Commentary

Our Magician

Unbeknownst to me, I already wrote my tribute to Steve Jobs earlier this week in a MoBlog post about the fetishization of the iPhone 5: "All of the dogged speculation about Apple's next move often seems to be a paparazzi-like feeding frenzy of nit-pickers and nerdocrats who love gadgets for gadgets' sake. The truth may be that in an age of techno-clutter we crave the simple, if sometimes dictatorial, leadership of the Apple brand. They are one of the few companies that seem to have been successful in giving us things we didn't even know we wanted. In a consumer culture where material goods too often are markers for who we are and what we value, the power to anticipate desire is what passes for magic."

We invested Steve Jobs with magician-like qualities in part because that is what our age needed: magic. Science, technology, the engineering sensibilities that have driven the look and feel of the Internet itself, tend toward an understandable but ultimately stale literalism. Technology without guidance tends towards complexity, and the marketing/merchandising extension of that momentum is feature creep. More is better. Pile on the features -- damn the complexity and usability. More is, after all, more.  

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Jobs helped change that polarity in our culture in significant ways that touched everyone.  

Arguably, simplicity and usability were at the heart of the Apple vision all along. The Apple OS was always more straightforward and uncluttered than its chief and monstrously more successful rival DOS and then Windows. But until the mid-2000s, and well after Jobs' famous return to Apple in the '90s, its technology remained pretty much a niche play. But when the Apple vision became truly intimate, in iPods and eventually the iPhone, then its impact became clearer.  

The iPhone was actually the first cell phone I ever bought, and the first time I subscribed to a wireless service. Before that, as a wireless critic and reporter, I used a stack of loaner phones from all the major carriers to cover a wide range of offerings. And truth be told, back in 2003 when I started covering the field, I found cell phones befuddling. That is what started a tradition in my home of tossing a new wireless device to my daughter and having her figure out what it could do and then walking me through it. After a decade of covering the PC world and Internet, I found cell phones so monstrously counterintuitive that I needed fresh, undaunted eyes to teach me how it all worked.  

The iPhone changed that, both for me and just about everyone I knew. I handed the first iPhone to my mother, who to this day is so tech-averse she has never worked a PC mouse. She understood what to do with it and was navigating the interface easily. At that moment I understood how much things were about to change. Jobs and his design team introduced clarity of vision and a dogged insistence that the goal of technological complexity should be simplicity.  

With Jobs now gone and the staggering outpouring of tributes cascading across the digital ether today, let me amend and extend my original point. In an age of clutter and complexity, when technology is as capable of shackling us as it is able to empower us -- simplicity, clarity of purpose, elegance are what passes for magic. Steve Jobs was the magician we were looking for.

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