Every generation has its technology. Mine is the Mac. Apple products have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, as evidenced by this photo of me (above), age two, cheekily “typing” on our Mac SE/30. As photos of toddlers tend to be, it’s cute. But it’s also documentation, an early depiction of a generation who grew up with computers that taught them something subversive, something that few machines had taught before: Value your creativity.
My parents were early adopters of Apple. So was my fourth grade teacher, who had the iconic “Think Different” campaign poster series pinned above his chalkboard. That year was the best of my elementary experience, I think in part because I had patron saints Jim Henson, John and Yoko, and Martha Graham looking down on me, suggesting my inner weirdness might someday serve me. People in my hometown—which is not exactly a picture of design sophistication—were excited about Apple. We weren’t alone; schools across North America were chock full of boxy Macs, loaded up with greatest hits software like Kid Pix, Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Living Books. Yes, we were close to the Steve Jobs success story, only a few miles down the road from Reed College where he’d matriculated, dropped out, and then dipped in again, and only a few hundred up from Silicon Valley where he was building the multinational company we know today. But technological innovation was simply in the atmosphere, and we were breathing deep.
These days I don’t believe machines are necessary for manifesting creativity, but as an aspiring child author, those early Macs had my number. In them, I had all the autonomy, efficiency, and encouragement I needed to clickity-clack out my ideas. And clickity-clack I did.
In 1976, Steve Jobs had an idea that changed the world. The details of how and why he committed his life to that idea can now be gleaned in The Steve Jobs Archive, a multimedia project published by Laurene Powell Jobs, Tim Cook, and Jony Ive, available to scroll and read online (preferably on your Apple device). The Archive’s inaugural ebook, Make Something Wonderful, edited by Leslie Berlin and released on April 1 of this year, tells Jobs’s story in his own words. It’s presented as a collation of notes, speech transcriptions, emails, and interviews, tracing Jobs’s history creating, founding, and being fired from Apple; founding the software system company NeXT; becoming the CEO of Pixar; and ultimately returning to Apple, replanting its orchard, and nurturing its growth until his death in 2011. It’s written in a way not dissimilar from how I’m writing now, allowing anecdotes to illustrate the influence of one of the greatest technological advancements of all time: the personal computer.
As someone for whom Apple products are and always have been inextricable from daily life, I was surprised by how little I knew about Jobs or his ambitions for Apple, and delighted by what I learned. I might’ve intuited it, but I didn’t know, for example, that he considered the defining factor of Apple to be its liberal arts approach to computing. By this, as he explains in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, he means integrating beautiful typography and graphics so users can communicate their ideas with artistry. “Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective and a liberal arts audience to what had traditionally been a very geeky technology,” he tells Gross. Apple’s incorporation of an extensive typography library (developed in partnership with Adobe) was a feature that set them far apart from the preexisting ASCII letterforms, and served as a boon to desktop publishing.
Jobs might not be known as the easiest man to work with, but most of what I read in Make Something Wonderful underlined just how much our society has benefited from having a true creative at the helm of such a powerful tech company. Apple computers were the first to be treated as design objects, with Jobs recognizing that in the world of product design, computers had been neglected. Pointing out that society and computers were “out on a first date in the eighties,” (with Apple and Microsoft in an arms race) Jobs emphasized the importance of aesthetics in his 1983 speech at the International Design Conference in Aspen. “[Computers] are going to be these new objects that are going to be in everyone’s working environment, everyone’s educational environment, and everyone’s home environment. We have a shot at putting a great object there—and if we don’t, we’re going to put one more piece-of-junk object…We have a chance to make these things beautiful, and we have a chance to communicate something through the design of the objects themselves.”
This belief that there is always the opportunity for better, for more beautiful, is a recurring point throughout the Archive. Not boxes, Jobs says, design objects. Not machines for work, integrative tools for expression and connection. Not me alone, but me with people just as dedicated—and much smarter. “I hope these selections ignite in you the understanding that drove him,” Powell Jobs writes in her introduction. “[That] everything that makes up what we call life was made by people no smarter, no more capable, than we are; that our world is not fixed and so we can change it for the better.”
You can’t read Make Something Wonderful and see much less than a brilliant mind, an ardent believer in people and the power of ideas, someone who truly thought different. People may focus on Jobs’s human flaws, but at the core of the apple (excuse the pun), is just that: an investment in human creativity and all its messiness. For close to 50 years, Apple has designed tools to empower all kinds of people—from genius software developers to lonely fourth-graders—to expand their ways of thinking, making, being. We take so much of what Jobs instilled in tech—the design, the humanity—for granted because our expectation of what a device can offer us has been shaped by him and the teams he carefully cultivated. To take from his beloved Whole Earth Catalog saying, he stayed hungry and foolish. And we are lucky.