Monday Musings: Death of a Simplicity Geek

Posted on October 10, 2011


The critic is tired.

I’ve decided to devote this edition of Monday Musings to talking about Steve Jobs. You may wonder what a recently deceased technology corporation executive has to do with the sort of things I usually write about, other than iTunes, obviously. The short answer is that I’m not too sure, but I felt the need to write about Jobs at some length as soon as I heard he was dead.

First, a brief chronology of my early encounters with the man. I suppose the first time his work impinged on my consciousness was when I started at secondary school, and a couple of the nerds had Apple II computers. That doesn’t really count though, as I didn’t know what ‘having an Apple II’ meant, and I’d certainly never heard of Steve Jobs.

The next time our paths crossed was in 1984, when I was on holiday at my grandparents’ house in northern California: during my visit, my grandfather bought himself a Mac. By this time I had a computer of my own (a Sinclair Spectrum), although I was, like Jobs, a geek rather than a nerd; this meant I had something with which to compare the mysterious beige box that came out of the packaging. I already had an idea of what a computer was, and that Macintosh 128k overturned it comprehensively. It was built into the monitor, rather than the keyboard; it had a ‘mouse’; it was easy to use; the shell app was some kind of ‘desktop’ thingy, not a programming language; in fact, I couldn’t see how to program it at all. I monopolised it, printed out stuff in different typefaces, drew pictures, wished it ran Knight Lore, and was comprehensively sold on it within a couple of days. I’ve never owned a wintel machine of any description.

What made that Mac so different from every other personal computer, and what has continued to make Macs different, is that they are, as alluded to above, geek not nerd. They are entirely focussed on the application, rather than the technology. While many product development programs bring products to market that are crammed full of innovative technologies, with feature sets like a Victorinox, very few result in stuff that ‘just works’. Apple has never been focussed on technologies, although they’ve had a hand in developing a few, but that has always been with very specific applications in mind. Apple’s, and Jobs’, genius has been in engineering ways of doing stuff.

This is the difference between a nerd and a geek: the nerd wants the technology; they want to understand and inhabit it as an end in itself. They are not entirely unconcerned with its potential uses, but they would actually prefer it if putting it to use involved technically demanding processes, such as typing long alphanumeric strings. The geek wants to know how it works, but only so they can better exploit it: for example, I’m a whisky geek, and as such I’m content to know a little about the differences in the distillation and maturation process that accounts for the distinctions in taste between different whiskies. A whisky nerd wouldn’t be able to write this article; they’d be busy building a still. Most early personal computers were designed by nerds for nerds and geeks; the Mac was designed by geeks for geeks and… *gasp* ordinary people.

Jobs saw how white collar workers and creative people could have their working and personal lives enhanced by the technologies he was involved with, and more importantly, he was able to find a way to get a product developed that realised that vision. That’s what he devoted his life to. He was always thinking about the end user, and his crucial insight was that the thing end users want above all, is not lots of features, but ease and simplicity. That’s why Macs had one button mice for so long, and that’s why iTunes is so evil.

When Apple first turned its attention to music, it was on Sony’s territory. The personal music player got a new generic name almost overnight: bye bye Walkman, hello iPod. This was accompanied by the iTunes application, a pretty splendid music archival, CD ripping desktop player with which to manage the new device. I haven’t looked into the history of iTunes, and I don’t know if Jobs had envisaged the iTunes store from the start, but it soon became pretty clear that the music on iPods came either from CDs or illegal filesharing, and he correctly anticipated that most people would pay for music rather than break the law, assuming it was easier to do so.

Jobs was a businessman (he never engineered a product or wrote a line of commercial code), and he saw music as a resource to be exploited. Making the most money possible from it for his company was his top priority, unsurprisingly enough. He had no reason to be interested in music’s means of production (although Apple also makes money by selling some beautifully written music production software), and no need to be aware of the musical culture that provides the music industry with its raw materials. Music was there, in already vast quantities, and a big company like Apple was interested in cutting big deals with as few players as possible, in order to get access to the largest possible amount of catalogue, and put it all in one place. That way, buying music becomes easy for the consumer, and the whole process ‘just works’. The only trouble with that is that music doesn’t ‘just work’.

It is possible for independent labels and musicians to put their music on iTunes, where iTunes users can stumble across it, and where they can direct their fans to find it. Sadly the terms on which music goes in the iTunes store amount to a total rip-off for the producer; and although many artists think they need to be in the iTunes store so that listeners can discover them, most independent music never gets downloaded, because iTunes represents a paradigm, in my view, which discourages discovery. If everything’s too easy, if it all ‘just works’, if you have been trained by the smooth flow from store to computer to iPod to follow the path of least resistance, then you are probably less likely to hear out any music that resists your acquired listening responses. Much safer to follow Big Apple’s ‘genius’ recommendations, and find more listening experiences that are generically related to those you’ve already had. Mainstream musical culture has become so monolithic, and so anodyne, that it is no longer of any interest, and iTunes is a big part of that.

These are very exciting times in music, with many new business models and opportunities for musicians, coupled with a widespread outpouring of creativity unlike anything I’ve ever known, but that’s all happening outside the world of iTunes and the music industry. Mainstream music fans have been encouraged to become more passive consumers, or driven into a nostalgic re-consumption of old product, on which copyright will be continually extended whenever the owners of the catalogue need to; Apple’s strategy in music is founded entirely on exploiting catalogue, and as such it is actually in their interest to stifle creativity, and deny exposure to the independent sector. The fact that their systems serve that set of interests is not some sinister conspiracy, but simply the inevitable byproduct of their focus on the market ready wholesale packages offered by the big labels. Apple’s relationship to content is one that is good for them making money, but bad for art.

And I think that’s just the way it goes: electronic devices are not songs. An integrated corporation that exercises tight control of every process at every stage is a good tool for making things that take a lot of resource to design and manufacture. Jobs’ strategies at Apple encouraged innovation in product design, and made some fantastic tools for us creatives to do our work with, but the same virtues that made that possible make Apple very poor cultural custodians.

I’ll be interested to see whether Apple continues in the same vein without Jobs at the helm. I’m not at all convinced that he could be replaced by a committee; the vision to anticipate peoples’ needs, and to understand how they will relate to technology, is pretty rare, or there would be more companies like Apple around. Of course there are plenty of geeks running corporations: but they’re business geeks, not application geeks.