Commentary

The Media Person Of Infinity...

In 2006, MEDIA magazine named Steve Jobs its first "Media Person of the Year," but I'd like to amend that now, on his passing, by recognizing him for what he truly was - and if you continue to follow my logic - still is, and forever will be: the "Media Person of the Infinity." The reason has to do with what I believe to be his greatest invention, but one few people may realize he created: the time machine. Let me explain.

I'm one of those people who believe that humans created the concept of time, and that we create media to keep track of it, and increasingly, to manage it. If you believe, as I do, that media have enabled us to traverse the past, present and future, then media are nothing more than technologies that enable us to travel through time. They enable us to record and preserve moments of time for people to experience in the future. They distribute moments of time for others to experience who weren't in the places to experience them in the first place. And they take us into the future by allowing us to use past and current information to project, conceptualize, and ultimately create what will happen in the future.

Most humans are pretty good at the past and present parts, but Jobs was one of those special people who could shape the future by creating things that made us leap, at quantum rates, into it. He did that not simply by making us think different, but by making us behave different. Plenty of people have imagined the future, including great scientists and science fiction writers. H.G. Wells, for example, got us to imagine time machines. But Jobs got us to actually use them and make them a part of our everyday lives.

So let's travel back in time and start where Jobs began, with the computer. He didn't invent it, but he got us to think different enough about it in ways that we actually wanted to use it. There were plenty of personal computers on the market in the early 1980s when I bought my first one, but it wasn't until the Apple II came along that I actually bought one. Part of it was the design of it. Part of it was something else - something intangible - that I cannot put my finger on, but it is in almost everything else Jobs created since then that made us want those things, go out and buy those things, and then start traveling through time with them.

Take the iPod. The concept behind it was not new: a personal media device that enabled us to carry our music with us as we traveled through time, providing a soundtrack for our lives, past present and future. I understood this one first-hand, because I actually think I invented something like that myself. Apologies if you've heard this anecdote already, but it was 1971, I was 13-years-old, and my mother was going to secretarial school and had a transcription machine at home - basically an audio tape player that you controlled with a foot pedal. It had these light-weight headphones that were the precursor to modern day earbuds, and had the same jack that we use today. I noticed they fit into a pocket-size transistor radio that I had, and when I plugged them in, and put them on, I had one of those future-leaping moments, thinking, "Gee, this is amazing, somebody should invent something like this."

What I've learned since then is that inventions are easy. Bringing inventions to life and getting people to use them is not. Personal music players were around for years, even MP3 versions, before Jobs redesigned them into the iPod. He didn't just redesign the physical components - which he and Apple's engineers certainly did masterfully - but redesigned the way we think about them.

Some years after Apple introduced the iPod, I remember standing on a New York subway car counting the number of passengers traveling through time. You could tell who they were, because they were the ones with earbuds dangling from their ears. That was the year we named Steve Jobs MEDIA's Person of the Year. He didn't come to accept the award. In fact, as you might expect, Jobs never responded to anything we ever did to recognize him, except when we "published" his image on a billboard in Times Square naming him MEDIA's person of the year. Representatives from Apple asked us to take the billboard down until we explained that it was not an advertisement, but an editorial page from a special "nonlinear" issue of our magazine (donated courtesy of Clear Channel Outdoor). But why would they know, the only copy featured on the billboard was the single word, "iGod."

I could cite many other ways in which Steve Jobs influenced us, and pulled us into the future, but I don't think it was by being an inventor or a designer, or even a brilliant businessman or marketer. He was surely all of those things, but they were all byproducts of the thing he actually did best: Understanding what we wanted media technology to do for us, and making it simple for us to use. Whether that was intuitive, graphical user interface computing, or an elegantly simple portable media player, or even a simple, legitimized system for purchasing the media we played on it.

While driving my daughter to school Friday morning, we debated Steve Jobs' legacy. She said he would be remembered as an inventor on the scale of Thomas Edison, Galileo or Leonardo Da Vinci. I said that only time would tell. Or to quote a character he helped bring to life, Steve Jobs will be remembered, "To infinity... and beyond."

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