Steve Jobs: Art by other means

 

I saw the movie Steve Jobs over the weekend. As its title indicates, it’s a story, told in three acts, about the co-founder of Apple — the computer company, not the record label.

That there was a time people might have confused or conflated the Beatles’ trademark (a Macintosh, by the way) with a northern California tech company seems so 20th Century. Today, Jobs’ Apple brand doesn’t just stand for a hugely successful business model, it sometimes seems as if people expect an Apple product launch to actually make their lives better.

Once upon a time, back, for example, in the ‘60s, people looked to the arts for this kind of impact. The release of a new Beatles album was the kind of event that could change your life. Crowds lined up for the White Album the way they do now for the latest iPhone.

The arts were understood to represent progress. They formed a kind of narrative arc spanning centuries and reflecting human development. From our very beginnings we have expressed and oriented ourselves through the embellishment of tools, the making of images and by telling stories. The arts were the means by which we fulfilled these needs.

Technology is where more and more of us find this juice today. Steve Jobs has become a kind of folk hero. His story has been hashed and rehashed in numerous movies, books and television programs. In this latest film, we find Jobs backstage, in moments before three separate product launches that will not only trace the trajectory of his career, but ultimately redefine the culture.

Each launch takes place in a theater, packed with crowds that are portrayed as being in a kind of ecstasy of anticipation. They clap and stamp their feet as if they’re expecting a great performance; at one point Jobs’ assistant compares the scene to the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Jobs’ story, as portrayed in the movie, is familiar. He’s a man consumed by an overwhelming desire to make a difference. Some see this as hyperbolic egotism, others as a need to get things right. In any event, this is a character we’ve seen before: Mozart, Van Gogh, Michelangelo — the creative visionary at the eye of an uncomprehending storm.

Steve Jobs has been lionized as an inventor, the heir to Thomas Edison. Others see him as an exemplar of free enterprise, like Henry Ford. There’s validity in these characterizations, but both fall short. Jobs’ approach, his ambition and his impact amounted to art by other means.

This could be at the heart of why the traditional arts seem to have lost their currency with an ever-growing portion of the public; why we don’t expect a band, or a movie, or a book to change us. It’s not because these things can’t, but our technology has grown as intimate, as immediate, and possibly as profound. Our tools don’t merely facilitate our activities, they change us and, by extension, they have changed our world.

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