Doug Hill

Doug Hill is a journalist who's recently completed a book on the history and philosophy of technology, The Meanings of Steve: An Inquiry Into Our Relationship With Technology. He blogs at The Question Concerning Technology.

Steve Jobs, Romantic

What it means to marry technology and the humanities.

“… the season
Wherein the spirits hold their wont to walk
the fruitful matrix of Ghosts …”

      — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Steve Jobs died a year ago October 5th, and we can expect his ghost to appear in any number of recollections and assessments as the anniversary approaches.

I’d like to talk here about a spirit that Jobs carried within himself. It’s a spirit he relied on for inspiration, although he seemed at times to have lost track of its whisper. In any event, what it says can tell us a lot about our relationship to machines.

I refer to the spirit of Romanticism. I spent much of this past summer reading about the Romantics — the original Romantics, that is, of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — and it’s remarkable how closely their most cherished beliefs correspond to principles that Jobs considered crucial to his success at Apple.

Intersection of technology and liberal arts sign from iPad 2 announcementWhat Apple does that other companies don’t, Jobs often said, is infuse the technologies it produces with human values. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said during one of his famous product introductions. “We believe that it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

Jobs can be forgiven for never getting very specific about what he meant by marrying technology to the humanities. It’s by definition a subject that’s hard to pin down, though not especially hard to understand. Basically he was saying that Apple’s products have soul and that people are attracted to those products because they can feel that soul, both consciously and unconsciously. These are things the Romantics thought about a lot.

That the creative artist can bring life to inanimate objects was a central conviction of the Romantic poets. (I’m speaking of the thrust of the Romantic movement in general; individuals within the movement disagreed on specific issues.) For them, the inanimate object in question was words; for Jobs, it was technology, but the basic point — that a work of art, properly executed, carries within it an invisible, living essence — was the same. Devoid of this essence, said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, what’s produced is as lifeless as the “cold jelly” of a corpse. Read more…

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