I wrote my first word-processed high school paper (and every high school paper after that) on an Apple IIc that I believe my parents still own. I wrote every undergraduate paper between 1987 and 1990 on a Mac. Every academic paper after 2004, every blog entry, NPR commentary, non-academic piece, not to mention my first book was written on a Mac. Every picture I’ve processed (including ones I’ve sold) was processed using a Mac. I started dating the woman who would become my wife while working on a newspaper project (the Sothis!) on a Mac using Pagemaker.
So I get it. I more than get it.
Steve Jobs was a towering figure. His ideas, his products, his approach to design have undeniably shaped our lives. I will always remember where I was when I heard–indeed when my daughter told me I checked my IPhone to verify. For many folks Steve Jobs was their Michael Jackson (I use this example because even now as problematic as Jackson’s life was in many ways I still tear up when I hear “I’ll Be There”).
The day Jobs passed away I gave a lecture about the politics of design to a group of Architecture students at Morgan State University. I talked primarily about urban design–about how the way cities, neighborhoods, and even individual homes and roadways are designed often produce or reproduce inequality. Even our supposedly public goods reflect this. Many public benches have been purposely rendered “homeless proof” to keep homeless populations from congregating. Many public rails are now “grind proof” in order to keep skateboarders from using them. Even something as mundane as a kitchen can reproduce gender inequality–if the contents of a kitchen cabinet cannot be seen, then a single person is more likely to be responsible for organizing it and maintaining that organization, a task which often goes to the woman of the house.
I wanted to talk a bit about the design of everyday objects, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to do it.
After I heard about Jobs passing I regretted it.
Because while the articles I link to above deal with Apple’s problematic record on human rights (their record in China is atrocious). They deal with Jobs’ personal management skills (they were, in a word, Jordanian). They deal with Apple’s history of censorship. And this latter issue begins to touch on the design element–you can design open-ness into a product “democratizing” it in a way by allowing others to modify it to tinker with it, or you can design open-ness OUT of a product. But the other element is the cultivation of desire. Apple designs everyday things. Phones. Computers. Devices that play music. Tablets. Perhaps soon, televisions. But in at least three of these cases (with the IPhone, the IPad definitely), Apple under Jobs’ leadership designed consumer products (that is, products designed chiefly if not solely to consume rather than to produce) that were so powerful in cultivating desire they ended up making Apple consumers tools of their tools.
Now one could say these tools were “democratic” in that they gave individuals an opportunity to produce and create they may not have otherwise had–individuals with the resources to purchase them. But they are designed to extract more consumer income than they are to extract more human creativity. This is Jobs’ legacy too, and should not go unstated. Particularly not when the same day we lose Jobs, we also lose Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Prof. Derrick Bell…two giants who made it possible for me to live and practice a full democratic life.