The Boomer Leonardo
This week marked the end of a period of remarkable and unique American innovation. One of the most brilliant men of the 20th and 21st century died of cancer, far too young.
Steve Jobs was born in 1955, at the height of the baby boom, a year after I was born. When Steve dropped out of Reed College, I dropped out of my university. When he and his friend, Steve Wozniak, first put together the ur-personal computer, a build-it-yourself mail order kit costing more than $2000, I was busy planting trees. When he was fired by Apple and replaced by John Sculley in 1986, I was an office drone working my way to Vice President. When he came back in triumph in 1997, after founding and selling Pixar and NeXT, I was finally a big shot, but not big like Steve.
I’ll tell you what Steve Jobs did. He took the power of computing, which had been jealously held by propeller heads and pimply kids from the AV club, and he gave it to artists, to writers, to creators, to people for whom computers were anathema, and counter-imaginative. Steve Jobs showed us we could use the power of technology to create as well as to count, and he allowed a thousand flowers to bloom.
I never really liked computers until I got my first Mac Classic II in 1992. It was chunky, clunky and amazing. It was intuitive. Running it was like playing picture games instead of wrestling with compound algebra. It was a revelation. The mouse! The Graphic User Interface! The flying toasters! I was hooked.
I’ve owned dozens of Macs since then, some better than others, but all of them extensions of my personality and as much a necessary tool as my arms or legs. I would never have formed this bond with technology if not for the innovation and vision of Steve Jobs.
In the past few years, it’s gotten better. I have an iPhone I can’t live without, and I scorn those who use Blackberries. I don’t have an iPad yet, but only because I have an 11 inch MacBook Air, which is what the iPad really should be.
Steve Jobs saw that technology would never really serve mankind until it disappeared, became transparent, became as easy to use as a child’s toy. He saw that it is the children in all of us that technology can liberate, not the mathematician. I’ve seen an 18 month old baby manipulate an iPad and all its games as though she’d been doing it for years.
Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer, a sure killer. He, of all people, had all the resources necessary to fight it, and he tried, but cancer always wins in the end.
Steve Jobs was born into a world where smart ideas were the preserve of a small group of people, and he left that world a much better place. People have been comparing him to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. I think Leonardo, or Gutenberg are closer to the mark.