Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Man Who Made Computers Human

Tech news became front page news last night as the world mourned the premature passing of a true innovator. Steve Jobs was more than just a giant of the tech world. He was a creative genius who in 56 years has certainly left as big, or perhaps even greater, a mark on the world as the Beatles, from whom he initially swiped the name for his fledgling start-up back in 1976.

A lot has already been written and will continue to be written about Steve Jobs in the coming days, weeks and months. President Obama paid him a suitably eloquent remembrance, saying that "there may be no greater tribute to Steve's success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented." Like many writers, bloggers and reporters around the world, I'm currently sitting here attempting to write the man's obituary on just such a device.

Steve Jobs was a bearded acid dropping hippie who was born and raised in Northern California. Like the Beatles before him, he set off to India to find enlightenment after dropping out of college in the early '70s. Upon his return he began working in the fledgling tech industry that was setting up camp in what would later be known as the Silicon Valley, a few miles south of San Francisco.

Early in his career he developed video games for Atari, including Breakout, a kind of variation on Pong, which was immensely popular at the time. He founded Apple Computers in much the same post-hippie spirit that was prevalent in Northern California in the mid '70s. Just take a look at the company's original logo, which could easily have been a playbill advertising an appearance at the Fillmore Auditorium by the Grateful Dead.

Apple was always the fly in the ointment of the staid and narrow tech world. Before Apple came along, computers were largely tools of the business world and might have remained so for much longer had it not been for Jobs and Apple.

Steve Jobs didn't invent the PC but he did a lot more to make them personal than just about anyone else. He wrestled technology from the cold grip of science and mathematics and made it feel much more like art or humanities. In doing so he laid the groundwork for much of the boom of the 1990s and the open, Internet culture we live in today.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Steve Jobs, but I can say without hesitation that I owe him a great debt for creating technologies that require the written content I earn my living producing. It's no exaggeration to say that this man created livelihoods for literally millions of people around the world.

Once while on assignment for a photography magazine I sometimes write for, I interviewed a guy who was a digital post-production tech who'd been on the photo shoot set with Steve Jobs for the cover of Time shown on the left. He told me that in between takes he'd wound up seated near Jobs, with basically no one else around. Nervous and somewhat star struck, he reflected that he was sitting across from a guy who'd basically created the technology that had enabled his entire career. Choking back his nervousness, he asked Jobs for his two cents on technology, innovation and his contribution to the world.

Jobs' answer was as simple and as brilliant as much of what he introduced to the world. "I just build it," he said. "You guys fill it up with stuff."

Thanks for building it Mr. Jobs. I'll try and do the best I can when it comes to filling it up with stuff.

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