Steve Jobs, 1955 – –

May there always be one more thing

October 10, 2011

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Here I sit, minding my own business (OK, working a crossword puzzle and catching my breath after an exhilarating class session with our new graduate students about the future of the book and how libraries will respond to whatever is happening) when an email pings with a request to write an “extra” column for American Libraries—an online-only reflection about Steve Jobs and his legacy to the library world.

Happy to. And I need go no further than a 3-foot radius around my work space to see his influence: I’m writing this on a shiny new MacBook after firing up my special writing-music playlist on my iPod (which isn’t even an iPod since it’s really just an app on my iPad2). Beyond the technologies, two words in the previous sentence testify further to Steve Jobs’s reach into everyday life; he may not have invented or even pioneered the terms “playlists” or “apps,” but without him, would they be familiar to millions upon millions of people?

I’ve been a Mac guy for a long time, even through the dark years when I was forced to live under the Windows hegemony. I had a Mac Plus back in the day, which I lo-o-o-o-ved, and got an iPod in 2003 (see my March 2005 column), even though I knew I wanted one 30 years earlier (without knowing exactly what it was I craved), as I sat in my bedroom, finger poised over the record button of my tape recorder, waiting for my favorite songs to come on the radio so I could create what was yet to be called a mixtape.

Those of us of a certain age also remember the days when Apple used to exhibit at ALA conferences; the Apple Library of Tomorrow was a beacon for those of us trying to figure out how increasingly available technology could enhance and further librarianship. Steve Cisler and Monica Ertel, bless them, carried that torch and lit the way. They also made a huge difference to me, giving early visibility to the Internet Public Library project, for which I will always be grateful.

Steve Jobs was a fascinating and multifaceted personality: design guru, lifestyle icon, movie mogul (his Disney stock, earned when he sold Pixar, is worth about twice his Apple holdings), technological soothsayer. I have to admit that the depth and emotion that have characterized the response to his death surprised me; people are leaving flowers, notes, and in a charmingly wistful vein, apples minus single bites at Apple stores. He would have appreciated the simple, even stark memorial front page on the Apple website; for that matter, he might well have approved it.

Even though, as we all know, technology is just a means to an end—not unlike the information it processes—Jobs made that technology sexy, compelling, worthy of notice in its own right and for its own sake, and maybe most importantly, cool. The designers and conceivers of the IBM PC had a significant role in the explosion of “personal computing” and of course that platform has had greater commercial success over the years. But do you know their names?

As heroes go, though, Jobs was a bit chilly, distant, even detached. So the emotional reaction to his death, at least in part, isn’t really about him—though on some level it is, of course—it’s more about what he represented to people. We remember him, but mainly we remember moments associated with the stuff he decided we wanted. He was a taste-maker, one of an increasingly rare breed who really understood, deeply and authentically, what people would respond to. The quote from his obituary that has stayed with me epitomizes this: “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.”

There’s a reason that many of these paragraphs are about me and my experiences with and uses of Apple technology (full disclosure: the crossword puzzle and obituary were both accessed on my iPad). Background egomania notwithstanding, that’s because we live in a world shaped to no small extent by Jobs’s personal vision of how technology could and should be used—in personal ways. Only Steve Jobs could say “computers are like bicycles for our minds” and not sound like an idiot—and then make it crystal clear through his product line.

I was asked to write about Steve Jobs’s legacy for the library world. Let me instead suggest what we might take from his informed intuition going forward. The world he helped to make grows ever more complex and fraught, and it can seem as though perils lurk behind every decision we face. When in search of guidance for those decisions, remember the personal; even the most seemingly trivial of interactions with information or a librarian can be profound, and a focus on the human aspects might pay dividends.

It’s also appropriate, perhaps, that this will be my first column that’s not intended for the printed page. As with so many things, it’s not clear what that might foretell . . . but that’s another story.

JOE JANES is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington.

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