Lifetime Apple user Domenico Bettinelli writes on the subject of Steve Jobs’ death.
I’m not going to write a hagiography of Jobs here or canonize him. I’m sure he was flawed and had his failings. But you can’t deny that he’s changed the world as we know it. In the past 30 years, he has completely changed four major industries: computers, telephones, music, and animated movies. And his influence has extended deeply into dozens of others.
While much has been written on the subject of his passing and the effect he had I want to add a Catholic take. The Catholic blogosphere has done fairly well with the pro-life aspect being that Steve Jobs was adopted. Umberto Eco had the famous essay “Mac is Catholic, DOS is Protestant” which I will expand upon. Eco also saw Windows more like “an Anglican-style schism.”
For the majority of my life the world of Apple was not one I paid any attention to much cared about. If anything I was a common Apple-bigot full of inaccurate opinions about Apple computers. I was also an early adopter of MP3s and the first players that came out and went through various makes and models. In addition I started listening to podcast early on and getting those podcasts on my mp3 player was a daily chore. It took some overcoming of bias to take a serious look at the iPod and so in 2005 I bough my first Apple product. Two years later I bought my first Mac.
Now as someone who makes a living writing Windows based software this was a bit like heresy to me. But there were serious reasons I moved into the Apple ecosphere other than just “new and shiny!”.
By all accounts Steve Jobs seems to have been not only a perfectionist, but a visionary in the area of design. In the past these qualities did not always mesh well with what was the state-of-the-art in hardware at the time. Many companies talk about user experience, but Steve Jobs really did seem to see that as an overriding focus.
So what are the Catholic aspects I see? It is Apple’s design philosophy that really drew me in. For one they talk about the philosophy of UI design and create specific guidelines such as the “Human Interface Guidelines.” There is a canonical aspect to how software designers and programmers are to write user interfaces. So often I find that when it comes to form and function one side of the equation is more represented than the other. For the human person aesthetics are not something that is just to be an afterthought. We have lost so much beauty for example when we design churches more like auditoriums than places of worship. The considerations seem to be more to the physical than with having beauty help your spirit rise up in worship. When it comes to hardware and software this is also quite evident. Sure a skin or a gloss might be added to something at the end of production, but it is something grafted on and not a coherent whole of form and function. There is something almost Gnostic about so much design. In Gnosticism the body is evil and the spirit is good and in design Gnosticism the material aspects are all that really matters.
What I discovered with Apple products and the Apple software development community is that they have a very Catholic both/and as a philosophy. Form and function both drive the end product. The attention to detail in their products is at a level I had never seen before. Sure they might constantly tempt us with the latest model, but there is no planned obsolescence built into their products. I never kept a computer longer than the Mac I am typing this on. Yet it still looks as aesthetically pleasing as the day I bought it and has not experienced any of the problems I have had before involving parts going bad or pieces of the case coming off. Apple’s attention to detail is what drove them to add a speaker to the iPod just so you could hear an audio click with you pressed on the classic iPod’s click wheel.
This type of attention to detail is also found on the software side where again how the user interacts with the program is given great importance. As a long-time geek I worked with hundreds of programs with confusing and/or ugly interfaces. Sure the underlying program might have done it’s job quite well, but again as human persons we should expect more than just function as in an atheistic materialist way. Though things have improved in the Windows world as the importance of design has become more prevalent and tools like WPF and Silverlight helping to focus on that.
Apples products are certainly a team effort, but it is quite evident that Steve Jobs set the bar when it came to sweating the details so we don’t have to. His leadership brought a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy to a world leader in consumer electronics it is today. It takes more than leadership to bring this about, it took having a vision and a philosophy and imparting it as a part of the DNA of the company. As Catholics there is much we can learn from this. Are attitudes should always take in account the whole of the human person. Each individual is the intended target of the Gospel and when the world of Catholic art and literature is substandard it is no surprise that so are the results.
There is much talk about how the Catholic faith “baptized” various things and brought them into use within the faith. Apple did not create the first personal computer, mp3 player, GUI, tablet, or phone – yet they took each to a new level. Again as Catholic we need to do the same with all the tools at hand looking for opportunities to spread the Gospel with the highest levels of professionalism.
Link: Good article on Steve Jobs at the National Catholic Register