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Apple's design philosophy
March 5, 2012 7:07 AM   Subscribe

The idea that the form of a product should correspond to its essence does not simply mean that products should be designed with their intended use in mind. That a knife needs to be sharp so as to cut things is a non-controversial point accepted by most designers. The notion of essence as invoked by Jobs and Ive is more interesting and significant—more intellectually ambitious—because it is linked to the ideal of purity. No matter how trivial the object, there is nothing trivial about the pursuit of perfection. On closer analysis, the testimonies of both Jobs and Ive suggest that they did see essences existing independently of the designer—a position that is hard for a modern secular mind to accept, because it is, if not religious, then, as I say, startlingly Platonic.
Form and Fortune is an essay about Steve Jobs and Apple's design philosophy by Evgeny Morozov.
posted by Kattullus (23 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
There is a sentence in the article that defines Steve Jobs, and it's hidden in parentheses.

he saw little minds everywhere he looked
posted by CautionToTheWind at 7:26 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I suppose it would be difficult for an serious nominalist to be a great designer.
posted by michaelh at 7:54 AM on March 5, 2012


I am embarrassed to say that if I had written this piece I would have been unable to resist claiming that Jobs was

a) obsessed with purity and essence, and;
b) very concerned about the quality of the things he produced.
posted by jaduncan at 7:57 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The part about Jobs' washing machine, the automobile and the embedded "moral instructions" in technologies was fascinating:

Jobs’s meticulous unpacking of the values embedded in different washing machines, and his insistence on comparing them to the values he wanted to live by, would be applauded by moralistic philosophers of technology from Heidegger to Ellul, though it may be a rather arduous way of getting on with life. But Jobs understood the central point that philosophers of technology had tried (and failed) to impart: that technology embodies morality.

Jobs himself was never shy about the value that Apple products were to embody: it was liberation—from manual work, from being limited to just a few dozen songs on your music player, from being unable to browse the Internet on your phone. Yet liberation is hardly the only value that matters. We need to identify the other moral instructions that may be embedded in a technology, which it promotes directly or indirectly...

Whether a washing machine uses a quarter of the water or more matters morally only if its users can establish a causal connection between water use and climate change, ocean depletion, or some other general concern. Jobs understood this. The problem was that Jobs, while perfectly capable of interrogating technology and asking all the right questions about its impact on our lives, blatantly refused to do so when it came to his own products. He may have been the ultimate philosopher of the washing machine, but he offered little in the way of critical thinking about the values embedded in the Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPad. When he discussed his own products, he switched from philosophical reflection on the effects of consumer choices to his Bauhaus mode of the vatic designer.

Tellingly, it was not the washing machine that Jobs invoked to promote his gadgets, but the automobile. In the early 1980s, he regularly compared the computer to the automobile, stressing the emancipatory power of the latter...On the surface, the car analogy seems flawless: both technologies allowed customers to do what they wanted, and boosted their autonomy, and gave them more choices about how to live their lives. But as any environmentalist, urban planning activist, or committed cyclist can attest, liberation was only one part of the impact that the automobile had on how we live, especially in America.

posted by mediareport at 8:12 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem was that Jobs, while perfectly capable of interrogating technology and asking all the right questions about its impact on our lives, blatantly refused to do so when it came to his own products.

So the fact that Apple keeps spitting out machines that reduce their energy, packaging and use of toxic substances year-on-year is purely coincidental?

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight...
posted by Talez at 8:23 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"These big-picture questions are just—zzzzzzzz," he said, and started snoring. The philosopher of the twenty-first century, indeed.

Dr. Morozov, heal thyself! This piece is packed so full of undergraduate bloviation, so ready to buttonhole us for five sentences with one of Morozov's own Big Ideas before moving on incoherently to the next, that it's amazing to hear it ending on this sour note as if it had a philosophical leg to stand on.
posted by RogerB at 8:25 AM on March 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Talez: "So the fact that Apple keeps spitting out machines that reduce their energy, packaging and use of toxic substances year-on-year is purely coincidental?"

No, it just comports with the lazy eco-politics of most Apple users. The real question that has to be asked about personal technology isn't "how much is too much?", but "Does this add more to the world than it takes away?" The article does a good job pointing out that Jobs, for all his genius, was unable to resolve the essential contradiction of modern design: in order to succeed, it must rely on the capitalist system of marketing and group-think that it so zealously militates against.
posted by anewnadir at 8:36 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed most of the article, but he takes a sharp right into Crazytown in the final section about how Apple is "destroying the Internet" by selling apps.

If one day Apple decides to remove a built-in browser from the iPad, as the Web becomes less necessary in an apped world, it will not be because things took on a life of their own, but because Apple refused to investigate what other possible directions—or forms of life—“things” might have taken.

Most of the final criticism seems to be based on Steve Jobs' "tragic" failure to "explore" this bizarre unexplained scenario which exists only in the author's imagination.
posted by designbot at 8:39 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


So the fact that Apple keeps spitting out machines that reduce their energy, packaging and use of toxic substances year-on-year is purely coincidental?

Reduced energy is more driven by the desire for smaller batteries and smaller products than by any environmental morality. And toxic substance reduction (see RoHS) is an industry-wide phenomenon forced on manufacturers by governments...not Apple's idea.
posted by rocket88 at 8:41 AM on March 5, 2012


The problem was that Jobs, while perfectly capable of interrogating technology and asking all the right questions about its impact on our lives, blatantly refused to do so when it came to his own products.
So the fact that Apple keeps spitting out machines that reduce their energy, packaging and use of toxic substances year-on-year is purely coincidental?

The author is specifically not talking about the environment here:
(“Ecological” here has no environmental connotations; it simply indicates that a technology may affect not only its producer and its user, but also the values and the habits of the community in which they live.)
He's talking about his vague, paranoid death-of-the-Internet fantasy:
Yet this is not the most interesting and troubling aspect of Apple’s ecological impact. Ironically enough, the most consequential of Apple’s threats is not to the physical but to the virtual: the company may eventually suffocate the Internet.
posted by designbot at 8:48 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Morozov reminds me a little of Žižek: a serial contrarian, who, while extremely insightful, prefers a wily dig or upending of a common wisdom at the expense of facts. Plus the accent.
posted by gwint at 9:27 AM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


So was Steve Jobs a philosopher who strove to change the world rather than merely interpret it? Or was he a marketing genius who turned an ordinary company into a mythical cult, while he himself was busy settling old scores and serving the demands of his titanic ego?

Gosh, I wonder which question the article will choose to answer.

He hung a pirate flag on the top of his team’s building, proclaiming that “it is better to be a pirate than to join the Navy,” only to condemn Internet piracy as theft several decades later. He waxed lyrical about his love for calligraphy, only to destroy the stylus as an input device. He talked up the virtues of contemplation and meditation, but did everything he could to shorten the time it takes to boot an Apple computer. (For a Buddhist, what’s the rush?) He sought to liberate individual users from the thrall of big businesses such as IBM, and then partnered with IBM and expressed his desire to work only with “corporate America.” A simplifier with ascetic tendencies, he demanded that Apple’s board give him a personal jet so that he could take his family to Hawaii. He claimed he was not in it for the money and asked for a salary of just $1, but he got into trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission for having his stock options—in a move that gave him millions—backdated. He tried to convince his girlfriend that “it was important to avoid attachment to material objects,” but he built a company that created a fetish out of material objects. He considered going to a monastery in Japan, but declared that, were it not for computers, he would be a poet in the exceedingly unmonastic city of Paris.

Never mind. The above illustrates the lack of critical thinking going on here, just a desire to push a particular point. Jobs loved calligraphy, that's why he pushed for high quality fonts with the Mac. To ignore that and focus on the stylus signals a misunderstanding of what the author is writing about.

There doesn't seem much point if reading the rest of the article.

Minor question: Is it on record anywhere that Jobs demanded a personal jet and that he wanted to use it to take his family to Hawaii?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:40 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it on record anywhere that Jobs demanded a personal jet and that he wanted to use it to take his family to Hawaii?

It's in the bio, but at that point I don't think he was taking any form of compensation for his role at apple.
posted by symbollocks at 9:49 AM on March 5, 2012


He's talking about his vague, paranoid death-of-the-Internet fantasy

That's the least of what he's talking about in that section, actually. This is the main point I see:

Nor do we know enough about how the design and the interconnection of online platforms affect the distribution of civic virtues—solidarity, equality, and flânerie, to name just a few—that we may wish to promote online. Just as we recognized many of the important civic functions of the sidewalk only after it had been replaced by the highway, so we may currently be blind to those virtues of the Internet—its inefficiency, its unpredictability, its disorder—that may ultimately produce a civic and aesthetic experience that is superior to the “automatic, effortless, and seamless” (one of Apple’s advertising slogans) world of the app.
posted by mediareport at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


gwint: Morozov reminds me a little of Žižek

I hadn't thought of that, but you may have a point. His writing style and organization-of-thought is very different, but there is a similarity.

Brandon Blatcher: There doesn't seem much point if reading the rest of the article.

That part of the essay you quoted infuriated me. If I hadn't gone to the trouble of printing it out to read while traveling I probably would've stopped there, but I decided to press on. It gets quite interesting.
posted by Kattullus at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It gets quite interesting.

Ok, I'm continuing on, because you said it gets good, but would love to hear what you found interesting about the rest of the article.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:41 AM on March 5, 2012


Minor question: Is it on record anywhere that Jobs demanded a personal jet and that he wanted to use it to take his family to Hawaii?

There are two sources. One is Elkind interviewing Ed Woolard, who recollected approving the plane:

"While the plane has long been cast as a board's creative gesture of gratitude, Woolard says Jobs is the one who thought of it. "He brought up the idea: 'What I really need is a plane where I can take my family to Hawaii on vacation, go to the East Coast.' I said, 'All right.'" Larry Ellison declared, "With what he's done, we ought to give him five airplanes!""

The other is Isaacson's book:

"Woolard was thrilled, and he suggested that the board was willing to give him a massive stock grant. “Let me be straight with you,” Jobs replied. “What I’d rather have is an airplane. We just had a third kid. I don’t like flying commercial. I like to take my family to Hawaii. When I go east, I’d like to have pilots I know.”

Isaacson cites for this an Apple proxy statement and interviews with Jobs, Woolard and Ellison. Since the proxy just notes the gift and doesn't quote anyone that leaves only the personal interviews. My hope is that Isaacson's version is more correct because he checked Woolard's off-the-cuff story, which Isaacson had probably read in Elkind's article, with Jobs, Ellison and Woolard and learned the more accurate version. At any rate the two stories agree in substance so it is probably true that Jobs asked for the plane.

Please excuse me while I close 50 browser tabs and look at the clock and my unfinished work with a shocked look.
posted by michaelh at 10:52 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Brandon Blatcher: Ok, I'm continuing on, because you said it gets good, but would love to hear what you found interesting about the rest of the article.

The part that grabbed me was the section about what the notion of "purity" means in relation to Apple's design style, and how he traces it from Bauhaus. It's not a new insight, but I think Morozov drew interesting conclusions from it. The bit mediareport quotes above, the part about the morality of washing machine design, I also found quite fascinating. In general, I find the parts of the essay which are about Apple's design philosophy really fascinating, but find the analysis of Jobs as a person unconvincing.
posted by Kattullus at 11:10 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


At any rate the two stories agree in substance so it is probably true that Jobs asked for the plane.

It's a minor point, but the negative interpretation of it hints at the writer's bias. Here's the original quote:
A simplifier with ascetic tendencies, he demanded that Apple’s board give him a personal jet so that he could take his family to Hawaii.
It doesn't sound like Jobs demanded anything, but suggested something different and more useful to him to than stock options. Also not that having his own plane probably did simplify travel for him.

Yes, Kattullus is correct, the bits about Job are sharply unconvincing and read like a person creating an illusional enemy.

The part that grabbed me was the section about what the notion of "purity" means in relation to Apple's design style, and how he traces it from Bauhaus.

That is the good stuff. I wonder what exactly purity beans to the iDevices, since they are, by the nature of Apps capable of being very different devices on an individual level. Perhaps the purity is baked into the physical shape and the design of the OS, which allows the device to be used as jack of all trades, where the mastery is dependent on both the programmer and the user.

And of course, the iDevices are not alone in that capability.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:23 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


anewnadir: "...t Jobs, for all his genius, was unable to resolve the essential contradiction of modern design: in order to succeed, it must rely on the capitalist system of marketing and group-think that it so zealously militates against."

Isn't capitalist system of marketing the sine qua non of of modern design?
posted by symbioid at 12:30 PM on March 5, 2012


No, I can't read it. The author seems to know less than nothing about every single aspect of the discussion in the article. Maybe I can print it out and force myself to read it on a plane.

Now I know this is kind of a derail, but there is something I've always been curious about: I get the problem of Apple's closed systems. And I get the problem with poisonous processes and underpayed labour. But what is the problem with Apple's design (both hardware and software)?

To get back on line: one of the problems with the growing need for academic justification within design is the absurd notion that ideals that are sensible within the humanities and social sciences are also relevant for design practice. Apple design is not "platonic" because basic philosophy is only vaguely relevant within product design. (Not completely irrelevant, but please... these are industrial products, meant for consumption).
If one were an anarchist activist, one could question the value of products built to last max 3 years and designed in a manner to stimulate consumption. This is a valid position, which I agree with. Except someone will need to tell me about the computer/phone/TV/radio which is built to last 30 years. I'd buy it.
If that product does not exist, I'd like to know why I need to buy a lesser, uglier product, from an even larger global corporation than Apple. Again - give me the valid argument, and I'll do it. Till then, I'll just buy whatever communication device that works instantly when I buy it and never causes me any trouble. And that is usually an Apple product.
I can program, because I am so old that it was part of learning to design using computers. But I never, ever use it. I choose programs that work, and I draw more and more by hand, in order to avoid the formal decisions built into the programs. Since I change my mind often, drawing by hand is a lot faster than building a new program. (Gehry did it, but he seems to have settled with a basic formal principle).

Today I heard that in many hospitals, doctors are forced to use iPhones, because they are easier to clean than Blackberries. This is a technical argument, not a philosophical one. And ideally, good design encompasses functionality, durability and beauty. Which is what I think Jobs meant by essence.
posted by mumimor at 12:42 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Apple’s threats is not to the physical but to the virtual: the company may eventually suffocate the Internet.

Or about 11% of it
posted by mattoxic at 1:11 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]




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