“Computer science is a liberal art, it’s something everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life. It’s not something that should be relegated to 5% of the population over in the corner. It’s something that everybody should be exposed to and everyone should have mastery of to some extent, and that’s how we viewed computation and these computation devices.”
That’s how Steve Jobs, (in a 1996 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross) described the philosophy that animated Apple and its world-changing consumer products. Debuting the iPad 2 in 2011 at the last of his famous product demos, Jobs stood below a projected image of a San Francisco-style street sign at the corner of Technology and Liberal Arts, and proclaimed, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” The creative tension generated by this approach is undeniably a large part of why other, more left-brained companies are so often left playing follow-the-leader. If we dwell mostly on Apple here, it’s because it has been the touchstone for those who subscribe to this philosophy, but the implications for computer science are much broader. Here are nine points of interest to be found at that bustling intersection Jobs will long be haunting:
- We’ve got more raw computing power than we know what to do with.It’s important to be careful here, as this could easily end up sounding as stupid as when the head of IBM once said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” To clarify: from a pure engineering standpoint, significant technological breakthroughs will certainly continue to take place. But whether Moore’s Law continues to hold up or not, the real action is currently happening in how people use their computing. The proliferation of ingenious (yet often simple) ideas flourishing among software developers in the App Store is the most obvious example of this growing role for creativity rather than mere horsepower.
- The PC itself was once considered a frivolous, unprofitable notion.The course of history since the 1970s makes it hard to remember this, but at one time the very idea that an ordinary person would even want to own her own computer was dismissed as radical, foolish, a pipe dream of the counterculture. Back then, everyone sensible knew that computers were strictly for scientific specialists and the industrial conglomerates who employed them. Luckily, not everyone was sensible. John Markoff’s book What the Dormouse Said is a full-length examination of the myriad ways in which California’s hippie ethos fueled computing breakthroughs.
- User design is both a science and an art.So if the current frontier is to improve the way humans interface with computers, how do we meet this challenge? Understanding computers is one half of it. Understanding humans is the other half. That is the province of philosophy, of psychology, of charm, of Confucius and Shakespeare and P. T. Barnum. You liberate money from pockets by giving the people what they want. How do you do that? By knowing their hearts. It’s a lifelong study and far from being a quantifiable rubric of skills and data; it is often intuitive, even ineffable. Designing a system for true usability by ordinary people also requires taste, finesse, elegance, even….
- Beauty is truth, truth beauty.“That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know,” wrote Keats, and the company with the largest market cap on Earth knows a thing or two about that. Everything it does — from the software inside, to the physical objects themselves, to the packaging they come in, to the architecture of the stores that sell them — puts a premium on aesthetics. “Premium” is the word, for we must concede that Apple has operated as a luxury brand, and it may seem as though not every product has the luxury to be a work of art. Still, the fact remains: you don’t have to be a yuppie to have eyes, and customers are always drawn to what looks appealing.
- Innovation comes from cross-fertilization.The Surrealists, whose art often celebrated the generative power and newness of radical, unheard-of juxtapositions, took this phrase from the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror as their motto: “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!” This joining of dissimilar, seemingly unrelated elements is a clue to understanding the whole creative process. For example, it’s how your parents invented you. The liberal arts, by nurturing a well-rounded mind, enable precisely this kind of lateral thinking.
The clearest example of fertilization across fields in the development of the PC is probably the calligraphy class Steve Jobs took at Reed College, a key moment in his personal mythology. He reflected on it at length in his Stanford commencement speech: “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”
- Cultural power is economic power.Throughout the American Century, artistic products like Hollywood movies, rock music, modern art, and even such seemingly banal cultural signifiers as Levi’s jeans helped the U.S. maintain its economic supremacy and even defeat communism, by dominating the global imagination with their variety and vitality. In the era of globalization, the cultural hegemony of the nation that gave the world Mickey Mouse and Elvis may be fading, but only slightly. Freedom of expression and capitalism have proven to be an unbeatable mixture for turning dreams into commodities.
Then computers came along, and began laying siege to the media industries: first and most dramatically with the music industry, but now movies, TV, and books are being absorbed into the digital ether as well. It goes without saying that the iPod and iTunes constituted an incredibly canny play in this regard: even the Beatles, who in 1978 sued Apple into agreeing never to enter the music business, eventually had to yield. You can buy all kinds of things online, but you can’t reach into your screen and pull out a croissant (yet). Ideas, though, as well as many kinds of art, can be delivered through the computer. The video game industry, for instance, located right at that intersection of tech and arts, may soon overtake Hollywood in size and be as important to 21st-century culture as movies were to the 20th. As America increasingly cedes its historic manufacturing edge to China and others, and our economy becomes more and more based on what Richard Florida dubbed the creative class, the intangible knowledge provided by a liberal-arts education becomes a very real asset.
- Before the resurrection of Apple, there was Pixar.After being ousted from Apple in 1985, Steve Jobs founded NeXT Computer. While that company’s NeXTSTEP operating system would form the core of the future Mac OS X (and the Web was invented on a NeXTCube), it was a bit of a commercial fiasco. However, in that first year of exile Jobs also took on an interesting side project: a computer animation company that had been sold off by George Lucas (who had made his fortune at precisely our intersection, drawing together Jungian mythographer Joseph Campbell, Shakespearian thespian Alec Guinness, puppeteer Jim Henson, and inspiration from Akira Kurosawa samurai films and John Ford westerns, throwing all these ingredients into a high-tech stew in a galaxy far, far away…), investing in it slowly at first, then owning a controlling stake and naming himself CEO by the time it released Toy Story in 1995.
Right from that first feature, Pixar went on an unprecedented streak of hits, grossing more per picture by far than any other studio in Hollywood history. Pixar may have been a computing powerhouse, but it was the humanistic touch of its writers and animators that endeared its movies to billions of people. When longtime partner/rival Disney finally purchased Pixar in 2006, Jobs became the largest shareholder in the Magic Kingdom. This seems appropriate, when you consider that Walt himself was an artist, storyteller and self-promoter (and like Jobs, a famously tyrannical micromanager) whose studio became responsible for huge technical innovations, and who ended his days planning a high-tech utopian colony.
- Not everyone is Math Team material, and that’s OK.Upon his return to Apple, Steve Jobs launched the “Think Different” ad campaign, featuring an eclectic passel of freethinkers like Bob Dylan, Mahatma Gandhi, Martha Graham and Frank Lloyd Wright. “Here’s to the crazy ones.” Jobs got it. Bill Gates, bless his admittedly magnificent heart, does not, which accounts for the depressing, wrongheaded speech he gave last year, suggesting that young peoples’ educations be funded in direct proportion to the bottom-line value of each major. On one hand, it’s Bill Gates, surely he knows what he’s talking about. On the other hand … does he?
Frankly, it’s difficult to know just how to take this idea, coming from a man whose extremely well-connected family sent him to Harvard, whereupon he dropped out anyway, then became the richest guy in the world. Often a young mind may have legitimate and worthy interests to pursue, other than being as valuable a minion as possible to Gates or Jobs or any other corporate overlord (and if those interests do still land them there, so much the better). Undoubtedly, quality science and engineering education is crucial, but as the News-Sentinel quotes former Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch: “too much STEM may mean too few leaves and flowers.”
- Ethics, too, is a liberal art.The ultimate value of the liberal arts is supposed to reside in its use in forming good citizens, and giving us a vocabulary for discussing the ways we treat each other. As Alexander Pope had it, “The proper study of Mankind is Man.” As much lionizing of Apple as we’ve been doing here, it must be said that if in aesthetics they get an A+, in politics they get a gentleman’s C at best. Apple has hardly been a model citizen, whether in its aversion to the principles of the free software movement, its constant litigation over things as stupid as rounded corners, the slave revolts that take place at its iPhone factories in China, the lack of manufacturing in a home country that needs it, the censorship that takes place in its vertically integrated marketplace, or the apparent lack of interest in philanthropy on the part of Jobs himself (again, as opposed to Bill Gates). Here’s hoping the next generation of electronic entrepreneurs can combine the best parts of the artistically-attuned control freak and the clueless but compassionate poindexter into some kind of balanced synthesis. Not only do we need both science and art, we need both surface and heart.