10/16/2011

Triumph of Steve


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I became a full-time Macintosh user after realizing that I could make art and manipulate photos on a personal computer. I had used Macs before, but no more frequently than I had used machines running on DOS or Windows. And even after I had switched to Macs, I had a "live and let live" attitude about the whole Mac vs PC debate. I had my preferences, but I wasn't out to convert anybody. The same could be said with how I thought about Nikon vs Canon. I really didn't give a damn what SLR camera you used (The lens on the other hand was a different matter).

But I became a student of the graphic arts during the dark days of Apple, when everyone was predicting the company's demise. So I did feel a tad isolated. In the PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds (which one instructor made his students watch), a bitter Steve Jobs in exile bemoaned the lack of taste in Microsoft's products. Just a few years later, In the Beginning was the Command Line was touting Linux and other Unix-like operating systems as the future of the desktop. The mood within campus computer labs could be summed-up by a defiant editorial cartoon tacked-up in a graphic design classroom. In it, a guy walks into a studio full of people working on Macs and demands "We need a cartoon illustrating how Macs are becoming irrelevant", or something to that effect. It was easy for some to feel misunderstood as artists and as computer users. Such was the self-indulgence of youth. When Steve returned to Apple and unveiled a Unix-like OS to run on Macs, I was only a tiny bit, cautiously, hopeful. Steve may have been brilliant, but he still retained his legendary reputation for being an overbearing egotist and a difficult boss to work with. It wouldn't have surprised me if he prematurely left the company he co-founded for a second time.

Oddly enough, that's actually what happened. Instead of a boardroom coup d'├ętat though, it was Steve's own mortality that betrayed him, at the all-too-young age of 56. That he died from cancer is deeply saddening to me in very personal ways that I won't get into. But when I think of Steve Jobs, I find him such an improbable character. He wasn't an engineer, programmer, MBA, or artist of any note. Yet he had an impact on technology, consumerism, and popular culture like no one else. And he left a dynamic company imprinted with the best, and worst, aspects of his mercurial persona and utopian idealism. In the words of Scott McCloud , a creator who's expressed strong opinions about the marriage of technology and art: "Great design can and does change the world. Poor design can and does ruin lives." That's a line a certain aspiring student from a long time ago would have subscribed to.