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>> Therefore, Ye Soft Pipes, Play On

The elegies for Steven Paul Jobs come pouring forth. The traditional elements of an elegy correspond to the stages of loss. Grief and sorrow are expressed through a lament; the life of the departed is idealized through admiration and praise; and then comes solace and consolation. As we find ourselves more than midway on life’s journey, the poetic form of the elegy reveals itself as a palpable presence. It’s not a form whose outlines are traced from a recipe extracted from a book, there’s a direct physical encounter with its contours as we stop for a moment, and look across the grain of time.

Businessmen, technologists, and tech bloggers have focused on different aspects of the Jobs legacy. I’d like to turn the spotlight to some of the language used to talk about what made Jobs different: visionary, genius, magic, and of course, crazy. These are words we use to describe something on the other side of the line, something well beyond ordinary grasp. From the stance of the technologist, the business person or the engineer, these are not qualities that can be captured in an algorithm, a spreadsheet or a mechanical device. Jobs appears to be an anomaly, the impossible exception—we shake our heads and say, ” we won’t see his like again.”

Steven P. Jobs wasn’t a hardware engineer, he didn’t write software code, he wasn’t an industrial designer. He didn’t finish college, given his qualifications, he wouldn’t even be considered for the position he held. The common wisdom in the technology community is that great companies start with great engineers—then eventually the suits come in and ruin everything. The technology industry’s utopia is a world run by engineers. Yet, Jobs, who was not an engineer, is acknowledged as the industry’s great visionary.

If we were listening, Jobs told us what he was doing. He explicitly stated that “Apple’s goal is to stand at the intersection of technology and the humanities.” This maxim hasn’t been given due consideration. Jobs restated this idea many times and in different formulations. At the iPad2 launch, he said it this way:

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.”

To the engineers in the crowd, this talk of “singing hearts” must seem like a lot of sentimental hogwash. It’s the nuts and bolts that really make the difference. Technology stands alone, it doesn’t need to marry anyone, or anything, to win the day. Talk of ‘singing hearts’ is just Jobs as salesman, some of that ‘reality distortion field’ stuff.

We strip rhetoric from logic, we limit design to the surface, we consider the humanities to be the frothy nonsense floating at the top of an education that should be devoted to hardcore business and science. It’s the ‘nice-to-have,’ but inessential item on the to-do list. As the center of thought moves further and further in that direction, we lose even the language to describe the kinds of things Jobs accomplished. And while we can’t articulate it, there’s no question that we hear its music.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d;
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

John Keats
Ode on a Grecian Urn

Here’s Jobs talking about his approach in a Fortune magazine interview in 2000:

“We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing,” Mr. Jobs replied. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. … That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started.”

Here the humanities aren’t the thin layer of frosting spread on top of the core of technology to make it look nice. In a sense, technology is medium through which a fundamentally humanistic vision is expressed. Where the common wisdom is to start with the engineering and the technology, Jobs and the team at Apple start with an act of poetic imagination. The slogan “think different” encapsulates this idea. The ‘difference’ in this kind of thinking is that it starts with the humanities and technology as equal partners in the eventual expression of the product or service. Or as Jobs eloquently describes it, the kernel of the idea “expressing itself in successive outer layers.”

Of all the commentary, it was James B. Stewart’s piece in the New York Times that captured some of the unheard melody, the poetic thinking emanating from the office of the CEO.

“Most people underestimate his grandeur and his greatness,” Gadi Amit, founder and principal designer of New Deal Design in San Francisco, told me. “They think it’s about design. It’s beyond design. It’s completely holistic, and it’s dogmatic. Things need to be high quality; they have to have poetry and culture in each step. Steve was cut from completely different cloth from most business leaders. He was not a number-crunching guy; he was not a technologist. He was a cultural leader, and he drove Apple from that perspective. He started with culture; then followed with technology and design. No one seems to get that.”

It’s hard to find parallels. Braun and Olivetti in Europe had beautiful designs, but never had Apple’s success. Mr. Amit mentioned Italy’s Enzo Ferrari, the racecar driver and founder of the Ferrari sports car manufacturer. “Apple has the status that Ferrari has in Italy,” Ms. Antonelli said. “It’s a source of national pride and of pride for every employee. You get to that stature only if you created something so fundamental that everyone loves.”

Mr. Amit says he believes Mr. Jobs’s legacy will be “the blending of technology and poetry. It’s not about design per se; it’s the poetic aspect of the entire enterprise. Compared to Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, he’s in a different class. I think this is a revolutionary shift. Jobs is a revolutionary character. He shifted the industry and changed our lives through this amalgamation of culture and technology. If you’re looking for C.E.O.’s of this caliber, you have to look outside the engineering and business schools. That is truly revolutionary.”

When we lament that we won’t see another like Steven P. Jobs again, we need to acknowledge the cold, hard facts of the situation. We aren’t looking for people like Jobs to lead our greatest companies. In fact, we’re probably doing everything in our power to make sure that people like him don’t get anywhere near a leadership role. We’ve de-valued and de-funded the humanities, we’ve relegated poetic thinking to third class status.

In 1821 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “A Defense of Poetry.” Although he never wrote one, the work of Steven P. Jobs was a modern defense of poetry.

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

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  1. Nonprofit Technology and Marketing | Benjamin Phillips | October 10th, 2011 | 1:59 pm

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