Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs, Media Ecologist

The passing of Steve Jobs certainly marks the end of an era, and of a generation of entrepreneurs and pioneers in the new world of digital media.  And  I  don't recall the subject ever coming up before, but thinking about it, I  think Jobs was one of us, by which I mean that he was a media ecologist.

It was because he was a media ecologist, at least an intuitive one, although I bet my bottom dollar that he had read McLuhan and some of the others on our reading list, but it was because he was a media ecologist that he understood the importance of interface design.  Or should I say that it was his understanding of interface design, the medium between the user and the technology, that made him a media ecologist.  The closest I've come to a consideration of Jobs in this light are the comments made about the Macintosh interface in Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromala's fine book, Windows and Mirrors.

 Steve Jobs 1955-2011

One of the things I said on the panel discussion that followed the Sept. 12th screening of the Gregory Bateson documentary, An Ecology of Mind at the American Museum of Natural History, is how Bateson stressed the importance of negative feedback, especially in understanding how evolution works, and how I had  recently read that part of the genius of Jobs was his ability to say no, to not try to include every control element and gadget and device in his products, but rather to create spare, sleek designs that are user-friendly precisely because they do not overload the interface.  

It reminds me of the remarks made by Eric McLuhan at the end of the McLuhan's Wake documentary, which are quite similar to remarks frequently made by Neil Postman, that media ecology involves deciding not to do things, instead of just going ahead and doing them.  

And as for the things he did decide to do, there is no question in my mind that the Macintosh interface, which he adopted and adapted from Alan Kay and Douglas Engelbart, represent a form of applied media ecology directed at computer technology. It begins with the understanding that the computer is a medium of communication, not just a tool or appliance.  That is it is, in fact, a metamedium, as Alan Kay put it.  And the Graphical User Interface, or GUI, which became the Macintosh interface, brought to life everything McLuhan said about television, that it is iconic and tactile (think of the mouse, touchpad, and touchscreen) and participatory.  The original designers of the GUI, Engelbart, and especially Alan Kay at XeroxPARC, were into McLuhan, not to mention Benjamin Lee Whorf and Alfred Korzbyski.  It represents one of the best contemporary examples of applied media ecology.

But perhaps most telling of all is what President Obama pointed out in his statement about the passing of Steve Jobs: And there may be no greater tribute to Steve's success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented."  I first read this on Twitter myself, on my  smart phone.

My own tweets were not quite as inspired, that heaven needed a new interface designer was one.  The other was as follows:  Now Steve Jobs has been uploaded to the ages.

Rest in peace.



uAJSdudAUD said...

To further Lance's tribute along with all the other tributes, it occurs to me that Steve Jobs was precisely one of those men of "integral awareness" of which McLuhan wrote, not limited to artists, but including persons "in any field scientific or humanistic" such as Peter Drucker, Bucky Fuller, Barrington Nevitt, etc. Steve Jobs belongs among them and now is........Alex Kuskis

“The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present….The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness.” (Understanding The Media, McLuhan, 1964)

“We're here to put a dent in the universe.” -Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Lance Strate said...

Thank you for that, Alex, and I would suggest that it is exactly the point that Jobs was an artist, albeit one working on a much broader canvas than your typical painter of portraits and landscapes. An understanding of the relation between art and perception is very much at the heart of the art of the interface, which Jobs understood better than just about anybody.