Steve Jobs Part II: The Man Who Fell To Earth
It’s 9:45 AM. That time when the morning coolness if officially over and the day heat begins to set in. Wildlife has retreated to the thicket and the winds are gaining strength. For not but a lone baboon barking in the distance, a few birds, and buffalo prints in the mud by the watering hole, one might easily imagine they were on a lifeless, forgotten planet. It’s perfect.
This is where I want to be to write this last memoir on Steve Jobs. I knew I wanted to be somewhere quiet during my final weekend here in Zimbabwe, to think, and write, but I didn’t anticipate spending it penning a eulogy.
What I wanted to add in this post, was a description of my one and only encounter with Steve Jobs, 23 year ago, almost to the day, and an extra mention about his role in helping to create the World Wide Web, which I’ve noticed has been overlooked in the sea of lofty tributes. Finally, also, I want to add a nod to his endorsement of the “counter culture” revolution of the 1960s, and specifically, his appreciation for psychedelics. (1)
First a comparison with the movies – In the late 1970s David Bowie starred in an off-beat science fiction titled The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was about an alien in human from a desert planet who has come to Earth in search of water. His spaceship is wrecked, and in order to get back to his planet, he has to assume the identity of a businessman inventor, who is producing breakthrough technologies in electronics and rocketry. His company is wildly successful, producing products which are years ahead of the norm, and when it comes time to test his deep space rocket, he, himself, is scheduled to be the pilot and only passenger. The movie is ultimately a tragedy, as most David Bowie films are, because he is discovered, and his plans thwarted. Of course, all he wanted was to go home and save his family, but authorities intervene and he is kept on Earth as a prisoner. in spite of his superior intellect, he is is physically meager, and can not overcome the forces of mediocrity.
Steve seems to me to be like The Man Who Fell to Earth. His story has a simpler ending, but the narrative of his time on Earth is strangely similar. As has already been widely cited, he produced not only technology that was seemingly from another time, but also transformed multiple industries that are at the core of our culture, including computing, cinema, music, product design, marketing, publishing, and, of course, mobile communications. He did all this without training in any, nor knowledge of electronics or business. When he started Apple at the age of 21, he was no more than a one-semester college drop out who was, at best, a long distance telephone hacker and experimenter in psychedelics and counter culture. Just another brass kid from California. By the time he resigned to deal with his failing health, Apple was the most successful company in the world surpassing even Microsoft and Exxon and leaving an imprint of innovation that is not likely to ever be repeated.
His role in creating the World Wide Web
Steve’s greatest achievement, though under acknowledged, in my opinion, is his pivotal role in the evolution the World Wide Web. I believe everyone who reads about him, should know this. When Apple sent him packing in the mid 1980s, Steve wasted no time in creating a company called NeXT, which produced a high performance computer aimed at academia. The sleek black cube sported a new type of object-oriented operating system called NeXTStep. This was based largely on a multi-user operating system popular in high education called Unix, and is now the guts of every Apple product. Steve is often recognized as the visionary who saw that the “mouse” would be the future of the computing interface, but I think his greatest achievement, was recognizing that an operating system with shared source code that was principally the domain of large systems in academia, could be the future bases of desktop computing. This was a radical departure – like everything else he did, but this departure, particularly, allowed for the ready merging of hypertext with the Internet, and thus the invention of the World Wide Web. Both hypertext and the Internet had been around for many years. Hypertext was a way of making documents that could be interactive, and the Internet was predominantly a network of academic and government scientists with little versatility for personal use. Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, saw the potential of merging hypertext with the Internet. This way, realized Berners-Lee, a dynamic document could be interfaced remotely via the computer network, and thus, scientists could better collaborate. For lack any other term, Tim and a colleague called the distribution of such Internet accessible hypertext documents, the World Wide Web. It was 1990.
What people need to know is that Tim Berners-Lee specifically sought out a NeXT computer in order to create his internet-based hypertext system, and that the world’s first web browser and web server were designed, programmed, and operated on a NeXT computer with the NeXTStep operating system, both of which were Steve Jobs creations. The actual computer that Tim Benerers-Lee used for this is now on permanent display at the Microcosm Exhibit at CERN (2). In lectures and in essays, Tim reiterates the point that the NeXTStep operating system made his invention of the World Wide Web possible. During a lecture at Digital Equipment Corporation in the mid 1990s, I heard him say so myself, and subsequently heard him repeat it in interviews and have read his words to that effect. Tim is quite forward with this historical fact, and I think, in addition to everything else that is attributed to Steve Jobs, and rightly so, we need to also add this, that he was a key factor in the creation of the World Wide Web. No, Steve didn’t invent the World Wide Web, and probably never thought of it prior to it’s creation by Tim Berners-Lee, but he knew that object-oriented programming was the foundation for the software of the future, and that this would allow people to create powerful new applications, and unleash a wave of creativity in the computing world. Steve’s stint with NeXT Computing is often seen as a side venture, and not necessarily a successful one, but I think it was his “40-years in the desert” journey that created his most lasting achievement. With his adoption of a Unix variant into a consumer product, he not only would reinvigorate Apple years later, but also set the pace for shared, object-oriented, and eventually, “open source” code, to be the defacto platform for the future of programing, helping to create the web and catapult the Internet out of academia and into the public sphere. When we think Steve Jobs, on top of everything else, let’s also remember that the World Wide Web was invented and first operated on products from the mind of this man, who apparently fell to Earth.
My One And Only Meeting With Steve Jobs: The Guy In the Lobby
My one and only meeting with Steve Jobs was both simple and profound. We were practically eyeball to eyeball in the lobby of Boston Symphony Hall during the of the East Coast debut of the NeXT Computer in October of 1988. For about 15 timeless seconds we were the only ones there. Yes, just Steve and me. No reporters, no security, no ushers, no literati, no mucky mucks. Thousands more were in the main hall and would be rushing out within moments, like a stamped of buffalo, snorting, stomping, and shoving their business cards into his face, but, for this brief moment of serendipity, it was just us. I was working the event for the Boston Computer Society who were the hosts. Back then such societies were an important part of the social landscape of computing culture. Seeing as their was no web, nor electronic social networks, real networks of “wet ware” and “grey matter” were how information about new products was largely diffused, and the Boston Computer Society was the mother ship of them all (3). Jonathan Rotenberg, the Director of the Boston Computer Society, who founded it at age 14, knew me as an active volunteer, and he was a friend of Steve’s, or at least they knew each other, and Steve understood the importance of working with the Boston Computer Society. Like all product debuts from Steve, this was meant to be historic, and so, there it was, in the Boston Symphony Hall. To go with the venue, Steve had a Boston Symphony violist play a duet with the NeXT cube. Now, we might think that was cheesy, but this was 1988, and having high quality audio come from a desktop computer was noteworthy. Steve told the crowd that the computer shipped with the complete works of both Shakespeare and Bob Dylan, and also noted that he had friends who would buy it for just that reason.
Before going further into what followed, let me just give some background about my own prior thoughts regarding a meeting with Steve Jobs. I always imagined I would meet him and had a catalog of ideas I was prepared to talk to about. Top of the list was his thoughts on the social impact of computing. You see, I was the editor of the Social Impact newsletter for the Boston Computer Society, and what could be better than an interview with Steve on that topic? And seeing as Steve knew Jonathan Rotenburg who as found of my work with the newsletter, I figured such a meeting was not a distant possibility – hark, if I had only made any attempt at suggesting it! After that, I would want to talk to him about a universe of topics, most of which had noting to do with computing, such as medicine, history, and the evolution of consciousness. I guess you can figure out that I imaged that Steve and I were colleagues, birds of a feather, on similar missions. We were still, of course, both quite young. I was 28 and he was probably 32 or 33. I’ll make the analogy later, but I guess in retrospect, we can say that Steve Jobs was the John Lennon of my generation of progressive computer geeks. We wanted to change the world just like he was doing, with technology, optimism, youth, arrogance, and an unfaltering belief in creativity and human potential.
So, there I was working the show. I don’t remember exactly what my duties were, probably some sort of ushering. I know I had the best seats in the house, as did my fellow Boston Computer Society volunteers. We were front row, or pretty close. I remember having to look up the whole time. At some point during the presentation I needed to get up and go to the lobby. I did, and then walking in one of the side corridors I looked up and there was Steve. Just standing not more than ten feet from me. We both made eye contact and both seemed surprised. I had no idea he was there, and he apparently had no idea I was there. I am guessing that perhaps the presentation just ended, right after I left, and he was walking into the lobby to meet people, or use the rest room, and at that moment, because I left before it was over, I was the only other person there. The whole suddenness and proximity of the encounter caught me totally off guard. Here I was, by myself, staring face-to-face with the youthful visionary I’d been following for years – the inventor of “personal computing”, the founder of Apple, the inventor of the Macintosh, leader of a movement that people like me were going to follow to change the world. He was completely boyish – big cheeks, thick, long bangs. He was a Beatle, with the appearance of Paul, but the probity of John.
Anyway, I said nothing. We just looked at each other and smiled. He politely gave me plenty of time to make the first move, to ask a question. He didn’t advance his body, or turn away his gaze. He just stared and smiled, and I returned the gestures, and then, for both of us, it became a type of grin and even a near laugh. We both were aware of the apparent awkwardness of moment. I was supposed to be rush toward him and ask him all sorts of things, or say how impressed I was, but I did none of those things, and yet we just held each others’ gaze, I believe, in mutual respect. He knew that he’d caught me by surprise and that I probably would of had a million things to say, and he politely gave me the chance to have an audience seeing as no one else was around. I wonder how often a situation like that has ever even happened to him. After a few seconds of neither us saying anything, I think a deeper, nonverbal dialogue took place. It became clear, that no, we don’t need to say anything. It’s ok not to speak. My smile told him that I appreciated what he was doing, and his smile told me that he accepted that, and that it was completely fine if this moment is just what it is. It didn’t need to be anything else. We both eventually just smirked, and then the onslaught of people arrived and he was swept away. I entertained the idea of trying to reinsert myself into the fray, but thought better of it. The wall around him was already three layers thick, all with men in suites with business cards. What did I have? Just a silent conversation – gaze locked, smile relaxed.
Good bye Steve. This is how I’ll remember you. Mop haired. Cherubic. The guy in the lobby.
“After dropping out of Reed College, a stronghold of liberal thought in Portland, Ore., in 1972, Mr. Jobs led a countercultural lifestyle himself. He told a reporter that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand.”
“Decades later he flew around the world in his own corporate jet, but he maintained emotional ties to the period in which he grew up. He often felt like an outsider in the corporate world, he said. When discussing the Silicon Valley’s lasting contributions to humanity, he mentioned in the same breath the invention of the microchip and “The Whole Earth Catalog,” a 1960s counterculture publication.”