Making Apple make sense to myself: Steve Jobs isn’t Jesus, he’s a run-of-the-mill artist

27Jul10

As one of my Twitter friends quipped, I have a love/hate relationship with Apple. I love their powerful, visionary computer products and will proclaim to the rafters that their intuitions about hardware/software experience are second to none. But I also flew into a weeklong rage about AntennaGate (even though I don’t own an iPhone), unable to prevent myself from writing some really nasty things about Steve Jobs.

Hm, cognitive dissonance much?

I needed a way to understand this. I needed a model to explain it to myself so I don’t feel like a hypocrite the next time I buy or recommend an Apple product and yet also feel justified when I fly off the handle about something they do that feels evil. I may have found it:

In a nutshell, Steve Jobs is the technologist as artist. And since his control over and embodiment of Apple’s brand is so total, you can also say that Apple, the company, is itself a manifestation of the technologist as artist.

What this means is that, like an artist, Apple:

  • creates sometimes-visionary artifacts that are sometimes surprising in their ability to affect the ambient culture as a whole.
  • has core values that are fundamentally aesthetic: value hinges on emotions, experiences, senses. Perceived value literally is real value.
  • privately sets (and maintains) its own priorities and objectives, rather than openly flowing with/reacting to those of the ambient culture.
  • is willing to experiment at the risk of alienating the mainstream or certain elite populations.
  • thinks it always knows best regarding all of the above, period.

Once you interpret Apple’s behavior in this context, everything they do — good and bad — makes much more sense. You may not always like it, but you can at least understand it, and set expectations accordingly. (And by “you” I mean “I.”)

The upside of this is that Apple gives us things like wonderfully appealing devices that get out of their own way and “just work,” and innovative and intuitive new ways to interact with them — which can sometimes lift the products out of the utilitarian zone of being “just tools” that you don’t think about when you’re not using them, and into the realm of the aesthetic: that is, you literally feel things because of and about them. If Apple could make a product that you loved without it being flawlessly designed and functional, they would. And they have. But not because they’re evil. It’s simply because, like an artist, creating that feeling is what their real business is.

You might say that any successful brand, like Tony Hsieh’s Zappos, is all about making you feel great and lovey towards them at the end of the day too. But here’s a key difference: Zappos is fundamentally a helpmate. If you feel love towards the brand, it’s literally because they make you feel taken care of like no one else does. Apple isn’t interested in that. Apple is an artist. If you feel love about what they make, it’s not because you feel like Apple takes care of you — that’s a second-order effect, if you feel it at all. Like any “successful” art, you love Apple stuff (and by association, Apple) because you feel that it connects you to the sublime.

I don’t mean some overheated, intellectualized, art school version of the term. You simply feel a combination of delight, desire, and awe: a pleasure of the senses and emotions that feels bigger than you (even if you can’t put your finger on it, or why). It’s not mystical, or even all that rare. Hell, a hot bowl of macaroni and cheese connects me to the sublime in certain contexts.

And that’s what art and artists do (or try to). As an urge, it’s useful, valuable, even noble. And attaching that urge to a totally incongruous part of modern life — computers and technology, which in most cases is something we put up with rather than delight in — is Apple’s/Jobs’s genius. I really think that on the whole it’s indirectly made for a better world, simply by making the creative power of computers and computing not just accessible to the mainstream, but desirable.

But artists have a downside, too — as anyone who’s had to live with or work with one can attest to.

They can take criticism personally. They can be defensive, arrogant, inconsistent, self-aggrandizing, deceitful, and/or stubborn about the artifacts they create, the process they use to create them, or the position they occupy in the marketplace. They can decide that if you don’t like something they’ve made for whatever reason, then it’s your problem, not theirs, and by the way, you can also go fuck yourself. They can completely refuse to listen to reason or admit their mistakes.

Sound like anyone we know?

So here’s what I’ve learned about Apple. As long as Jobs is running things, you have to treat the company like an artist, and expect it to treat you accordingly — for better or worse. Sometimes they will delight you and connect you with the sublime in a truly unique way. Sometimes they will treat you like total dog shit. Sometimes simultaneously. (BTW: I’ve been making a simile this whole time. I’m not saying Steve Jobs literally IS an artist, like Julian Schnabel or Vincent Van Gogh or whoever. He’s a technologist who ACTS like an artist.) The point is, as with art and artists, there’s very little that’s rational about engaging with Apple and their products at the end of the day — on either side. The artist does what they do: there’s what they should do, and there there’s what they do do. And you like it or you don’t.

Maybe you think that’s a stupid “pass” to give a technology company. If you’re used to thinking of all companies as fundamentally service-oriented — that their “real” job is to address and take care of your needs — maybe it is. A big part of my anger about Apple’s recent behavior came out of that — I did think that any company that sells products should be fundamentally service-oriented. But maybe that’s just not how it works anymore. (Google, a company whose brand and products I have an overall affection for, could hardly be viewed as “service-oriented.”) Maybe you just don’t get all the benefits of Apple-ness if you make them into a fundamentally service-oriented company. (This makes me wonder what changes will inevitably happen when their artist-avatar CEO finally steps down.)

In any case, I don’t think viewing Apple through this lens is giving them a “pass”: like I said above, for me it’s purely a way of understanding and relating to a company and brand that I have very strong contradictory feelings about. I’m writing this mostly for my own benefit — I want to be able to both love and hate them when warranted without sacrificing my own intellectual honesty.

And I do.

Postscript: This also provides a much less handwavey (I think) model for understanding the way Apple “fanboys” act than saying that their fervor maps to religion or a cult. Connection to the sublime is what religion provides for many people, but people also get it from (in addition to art and food, as I mentioned) childrearing, sports, sex, and countless other things. It’s a basic human drive; it only differs in the form it takes. I think that Apple fervor/fanboyism/loyalty or whatever you want to call it has more in common with sports fandom and art appreciation than religion, but the meta-phenomenon is the same: people seek the sublime. And when they find it in something, you can’t argue them out of it.



3 Responses to “Making Apple make sense to myself: Steve Jobs isn’t Jesus, he’s a run-of-the-mill artist”

  1. If you’re right, then Jobs has had more influence than any artist in history. Unless you consider generals-as-artists to be up to the same thing.

  2. 2 Me

    Ha. But DO you think I’m right? Or bending myself into pretzels? (or both?)

  3. Yeah absolutely. Jobs is a classic artist / narcissist. His screaming fits are legendary. He’s mercurial and he occasionally treats his top people like shit. But people work for him anyway, because hey, they get to change the world. If you want to understand him, watch Anthony Hopkins in Surviving Picasso. Or if you really want to understand him, read Steven Levy’s excellent book Insanely Great.



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