A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I suppose I should have thought on, last weekend, that by the time we’d got to Friday everyone in the world would have had something to say about the passing of Steve Jobs. So now I know I’m just adding a tiny tribute to an enormous heap of them. I might have to work hard to turn this into a relevant piece for Vulpes Libris, but please bear with me and I’ll try.
Like many other people, I think, I was taken unawares by how saddened I was by the death of Steve Jobs. I’ve long been fascinated by him as a public figure, but I’d never regarded him as particularly loveable – actually rather rebarbative. He appeared driven, and by reputation a tyrant, albeit one who inspired great loyalty. But when I heard about his death, I felt as though I’d lost someone who was important to my life. So as a Bookfox, why? Well, I am here (and to an extent who I am) because of my discovery of that place that in my old-fashioned way I think of as cyberspace. I took my first steps online at work, a good 20 years ago, but it was fraught with technical detail, problem-solving, troubleshooting. I found my way to my personal places online at home, using devices that were easy to use, reliable, fast, and, the final surprise and delight, very beautiful. Steve Jobs’ personal stake in this was his perception that we are entitled to excellent design on the one hand, ease of use as well, and on top of all that, beauty. His products are beautiful – not necessarily because he made them beautiful, but because they had to be beautiful to please him. It is a token of the limits of his ego that we know the name of the designer (Jonathan Ive) and that Jobs never attempted to assign the credit for the various Apple innovations to himself – he took responsibility, and was the public face of their success, or failure.
His thinking has been an inspiration to me – two themes in particular. First of all, he proposed new things to us – he invented the future, over and over again. It is wonderful and exhilarating occasionally to be led and not followed, to have new concepts, ideas and designs proposed to me – after all, I don’t know what is possible and it is great to encounter someone who does. And that leads to the second theme – this means that sometimes, the guess is a wrong one, and he was the finest exponent of my favourite philosophy, which is that if you get something wrong, you get out of it fast and without regrets – learn from it and move on.
Through his inspiration, this whole (now not-so) new world of online communication is so easy to navigate. His products have pushed the technical aspects of using IT into the background and brought creativity to the fore. He has championed a particular company, Apple, with a particular range of products (and created a tribe or, some would say churlishly, a cult of users), but I contend that everyone who uses any personal computer or smartphone to write, create or communicate is in his debt. Modern devices make writing, photography and movies, making and listening to music not just easier, but utterly mainstream, and release the creativity of so many people who would never otherwise have realised it. All designers of personal devices have had to respond to his ideas, of making our stuff (technical term, here) smaller, faster, easier to use, and above all ergonomically beautiful and a pleasure to handle. While he was in charge, Apple continued to lead the field here, while others followed. It is odd to say this of someone promoting top-price, luxury products, but he set the direction for all. It is also hard for me to describe the pleasure in using not just good, but the best, design, but I know I experience it every day, and it is indeed a subliminal pleasure. Yes, I know Steve Jobs was not the designer, or the technical whiz who makes it all work, but his unique role is that he had a vision of the end result, wanted the best and drove for it, and he did that for me, the user.
So, I found myself mourning his passing, and in the position of being constantly reminded of him. I’ve opened every day the Macbook Pro that is my constant companion to find tributes and analysis. I’ve carried the news and the reaction in my handbag on my iPhone (which is scarcely a phone at all – I probably spend about 5% of the time actually talking to people on it). I learnt more about him as a person – what drove him, what he thought – and it only made me admire him more. I discovered, along with the rest of the world, his amazing Commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 that showed to me that he was no mean writer – a brave man and an inspiring thinker. I knew he was a great orator already – how much I shall miss those product launches (there now – a sentence I never thought I would write – but of whom else will that ever be said?). I learnt that lots of people had been ambushed by the same sense of almost personal loss, certainly the loss of a hero figure.
But then I was struck, not by the number of people who didn’t feel the same way and were saying how they felt instead, but with the number of people piling in to tell me that I was wrong and deluded; that Steve Jobs was a worthless person and his company a purveyor of meaningless luxury goods; that we were delusional fans; that the downsides of capitalism and globalisation disqualify us from thinking well of this man in any way; finally, in that deeply ungenerous phrase, that we should all ‘Get a grip’. And I thought, not for the first time, that the world online is peopled by those who strive to express what they are thinking, and those who strive to find out what we are thinking and tell us to stop it. I know whom I prefer, and I find them in the wonderful literary corner of cyberspace that I mostly choose to inhabit. So, painfully dragging this piece back into the orbit of Vulpes Libris, I think it is as true now as ever that books and the reading of them, analysing our reactions to what we read and sharing them, is the best training ground for a civilised and balanced appreciation of this man, or any person, and his achievements and his impact on our lives.
The image above is entitled Apple Logo Autumn Spectrum 08/10/11. My tribute to Steve / mon hommage a Steve. RIP Oct. 5 2011. It comes from the Flickr photostream of Mr. dale, and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.