Humanities and Technology

Yesterday the kids were off from school for teacher conferences. We started off with 10 young people under the roof, thanks to sleepovers, with the remainder of the day continuing in the same busy, wild vein.

And then, on the way to pick up a collection of teenagers from the river, I heard on NPR that Steve Jobs had died.

I had never met the man, and was surprised to realize how sad the news of his death made me. As I’ve mulled over various tributes and retrospectives, I’ve come to a better understanding of why that is.

The products and technology he brought about have, of course, been a large part of my personal and professional life. His commitment to excellence has been inspirational, and his drive to achieve great things stirring. His charisma and capability as a leader were instructive.

But the most interesting, distinctive thing about his career and success is this: its humanism. While the rest of the industry has often been content to make computers do what computers do better, Mr. Jobs had an unwavering focus on using technology to help people do people things.

What do people do? We communicate. The iPhone, Facetime, and iChat spring from this desire.¬†We make and enjoy art. iMovie, Garage Band, iPhoto, and the iPod all have their roots there. We enjoy relationships with other people. Thus, integration with all sorts of social media, facial recognition technologies, etc. We tell stories. Pixar does some of the most brilliant storytelling of our generation. (“Up” made me misty-eyed in record time, and “The Incredibles” remains one of my favorite films ever.)

For many technologists, the instinctive thing to do is to span the gap between people and technology by having the explorers build a precarious rope bridge which will allow the tenacious to, with a good deal of effort, make it to the other side. Steve’s unique genius was that, having made it across, he then turned his fellow explorers right back around and had them build a sturdy, capacious, beautiful¬†bridge for the rest of the world to follow the explorers.

Indeed, he made technology “for the rest of us” — not so that we could have better gadgets, but so that we could ultimately have better, richer, more fully human lives. Thanks, Steve.