Steve Jobs was one of the greatest biologists of our time. The late Apple chief will be rightly remembered for his design and marketing genius, but it was his understanding of the look and behavior of organisms — not to mention the psychology of the most sophisticated organism of all — that is the reason he’s being so deeply mourned.
Human beings have always loved to biologize their machines. Favorite old cars don’t just break down, they die. Computers don’t power down, they sleep. Manual typewriters and obsolete turntables are spoken of with a teary fondness usually reserved for late relatives.
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Smart designers have long understood the power of blurring the line between the organic and inorganic. It’s not for nothing that the muscle cars of the 1950s were actually less muscle than they were curve — an almost voluptuous assemblage of sheet-metal hips and flanks and tail-lit rump. It’s not for nothing that dragsters who nicknamed their cars always went for something like Lulu or Betsy or Norma Rae — despite the fact that what they were feminizing was a multiton hunk of roaring, smoking, screeching machine. Still, nobody ever called a sports car Bob.
Machines don’t have to smolder to be loved. The same industry that gave us the GTO and the ’57 Chevy also gave us the Volkswagen Beetle and the Mini Cooper — cars that beg to be hugged as much as driven. It’s not beauty that’s at work here; indeed, it’s a sort of antibeauty — the same thing that made the homely, spindly yet oddly beautiful lunar module so adored in the days of the lunar program. In one of the perfect visual convergences of that era, the Volkswagen folks took out full-page magazine ads that featured nothing but a photo of the lunar module, accompanied by the legend “Ugly, but it gets you there.” The VW logo was stamped proudly below it.
Part of what’s at work here is the compassion impulse. A cute puppy will trump a less cute one in the eyes of shoppers looking in a pet-store window. But a needy stray can blow them both away. Another powerful variable, at least in the case of some machines, is what’s known as neoteny — or baby-like traits. Across the animal kingdom, adults of uncounted species will go gooey at the sight of big eyes, high foreheads, small noses and, in the case of mammals, undersized chins — the better to nuzzle up snugly for nursing. Throw in baby fat — dimpled elbows, creased thighs, a general absence of sharp corners or right angles — and we’re helpless.
Even from the earliest days of Apple, Jobs seemed to know all of this and to design his machines accordingly. The very name Apple — with its rounded, organic logo that someone already seemed to have been unable to resist taking a bite of — contrasted nicely with the chilly IBM initials and their machine-tooled look. The earliest Apples were simple tan boxes, but by the time the Apple IIc came along, Jobs had traded in tan for white, shrunk the keyboard down to a less intimidating size and suspended an angled monitor over it that seemed to crane toward the user with an eager-to-please winsomeness.
The first Macintosh was a higher form of this anthropomorphic art, petite and rectangular, but also without sharp corners. In what became the machine’s signature advertising image, the little screen displayed not the Apple logo, but the cursive word hello in all lowercase letters. Even the form-fitting zippered bag the Macintosh came in seemed less a carrying case than a sort of computer Snugli. Certainly, it was the Mac’s utility and then-revolutionary icons and pull-down menus that made it a hit once people got their hands on it, but it was the cuddle factor that helped get them in the door.
It’s certainly no coincidence that Apple’s lost decade was also the one it spent without Jobs, when the computers retained most of their ease-of-use advantages but slipped back to the brown-box design. It’s no coincidence either that when Jobs returned, the product line seemed to start over from its infancy, with the bulbous, irresistibly baby-like iMacs of the late 1990s — in candy colors, no less — maturing to the goosenecked, round-bottomed adolescent model of 2002 and later to the more traditional rectangles of today.
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Apple can get away with the mature look it sells now because the company has harnessed the power of an even more sophisticated kind of biology: the products don’t just perform, they actually exhibit behavior. They think about your music collection and organize it as lovingly and obsessively as you would if you had the time; they’ve taken over from your mom or your big sister who faithfully kept the family photo albums, caring for your pictures and tucking them safely away where you can always find them by date, by place, by face. And with the arrival of the iPhone and iPad, the final human-machine barrier — the intimacy of touch — has been hurdled. There is no mouse, there is no keyboard. Your hands are always all over your iPad — you take it to bed with you, for goodness’ sake — as you read or write or engage in the very personal business of sending mail.
It’s fair to remember that Jobs, for all his other attributes, was also just a CEO and salesman, and the kind of tributes and encomiums and impromptu shrines that are appearing around the world in his memory seem a little out of place. But it’s also fair to argue that Jobs was in some ways different from other captains of industry. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Bill Gates changed the world too — Gates more than all of them, perhaps, with his second chapter as the world’s greatest philanthropist — and yet the garment rending and candle lighting that has followed Jobs’ death suggests a passion that none of the others stir up. Perhaps it’s that Gates and the rest invented what were essentially just products — remarkable things that transformed the way we lived, but merchandise all the same. Jobs’ inventions got inside not just our lives but also our heads and — improbably — our hearts. That, of course, is the way it is with living things.
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