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Tuesday , October 11 , 2011
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- Steve Jobs and the mass production of style

Steve Jobs wasn’t Thomas Edison, he wasn’t Henry Ford, he wasn’t (dear god) Leonardo da Vinci. Yes, he had three hundred and more patents in his name, he ran the world’s second most valuable company and he was responsible for some of the most beautiful products ever mass-produced, but he wasn’t an inventor, a tycoon or an artist. Or to the extent that he was, these personae tell us nothing either about his or Apple’s place in the public mind.

Comparisons across great spans of time and space are always absurd but if you are going to look for an earlier incarnation of Jobsness, you could do worse than William Morris. In this silly season for over-the-top obituaries, I’m saying that Jobs was a latter-day William Morris and that Apple is the lineal descendant of the Kelmscott Press.

The comparison doesn’t sustain a moment’s scrutiny but it gives us a clue to the nature of Jobs’s achievement. Jobs is a genius because he succeeded in translating the design aesthetic of the arts and crafts movement to machine-made gadgets. In so doing he rescued them from the generic anonymity that mass production eventually brings to nearly every industrial product.

It’s this paradoxical achievement, making mass-produced objects feel like personalized tools, this sleight-of-hand by which industrial fit and finish was haloed by the coolness and cachet of style, that delivered the fanboys, that inspired the cult-like worship of Apple, that allowed otherwise sensible people to love their laptops, which, under the sign of Dell or Lenovo, would have been treated with the matter-of-factness that commoditized machines deserve.

The key to all of this is the course in calligraphy that Jobs audited after dropping out of college. Reed College was sufficiently counter-cultural to allow ex-students to bum around its dormitories and classrooms and Jobs never forgot the excitement of font-making and the beauty of typefaces. So when the Macintosh shipped, it was the first personal computer to display a range of fonts that were rendered on the screen the way they would print on the page.

The Macintosh 128K (and later the 512K), combined with the Apple LaserWriter and MacPublish brought desktop publishing into being. With a little help from Aldus and Adobe, a process that had once seemed industrial in scale became an individual, artisanal art in a digital world.

Desktop film-editing, in the sense that we know it today, began when Avid developed its non-linear editing software exclusively for the Macintosh platform. In time Apple would offer its own editing software, Final Cut Pro, but the important point here is that the graphic user interface of the Macintosh made it the logical platform for the software that transformed film-editing by scaling the process down to a level where a film-maker could store and access and manipulate his raw footage in a way that hadn’t been possible before. For the independent film-maker or the documentarist, this meant that ‘auteur’, from being a fancy French word, became a realizable identity.

There is a reason why Jobs was the first to see the potential of the GUI and the mouse which he famously came upon in Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre. The technology existed but it took Jobs to see what it might mean to regular people because, unlike IBM or Microsoft, he saw technology not as a form of office automation but as something that empowered the individual user.

This had everything to do with his counter-cultural persona: Jobs was, after all, the ashram-visiting, acid-dropping hipster who had never been an office helot in his life. So the abstraction of the command-line interface, the non-intuitive expertise it needed and the brutish fixed-width white font on a green monitor that was its medium, was, for the amateur calligrapher from Reed, an abomination.

A GUI organized around the familiar metaphor of the desktop, accessed by a pointer that acted as a proxy for the human hand, meant that working on a computer could be a tactile, intimate experience, not a distancing and alienating one. That 25 years later Apple invented the finger-driven multi-touch iPhone interface was inevitable: the tactility of multi-touch, each finger a cursor, was the culmination of Jobs’s determination to make computers physical extensions of our bodies. When the online tech magazine, The Register, began calling iPads ‘fondleslabs’ it was satirizing the near-sensual pleasure Apple’s gizmos inspired.

In an echo of William Morris’s insistence that beauty ought to be an everyday concern for everyone, Apple under Jobs was concerned not just with the needs of the specialist digital artisan but with the expressive potential of anyone who used an Apple device.

This last summer I watched my nine-year-old nephew use an iPod Touch to shoot a short, hand-animated superhero film with plastic action figures. He didn’t just shoot the film with the built-in camera, he recorded and synchronized the soundtrack, edited his footage and superimposed the titles… all with a device that measured four inches by two inches. The film might have been a nine-year-old’s opus but it was, in its basic grammar, as much a film as anything that Bresson ever dreamt up (and rather better paced).

iMovie and GarageBand, applications that help Mac users edit video and audio, aren’t Mac versions of the crippled ‘programs’ that routinely come bundled with Windows machines. They are very capable applications that, in keeping with Jobs’s vision of technology, are also easy to use. Towards the end of Jobs’s life, Apple was criticized for dumbing down applications like Final Cut Pro, for aiming for consumers instead of professionals. It was an accusation that would have lost Jobs little sleep: Apple’s ideal consumer was always the intelligent layperson, not the specialized nerd.

William Morris believed that the alienation inherent in mass production would destroy beauty in everyday objects like books. As an antidote to the ugliness of industrialism, he proposed the beauty of hand-craftsmanship. His Kelmscott Press produced beautifully illustrated books but they were expensive books because Morris designed his own fonts, made his own paper and printed by hand. The decorative arts firm he established, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., was, in fact, a pioneering design practice, dedicated to the creation of beautiful, functional things through craft and good taste.

Like Morris, Jobs believed that every object, no matter how ordinary, was worth the effort that good design demanded and good design, in turn, was simply good taste harnessed to practical ends. Like Morris, he insisted on controlling every aspect of the design of anything Apple made, from the smallest physical detail of the iPhone to the ‘look-and-feel’ of its operating system, the soul that animated the machine. Like Morris’s books and wall-papers and knotted carpets, Apple’s computers, phones and tablets were criticized for being expensive and elitist and Apple’s insistence on proprietory hardware was widely seen as misguided in a digital world dominated by Windows software running on cheap, commoditized machines.

Like Morris, Jobs stubbornly swam against the current. Unlike Morris, he won. By the time Jobs died, the tide had turned and was buoying up Apple, with its competitors furiously trying to change course. And the reason Jobs won was that he wasn’t ideologically opposed to industrial capitalism as the socialist Morris was, he was against the ugliness and banality it unnecessarily spawned.

Jobs’s great achievement was to make modern consumers feel like connoisseurs, by offering in the drab, beige world of personal computing the consolations of aesthetic knowingness and snobbery. That the assertion of good taste that came with owning an Apple machine was often well-founded helped consolidate the cult of Apple.

Manufacturers of high-end machines have always worked hard to distinguish their products from their competitors. So Rolls-Royce and Bentley and other luxury car-makers go to some lengths to distinguish themselves from the ruck by advertising hand-made grilles, hood ornaments, wood veneers and hand-stitched leather upholstery. Jobs made no attempt to differentiate Apple’s machines in this way because he believed that assembly line manufacture didn’t have to be tricked out with hand-made finishes; it could be redeemed by superior design.

What Jobs did in the last decade of his life was to move Apple away from plastics and man-made materials and towards a minimalist design aesthetic dominated by metal and glass. Apple’s rhetorical genius consisted of making this aesthetic and these materials sound like the industrial age’s version of handicraft.

Consider the prose in which this aesthetic was marketed: “Apple’s new MacBook and MacBook Pro feature precision unibody enclosures milled from an extruded block of aluminum, allowing them to get even thinner while retaining rigid durability...” Or “The MacBook Pro is machined from a single piece of aluminum, an engineering breakthrough that replaced many parts with just one. It’s called the unibody.”

This ability to invest industrial process with the intricacy and care more commonly associated with pre-industrial craft — “milled”, “machined” — set Apple and its founder apart, it won them not merely loyal consumers, but extraordinary, and sometimes daft, devotion. Living in a mature industrial civilization light years removed from Morris’s Victorian world, Jobs was a modern virtuoso who abstracted the design sensibility that was the hallmark of craftwork and separated it from the act of making. The packaging of every Apple product tells you that it was Designed by Apple in California. The next line says Assembled in China. Not ‘made’, you understand, because for Apple, its products are made by Design. Apple’s makers are Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs; the Chinese workers who assemble the Macbook or the iPhone are cheap stand-ins for industrial robots.

Morris wouldn’t have approved. He was, at heart, a craft revivalist for whom the unity of designing and making was sacred. For him the artisan wasn’t just a skilled labourer, he was an artist. Besides, as a committed socialist, a comrade of Friedrich Engels and Eleanor Marx, Morris would have had something to say about gorgeously finished iPhones being made by harried labourers in Foxconn’s Chinese sweatshops.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, was a New Age entrepreneur who had no difficulty reconciling his Buddhist beliefs with the law of comparative advantage. Whether the difference can be put down to Morris’s greater virtue or Jobs’s better grasp of the principles of economics is something we can argue over. What is inarguable, though, is that Apple under Jobs demonstrated that beauty could be made on an industrial scale, that mass-produced machines could enable the artisan in Everyman.

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