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In Praise of Steve Jobs

| October 9, 2011

(Nopphan Bunnag)

By Lionel Rolfe

I’ve never been a fan of capitalism, but Steve Jobs made that a difficult position to uphold.

Jobs created one of this country’s biggest and most successful corporations by actually producing things good and real. The products were good because Jobs imbued those products with his own peculiar vision of things. That alone makes his corporation an exception to the general rule of America’s big business today.

Mind you, Jobs did not create this new age wrought by computers. Norbert Wiener, whose best known book was God and Golem, published in 1964, invented the term cybernetics in the early 1940s. Cybernetics has all to do with machines and man and then machines making machines. The upshot was that computers would give every person extraordinary new labor power and thus transform the world.

Karl Marx created the world’s most powerful ideology of revolution by talking about the struggle between the ruling class and the proletariat over the division of labor power. But the computer age introduces a new wrinkle into the equation–it gives everyone the ability to extend their labor power many fold.

I grew up in the early 1950s, hearing constant talk of Wiener and cybernetics and computers. Everyone knew that computers would have enormous impact on the future. Back in the 1950s, for example, Walter Reuther, head of the automobile workers union, was being shown through a Ford factory by executives who kept ominously showing him prototype robotic machine. The executives kept making the point that one day such machines would put his union members out of business. Reuther said nothing, until they came to the parking lot. Then he looked out over the employee parking lot.

“And who is going to buy your Fords,” he said.

As a writer, I early on was drawn to computers. By the 1980s, it was hard to keep typewriters functional. At the end, I was working on an IBM Selectric, which worked fairly well when it worked. It was a temperamental machine, always in need of maintenance and it was getting harder and harder to find anyone who could fix typewriters.

Lionel Rolfe

The Live Commentary

I purchased a Radio Shack TRS-80, better known as a “Trash 80” because of its “word processing” abilities. A horrible phrase because there’s something disturbing to think of words being manufactured like sausage. Still, there’s some truth in the phrase. The difference between a typewriter and a computer was that a computer made not only writing easy, but editing and revising quicker. You didn’t have to type five drafts to get a final draft. You could just tinker, or even rewrite like crazy, and it was like having an extra secretary nearby typing up the new drafts instantaneously. Then the computer could turn that manuscript into type, bypassing the traditional linotype casting lines of type into lead.

The Trash 80 was terrible. When it got hot in summer, I had to put the machine in the refrigerator to keep it working. It was always going down, losing my work.

But I knew I was never going back to my old Underwoods and Selectrics.

Windows was an improvement on the TRS-80s’s DOS system, but not by much. Microsoft machines always had a clunky feeling to them–like a kluge, stuck together willy-nilly with no sense of a greater intelligence there.

I used Microsoft machines at work because for some reason Microsoft appeals to the bureaucratic soul of most modern American businesses.

But when I discovered Macs, I never looked back. This was the future Wiener was talking about. I later became the editor of a weekly newspaper produced with a typesetting program called Quark Express. My publisher, of course, used Microsoft kluges. But the typesetter showed me something. He used his Quark Express on a Mac at home, and told me it was almost twice as fast there.

I suspect people will eventually figure out that part of Mac’s success was somehow tied up with Jobs’ fascination with type.

Nowadays typography is becoming something of a lost art. Still there’s a kind of science as well as art to why a particular type makes words resonate more than others. There is an invisible web of connections between the shape of a typeface and the way it presents the written word.

Ironically some of the best typefaces were produced well more than a century ago by typographers influenced by the Craftsmen movement using Monotype machines in the Los Angeles area, but I would be at a loss to tell you why this is so.

Why these things are so is not even well explained by typographers themselves. Like all typographers, Jobs was fascinated by the difference between serif and sans serif faces, the kerning of the letters in a line of type, and more, the “leading” between the lines of type on a page, as well as the magical powers attached to each different kinds of type.

The fact that Mac machines have a certain intuitive quality to them that Microsoft machines never had might have something to do with their much more adroit use of typography, and hence of words, which after all remain the basis of human thought and communication.

Intuition oozed from the Mac, whereas bureaucracy, rigidity and mind-numbing mundanity enveloped the Microsoft machine.

Another way to explain Jobs was that all his machines were products of human engineering. You might laugh at the term and think it has more to do with marketing, but you’d only be partially right.

Jobs Introduces the iPhone 4

I knew a man, Jack Catran, a professional psychologist, who was the human engineer on the Apollo Moon landing project. That meant he blended psychology and engineering and physiology so that the craft that ferried men to the Moon did so successfully.

What Catran was doing was blending form and function, which is what Jobs did as he developed gadgets that gave everyone who used one myriads of new labor power.

I never met Jobs, but we shared the same stomping grounds. As a kid, I remembered traveling through the orange orchards between San Jose and Los Gatos, where my grandparents lived. Now that same territory is much changed, and those orange orchards first gave away to tract homes and then to Silicon Valley.

One of the characters I enjoyed listening to at my grandparent’s home in Los Gatos, which was right next door to the Novitiate sitting on top of the highest hill in that town, was old Jack Boden.

Boden was of the opinion that I was a communist, because I considered myself a staunch Democrat. To Jack, all Democrats were communists. He regarded President Roosevelt as the “ultimate class traitor” because he had come from the ruling class, but sided with the workers. Revolutionaries, he hurumphed. It wasn’t like Jack’s opinion didn’t matter to me–he was a vice president of Wells Fargo Bank, and he lived in a mansion in Saratoga, the next town north of Los Gatos. It was a large park-like estate with manicured lawns and forests and lakes. Jack’s wife was Inez Boden, one of the main heirs of Bank of America’s Giannini family.

Boden’s dislike of my politics had practical implications for me. He was the trustee of my grandparent’s will, and he made sure I was forever excluded from any family money.

Nonetheless, I got to say Boden did one good thing. When Steve Jobs was still working out of his parent’s garage, it was Boden who put up the initial capital to get Jobs going.

As a venture capitalist, he inadvertently financed a revolution. I doubt he knew what he was doing, but Steve Jobs obviously did.

Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.” Many of his books, including “Literary L.A,” Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” are available digitally in Amazon’s Kindlestore. Rolfe’s website is here.

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9 Responses for “In Praise of Steve Jobs”

  1. palmcoaster says:

    Unfortunately all of Steve Jobs Apple I-Pods and I-Whatever’s are manufactured and assembled in China by sweat- shops type like where Chinese labor for about $130/month in pathetic assembly lines with no labor benefits.
    At the same time robbing the jobs we need in America now because require to pay decent wages.
    Plenty of reasons for me not to care and buy one.
    As and American I am proud of Steve Jobs original idea, too bad that greed have darken it so bad.
    Apple shares were about $21 in 2004, have reached almost 10 times that price, as slavery is very profitable. Of course has fallen down since the loss of Steve Jobs.
    What goes around comes around…

  2. BW says:

    Palmcoaster, I agree and disagree. We face a manufacturing problem in our country today no doubt. But the problem is whether or not we could actually provide those jobs here at an acceptable price that would yield affordable products. What would the cost of that iPod be if it were produced entirely here in the USA?

    The question then becomes why is that? Why does everything seem to be costing more and more? Well, you have gas prices above $3/gallon for one. You have executives that insist on unrealistic salaries and bonuses tied very much to stock price which provides huge motivations to cut people more and more. You have Social Security taxes at 12% (split by employee and employer), insurance, so forth and so on. Because the cost of living is high, you have people who want a decent wage. Bottom line . . . the cost of labor (and pretty much everything else) is out of whack today.

    We have two things sitting out there today to address some of this, and people just want to scoff at it for political reasons. For one, movement of Occupy Wall Street aims to bring awareness to the over-reliance and too much tied to Wall Street. We have essentially become “slaves” to Wall Street, and we see the repercussions of that today when greed becomes the core value within society.

    Second we have the Jobs Act proposal. This is not a “tax hike” as the Republicans like to keep saying. Sure, it would raise taxes for about 1% or 2% and are those that can afford it. This Act actually reduces Social Security tax in half (to 6%). Take for example, every Realtor in our town . . . they each pay 12% Social Security tax because they are not employed by Brokers. There are about 800 or so in this county and if they each had their own taxes cut in half how much money does that free up in terms of purchasing power locally? Alot! Then think in terms of employers reducing their tax costs by 3%. How many more people could they afford to hire? Likewise, companies get additional tax benefits for hiring unemployed people.

    It’s a good piece of legislation. But we have a political party and a ideological group that doesn’t want to see that happen because it might limit their chances of winning an election. Bottom line . . . our values are way out of whack, and we are seeing the true colors of some. In my opinion, those colors are not red, white, and blue.

  3. BW says:

    In terms of Steve Jobs, he’ll be a legend. People tend to forget that Apple almost went out of existence not all that long ago. What Jobs envisioned and drove his company to do on the mobile front injected an enormous amount of life into that company. It all started with the iPod. Then you have the iPhone which revolutionized the world of mobile tech, provided a lot of people new business opportunities within the app world, and is improving lives due to the ability to share better quality information at quicker speeds. iPads opened up entire new world of affordable and powerful portable computing that is improving education and a part of opening up new avenue for people like authors to overcome barriers to publishing.

    What Apple has produced and what is occurring in the world of computing is nothing to shake a stick at. Steve Jobs is an inspiration for leaders and companies to not quit just because you are down. And he will continue to be an inspiration that what you dream of is possible.

  4. palmcoaster says:

    BW I agree with your analysis. The man was a genius and I also take my hat out to him and his outstanding products. I remembered him once more today when my Internet and TV connection went out for about one hour with the cable interruption and the only one connected to the media world and Internet was my daughter while spending the evening with us and only thru her iPod. Justified that at least one of us had an iPod, the younger one in the family of course..
    I am a believer that we can still manufacture these items in our country paying our workers fair wages while recouping our jobs, if these corporations would content themselves with a logical profit instead of being driven by so much greed. Meanwhile we rally and wait for our congress and senate to come to terms and end this destructive stand off and approve the legislation presented once and for all. This political rift raft is further destroying our economy.

  5. Nancy says:

    I am an Apple fan from the “get-go”…. and have always been very proud of the fact. I am basically lazy…. and like using things that are simple to use… and don’t break down. Hence, my love of Apple products. I have used PC/Windows machines over the years…. but always at work. For some reason, businesses and the government stuck to Windows… however, I did not need to worry about fixing the machines because I always had the IT folks to call on! (Thank you, Steve Jobs!)

    Many people forget that the initial screen on PCs was not very “user-friendly” (please forgive this usage!)…. one had to work from the “command line” for many years. It was Steve Jobs and the Apple interface that changed all of that. Oh, everyone just marveled at Windows when it first appeared. I just sat back and thought “hey… Windows did not do too bad a job at copying Apple’s screen!” (Thank you, Steve Jobs!)

    Speaking of breaking down…. which leads my thoughts to computer viruses….. I have gotten to the point of being slightly disturbed by my friends who send me those “be alert of such and such virus”… my Macs have never been so afflicted!!!! Thank you Steve Jobs!!

    Needless to say… I have authored this feedback on my MacAir!

  6. Yogi says:

    It was those nasty wall street bankers that really funded Apple. Without the funding jobs would have never done anything. Without freedom, Jobs would have been forced to use union labor and lousy production methods to produce inferior products. No matter how you slice it, we are locked into a Global economy and Hondas out perform Government motors. Lighten up Comrades before more companies run overseas with American jobs and set up shop. They are free to go where they want to.

  7. palmcoaster says:

    @Yogi. Don’t even mention to me a Honda Motor versus a Ford, Chevy or even Chrysler. I had one of these crapola’s brand new (big mistake). The engine burnt out (because were made only for a 55 MPH top speed only, in Japan) and smoke the heck out of my garage all the time, until fed up of being smoked out myself and our environment and taking a loss, I traded it for a Chrysler Le Baron that lasted me many years and was sold running perfect.
    Never again I will buy an Asian car made there or here…Didn’t you and all have enough with the Toyota’s and Lexus failures killing people in this country. Just like with my Honda Accord back then, the manufacturer hide and do not send or notify of recalls and that cost not only $$ but even worse, lives.
    After the shameful findings of two years ago were they killed entire families in the roads I saw even my neighbor switching his brand new Asian crapola SUV for a good old made in the USA. They have small children. Son please do not give us your tainted American made bashing. Makes me laugh when I see parked somewhere one of these Asian killer meatballs with wheels and a rather good size American Flag hangs from its window….why a real patriot could be buying a car made by slaves, with no labor benefits that creates revenue, most jobs and wealth overseas? Pure hypocrisy.. If you think this BS globalization is going to put food in your table you have it coming…. unless you are within the One Percent. To your outsourcing rethoric I say; tax all imports!! Even better yet the 99% needs to stop buying imports Now! Probably will be the only thing that will work to recover our jobs. I do it !

  8. Yogi says:


    Have no idea what you are talking about in general. I am not part of any percent of anything. I am a free man. I don’t do the monkey see monkey do thing. I’ll never buy another American car again and BTW they are all made with foreign parts today. Good thing ole Steve Jobs went to China to build his stuff so we could at least afford them after Alan Greenspan and Dear Ben got done wrecking the dollar. Robots will replace the Chinese. Try signing one of those to the union. Try to recruit one of those to go to Jacksonville Eh Comrade>>>>>Don’t forget those union made umbrellas and rubber booties……..Take some TP with you, you might find a cop car that meets your fancy….8-). Have fun, I know some kids that will be selling carbon neutral hot dogs with Al Gore tattoos on them.

  9. palmcoaster says:

    I meant “talking”not taking, sorry. Not to further confuse your understanding Yogi.

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