(Re)moving Remembrance: Our Archaeology of Steve Jobs
The first anniversary of Steve Jobs' death is but a month or so away. In the time that he's been gone, several "lost interviews" and fragments of his early career have sprung forth on the web.
People, motivated by a sense of underlying public grief, have found these small relics consoling and inspiring. The latest in the series of artifacts is this "lost speech" by Jobs which he made at the International Design Conference in Aspen back in 1983.
I have to say, I can't deny that I find Jobs' speeches, especially early recordings, truly fascinating. He was a fantastic orator. If you listen closely to some of the recovered footage you can hear a slight lisp which seemed almost vanished in later life. Otherwise his voice was always authoritative, energetic and vibrant. Even in his final years, when cancer had ravaged his body, he was able to vividly communicate his enthusiasm for the concepts which lay behind Apple products.
Because Jobs was that kind of person, the kind of person who could talk about something so passionately that it would instantly make you want to listen, recordings which were previously lost or forgotten have an added kind of life about them. Because of the subject matter, and because these appearances are simultaneously old and new, they seem to carry strange properties. It is as though Steve Jobs is now somehow untouched by the constrictions of linear time. He speaks to us from the past about the present and, we excitedly tell each other, the future.
What Jobs talked about in that 1983 speech is enthralling in its own right. As is clear right from the beginning of his talk, his audience (perhaps forgivingly, given the date of the recording) isn't exactly familiar with computer technology. In fact, Jobs is well-prepared in that he is ready to explain in simple, analogical terms, what computers are and how they work.
He is also good at explaining why they are difficult to understand in the first place:
"[Here's] the problem with computers. You can't get your hands on the actual things that are moving around; you can't see them. And so [computers] tend to be very intimidating because in a very small space there's billions of electrons running around and we can't really get a hold on exactly what they look like."
Brilliantly, he quickly goes on to announce, "They're really dumb. They're exceptionally simple. But they're really fast." And as he continues to elaborate on this point, he demonstrates how that intense speed is absolutely crucial to computers in the most fundamental sense. Really, it's why they have any purpose at all.
Jobs knew how to sell an idea; a vision. He knew this because he could tell what people already understood themselves - and what they didn't. He was never guilty of being patronising, and yet his talks were universally easy to understand. They spoke with equal power to the layman and the experienced computer scientist.
That innate understanding which he possessed is part of the reason why Jobs turned up to the IDC in 1983 in the first place. He was adamant that computer technology would succeed with our without great designers working in the industry. "We're gonna sell those 3 million computers this year," he comments in his speech, buoyantly, "Whether they look like a piece of shit, or they look great. It doesn't really matter because people are gonna just suck this stuff up so fast [...]."
But he went on to say that it would certainly be his preference that they look great. Not just because that would benefit consumers, but because it would be better for his business - as an American business - to have great designers coming out of American educational institutions. To a room full of people who were exactly that, he couldn't have been more open and encouraging. "We really, really, really need your help," he said.
Great design, as we all know, is as significant as functionality when it comes to the production of successful user interfaces. Computers, with all their invisible, stupid-but-super-fast processes going on inside them, get abstracted into interfaces which we need to recognise and understand in an instant.
When Jobs introduced the first iPhone at Macworld 2007, that precise sentiment was at the core of his demonstration.
The beauty of working in the computer industry, or even in any industry which relies heavily on technology, is that one can (sometimes) see quite vividly how things may scale. Moore's Law, the principles of programming, binary - all these things invite extrapolation at an exponential rate.
When Steve Jobs talked about the infinite individual experiences that could come out of a single set of underlying principles, even back in 1983, he extrapolated his own idea into an extraordinary one. Right at the end of the talk he imagines that, just like a sophisticated piece of software, the many principles behind a given human being's way of thinking - the essence of their thought processes - could one day be captured on some kind of computer device.
This is how Jobs put it:
"Maybe someday after the person's dead or gone, we can ask the machine [...] And maybe we won't get the right answer. But maybe we will. And that's really exciting for me. And that's one of the reasons I'm doing what I'm doing."
By 2011, when Steve Jobs died, no such machine had been invented. It was just an idea, after all, and some may say it will never be invented. But I think it will. Or at the very least, something very like it. Our culture demands it because the vitality of archival footage and audio recordings is just too tantalising to ignore. We really, really want to go further than that.
Funny, then, that in just one such piece of archival audio the idea should jump out at us so explicitly. And with that idea, along with our grief, we carry forward the intention of one day never having to rely solely on fragments like these again. The fragments will instead be interactive, abstracted, adaptive. A holographic presence will replace an excruciating absence - remembrance itself will seem old-fashioned.
Of course, however we deal with it, death will always manufacture distance. But maybe, in the future, a little less.
Jobs is speaking very casually here in an early appearance (1980) caught on video. He gets going around the 2:30 mark. Watch as he uses humour and storytelling to engage the audience and then develops this into carefully chosen anecdotes which show why the computer is such an important "amplification" of human ability.
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