RIP Steve Jobs, who made the world more science fictional

Today Steve Jobs' death has us all reflecting on how a technology entrepreneur could have changed our lives so much, leaving us a world where we can't imagine daily life without Apple products. Partly that was because Jobs was never just a technologist. He always seemed to start with a social or cultural question, and tried to answer it with technology. That's why we have to remember Jobs not just as a technology innovator, but as a culture producer who, among other things, ran the innovative movie studio Pixar.

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The video you see above was the first demo that Pixar did of its computer animation capabilities in the late 1980s. Jobs always knew computers weren't just for spreadsheets. They're toolkits for artists and entertainment boxes for people who love music and movies. In that sense, Jobs' vision for computers was very science fictional. He didn't imagine these devices as ends in themselves, but as part of our everyday lives. We'd wear them on our wrists, and slip them into our purses for a walk in the park. Computers would become part of us, and we would be part of them.

And maybe, as Apple suggested in its famous 1984 Mac ad, we'd even use computers to start revolutions.

It's fitting that Jobs' movie studio Pixar created one of the most incredible and innovative science fictional visions of the last decade: Wall-E, which was both a terrifically original story as well as a breakthrough in the use of CGI animation. It's also a fitting love letter from Jobs to the future, where humanity is rescued from obsolescence by its robotic children. In Wall-E, the only creatures left who care for the planet are the progeny of devices like the iPod, rather than humans. In fact, a team of Apple designers advised Pixar concept artists about how to make Wall-E's friend Eve more alluringly iPod-esque.

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So if you're trying to sort out your perhaps mixed feelings about the man behind Apple, there's no better way than to rewatch some classic Pixar films. As critic Kyle Munkittrick once argued, many Pixar films have post-human messages in them — they embrace machine intelligence, explore non-human forms of culture, look at the domestic side of superpowers, and argue against the oppression of monsters. Whatever you think of Steve Jobs, he helped make the world a more science fictional place. The future will be a better place thanks to the work Jobs did in what has just become our past.

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DISCUSSION

derekcfpegritz
Derek C. F. Pegritz

I despise Macs, and I really, really do not like Apple. Having worked for them, I can honestly say they're one of THE most anti-consumer companies in the United States. I have never liked Steve Jobs, and have long thought of him as nothing more than a consumer-electronics snake-oil salesman. Reality Distortion Field my arse—the man was doling out poisoned Kool-Aid by the millions of gallons, and millions of suckers not only forked over millions of dollars for the privileged, they hallowed the man as a saint for the privilege of getting screwed.

That said, I own an iPhone and an iPad and find both prettymuch indispensable. As tools that make my life easier and more manageable, they can't be beat...but Jobs did not invent them. Apple's unsung, unnamed programmers, interface designers, product designers, and development managers brought them to life. All Jobs did was make comments along the way and sign off on the final products. Apple did not invent the smartphone—I owned a Motorola Q 4h long before I even considered an iPhone—but they *did* make a really good one (with a REALLY good mobile OS). Then they blew it up to netbook size and created the first realworld equivalent of the "slate" computers mentioned so often in sci-fi novels from the '80s.

Steve Jobs may have made these products possible by supporting their creation, and he certainly must be credited with having promoted them...but let's face it: Jobs was just a CEO. A figurehead. Not a visionary. Not an inventor (at least, not since the 1970s). He was a shrewd, manifestly unlikable, but very effective businessman—a real-life John Galt, in some ways.

I can't stand him and don't care that he's dead...but even a Mac-hater like myself must admit that if it weren't for his public patronage of the smartphone/mobile-computing concept, we wouldn't have the explosion of miniaturized processing, tablet computers, and ever-brainier smartphones. Jobs didn't invent them, but he *did* encourage their development, and used his showman skills to popularize them. I give him props for that. Mad props, in fact! And not even grudgingly.

But the real laurels belong to the nameless men and women who worked *for* Jobs. THEY are the ones who truly helped make the world a more science-fictional place.