In 1969, the year of Woodstock and the first moon walk, Steve Jobs was 14. A yearbook photograph from Homestead High School in Cupertino, Calif., shows him with the rest of the electronics club, looking as geeky as his buddies. Three years later, the 1972 yearbook includes a grad photo that shows Jobs, virtually unrecognizable, with long hair, in a tux and bow tie. Something about the Summer of Love had gotten to him.
For the past week or so, in the instantly mythic aftermath of his death, Steve Jobs has often been characterized as a nerd who made good, but he was never a nerd: he was the coolest tech guy who ever lived, a little foppish, a little ascetic, like a combination of Oscar Wilde and St. Augustine. What Jobs was—in an American do-it-yourself, perfection-unto-arrogance tradition that few admirers today are aware of—was a hippie.
Some of the counterculture trappings of Jobs’s life were sixties stock. After dropping out of college in his freshman year, he worked at the pioneering video-game firm Atari to raise money for a trip to an ashram in India. He returned a Buddhist, complete with Indian garb and a shaved head. He took LSD, later describing it as one of the defining experiences of his life. And of course there was his legendary Jobsian observation that Bill Gates would have been “a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”
But the key to his subversive style lay in the unique character of the Whole Earth Catalogue, an idiosyncratic publication that hit the streets in 1968 courtesy of Stanford University alumnus and biologist Stewart Brand. To the 21st century ear the WEC has an agrarian, New Agey ring, like a Farmers’ Almanac for the organic aisle; but actually it was dominated by technology and engineering gadgetry, all packaged in a compendium as eclectic as any of the talks organized today by the non-profit TED—Technology, Entertainment, Design. (The journal’s name is an homage to Brand’s campaign to get NASA to release the first photographs taken from space that showed Earth in its entirety.) Brand notes that the WEC generation was “inspired by the ‘bards and hot-gospellers of technology,’ ” people like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller. In its early incarnation, the catalogue was heavily committed to an independent do-it-yourself-ism in all things, from food production to infrastructure building. Added to this was a belief in the democratization of information, that ideas and disciplines should be liberated and accessible to everyone. In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Jobs described the Whole Earth Catalogue as “an amazing publication . . . sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.”
It was this school of hippiedom that informed everything Steve Jobs was to do over the course of his professional life. It wasn’t so much Fritz Perls’s then-iconic Gestalt prayer: “I do my thing and you do your thing . . . and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful,” as a new, gung-ho WEC libertarian prayer: “I do an insanely great thing and you do a cool thing, and if we can’t immediately share both things with everybody else so they can play with them, it’s criminal.”
This sensibility presided over Jobs’s first important money-making scheme, an illegal “blue box” designed by partner Steve Wozniak from borrowed technology that made long-distance phone-calling free. It was what steered him to adopt the caption on the back page of the Whole Earth Catalogue, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish,” as his unofficial motto, and moulded an attitude toward market research that echoed that of his hero Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera. “Market research,” Land once said, “is what you do when your product isn’t any good.” Decades later, Jobs quantified the amount of market research Apple did before the iPad made its debut. “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”
Best of all, it was this spirit that let Steve Jobs, a guy of my vintage, invent the products that prompt my daughter to call me an “old person” because I’m not as comfortable with them as she is. It was not a 20-year-old or 30-year-old who captivated the rhythm of her work and leisure, but a transcendentally cool 56-year-old who died too young. As for the more callow dot-com celebrity contingent, the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Sergey Brins, if they want to gauge the revolutionary gap that still separates them from Steve Jobs, let them check out the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out a year before Woodstock. Watch what the last ape does.
Steve Jobs did not design software. His subversiveness was purer and more ancient than that. He made tools.