applecare first if your Applecare has expired.

  5. R.I.P. is an abbreviation for rest in
    peace (Latin: requiescat in pace). That’s nothing more than
    poppycock invented by those with mediocre religious imaginations. “Rest
    in peace” is a short epitaphor idiomatic expression wishing eternal rest
    and peace to someone who has died. The expression typically appears
    on headstones, often abbreviated as “RIP”. The phrase or acronym is
    commonly found on the grave of Roman Catholics, as it is derived from a Latin
    prayer in the burial liturgy. Its origin is from the Book of Isaiah 57:2. ‘…but
    in death they find peace for obeying God”.

  6. I am sorry that the poor man is dead, but I feel there is overreaction. He has not revolutionized my world. I have never owned a Mac computer, do not have an iphone, iPad or even an iPod (some of us stil buy CDs)

    • Therein lies the problem.  Once you use the productions, you will get the revolution.

      • Sorry, products!

      • I don’t have a problem.

  7. Steven Jobs is dead, having died prematurely. I have been an Apple user for nearly 30 years, but like the author here, I feel ambivalent about Apple computers and Apple the company. Their computers are FAR from perfection, and could be improved in MANY ways. The company is rapacious, and my sense is that the rapacity was driven in part by SPJ.

  8. Britain outlaws all but the softest of porn yet the list of innovations that stem from Britain (past and present) are endless!

    • Oops – I posted this to the wrong article!

  9. “Meet the new Boss…. Same as the old Boss…”

    RIP Steve Jobs. How long will the cult last without you?