Vulpes Libris

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.

Steve Jobs: shedding a tear for someone I didn’t know.

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.

9 comments on “Steve Jobs: shedding a tear for someone I didn’t know.

  1. AvisHG
    October 14, 2011

    Beautifully said.

  2. Harriet
    October 14, 2011

    Great post and I agree with every word.

  3. Jackie
    October 14, 2011

    Wonderfully written. I didn’t know much about Mr. Jobs as a person, but I agree that the Commencement Address was excellent. And I will always be thankful to him for helping to develop computers, iPods & other devices that enrich our lives. As you say, computers has opened the world & boosted creativity for so many people and that I think is a blessing.
    What a perfect image for your piece, I really like the colors & mood.

  4. Moira
    October 15, 2011

    Lovely, thoughtful piece Hilary. I wonder how many of those mean-spirited nay-sayers paused to think that the very fact they were there in the first place, online, sharing their sadly narrow views, was a least partly because of Steve Jobs? Not very many, I suspect.

    I remember the first time I saw one of those wonderful Mediterranean blue iMacs ‘in the flesh’: I just thought “THAT is beautiful” – and I’d never thought that way about a bit of technology before. Human beings, unless they are soul-dead, love beautiful things. It’s hard-wired into them. Steve Jobs knew that and it was one of the things that marked him out as someone special.

    As far as the knockers are concerned, I think it’s a nasty case of Tall Poppy Syndrome. While he was alive, they kept their heads down because the internet being what it is, there was an outside chance he might pop up and squidge them. Now, it’s safe, and they can play intellectual pygymies to their little hearts’ content …

  5. John
    October 16, 2011

    What you see depends in large part on where you sit. I read that in a book a decade ago and it still makes me think every day. The online world is a diverse place and long may that continue. I think there is room for everybody- those who like gadgets and those who campaign for better working conditions and those who do a bit of both. I think a Shelley poem is beautiful in a way that a computer or a smartphone never could be. And I don’t think poppies have got anything to with that. But I don’t begrudge the man you mention his success on a personal level- I just wish the world was structured differently so that everyone had the right amount to eat. As Engels might have mentioned- before one can think, one has to eat. Appreciating the words of others is important, but adding to a debate is not yet a crime.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking review,

  6. Hilary
    October 16, 2011

    Thanks, everybody for your thoughtful comments. John, as befits the corner of cyberspace that I choose to inhabit, you have come here with some contrasting thoughts, not waving a flame-gun, but saying what you think and why. That’s what I call a debate, you’ve added to it, and it’s not a crime (and you haven’t used the words ‘get a grip’ even once, so thank you!). I’ve been made to think too – most recently about what goes into winning the rare earth materials that go into miniaturised products, and wish for a world where this could be done without such a high human price. Thoughts provoked all round, so thank you!

  7. kirstyjane
    November 4, 2011

    Commenting very late, but I just wanted to say I’ve been thinking about this piece since it was posted. I find it very courageous (not in a Sir Humphreyish way, I hasten to add) in the way it lays out, simply and directly, the process of grieving for a public figure with all the complexities that entails. A belated thank you, Hilary, for writing this.

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This entry was posted on October 14, 2011 by in Entries by Hilary and tagged , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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