Steve Jobs pulling off five masks on his hospital bed, complaining that they are poorly designed, is the pinnacle of buffoonery. Isaacson wrote the bio, and now Gladwell has synthesized it in The New Yorker, adding his own thoughts on the man who surely will receive the 2011 Posthumous Lionization Award. I happen to agree with Gladwell’s assessment. Innovator, perfectionist, narcissist, visionary—there’s certainly no denying Jobs’ drive and uncanny disregard for whether or not he is liked. And it would be hard to overstate the enormous breadth of the i-ing of the technological universe that began with the iMac and has no end in sight.
But one word that I have yet to see applied to Jobs is aesthete. One whose pursuit and admiration of beauty is regarded as excessive or affected. With Apple’s products, Jobs made a cult of aestheticism, and it’s a cult that functions on the same circular logic that has isolated the individual aesthete since long before there were mp3s or even Walkmans. Oscar Wilde, if one can separate his effeminacy and strained erudition, seems to be a classic example. He would have been helplessly drawn to an Apple Store’s sleek facade. The logic is this: Beauty is inherently good, and an object’s beauty rates higher than its functionality; a person who doesn’t get this has a failing that invalidates whatever material preferences he does have, since a flawed person’s tastes are themselves imperfect. The aesthete’s belief system rests on the tenet that not everyone is capable of detecting the divine in the material; this weights beauty with even more false, precious value, which entrenches the aesthete in the notion of having uniquely refined abilities, justifying his fickleness and necessitating the censure of his opponents.
It’s a nauseating form of bigotry, second only to racism and sexism. How many of us have encountered someone lacking technical knowledge who nonetheless found it fitting to join the Mac camp based on the purity of its tenets? The least informed of them will literally tell you that Mac’s are better “because they just are.” Think Different was an Apple slogan. No doubt, rampant aestheticism takes all the thinking out of it.
I contend that functionality has driven the iGadget revolution more than Jobs would have admitted or even allowed. Case in point. In 1999, I bought an mp3 player. I believe it was made by Creative Logic or some such. It had 128 mb of memory and was about the size of a full coin purse (I’m dating myself with that). I loaded an album on it, put it in my shirt pocket, and began to do dishes. Within moments, playback skipped. The problem was, the player used a disc drive, with a spinning platter. These platters are not much more stable than a turntable. I returned the player and for two years searched for a portable digital player with skip-proof technology. When the iPod appeared, I bought one because of how it functioned. Aside from its role in performance, I didn’t otherwise care about its design.
I get the idea that this might have angered Jobs, like it angered him to have a second-rate breathing mask protecting him from infection. Alas, in the end, there is no protection from this most asinine, and human, of vanities.