Friday 7 October 2011

Steve Jobs

In response to the death of Steve Jobs, I'm pasting the piece I wrote for the Bookseller in connection with Christ to Coke, on which I have recorded an item for this evening BBC TV news.

Apple of My Eye
Martin Kemp reflects on the retirement (and now death) of Steve Jobs

It must have been 1986. An alien upright, off-white plastic box was sitting on my desk at home. It’s small TV-style screen, not much more than 6 inches across, stared at me, mutely challenging. At least the stripy Apple logo towards the bottom left  of the case seemed friendly. I had chosen to “go Mac” because I found the coded interfaces on standard pcs and their brutish angular boxes to be hugely unattractive.

The man in the computing department in St. Andrews had demonstrated it to me with the distinctly sniffy air of someone who thought it was a toy rather than a serious piece of equipment. But I immediately sensed that I could work with the visually intuitive interface – even if the result of tapping a key and something appearing on the screen seemed oddly dislocated compared to the mechanical plunk of a metal typewriter key on a piece of paper over a roller. I was also relieved to find that my friends in art and design were mainly Mac people.

I did wonder how they got away with using the apple logo, when it was firmly associated with New York as the “Big Apple”. But California is a different world and seemed not to care about the possible confusion. In any event, by 1977 Milton Glaser’s iconic  “I NY “had largely taken over. The heart shape is ultimately more iconic than an apple, in spite of Eve’s and Steve’s best efforts.

At this early stage I was aware of Apple Macintosh and its image – and its appealing minority status in academia – but not of Steve Jobs himself. I now know that it was  because of his own instinctive sense of design and of visual modes of operation that my alien machine was soon transformed into a cooperative companion. Like most friends, it sometimes did something I did not understand, producing a feeling of blank impotence of the kind that a typewriter never induced.

It was after Job’s return to Apple in 1997, having been ousted a dozen years earlier, that his own personality seemed to move progressively to the forefront. His public battle with pancreatic cancer from 2004 onwards reinforced his image as one of the heroic Americans.  Like Bill Gates, he became a widely recognised figure, emblematic of the new IT industries and of the stratospheric financial success of nerds who had dropped out of tertiary education.

Latterly, vegetarian-thin and spiritually intense, invariably dressed in dark turtle-neck and Levi jeans, Jobs ruled as the lord  high sorcerer at the launches of the iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBooks and inventive apps.  The Apple logo is still there – a glowing silhouette on the lid of my MacBook Pro – but it now carries with it indelible associations with Jobs himself. Any iconic image needs rich personal associations to survive. Apple’s apple is not yet quite the Coke bottle but it stands alongside Nike’s “swoosh” as a commercial logo with world-wide resonance.

Martin Kemp’s Christ to Coke. How Image Becomes Icon is published by Oxford University Press in October.

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