Steve Jobs's life raises questions about Fernand Braudel's observation that individual lives and events are mere "surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs." For anyone under fifty, it's hardly possible to think of any other individual who has done so much to shape design or urban existence in our lifetimes.
In July 1976, Jobs and Steve Wozniak's Apple Computer Company released one of the first personal computers, the Apple I. Merely a circuit board sold as a kit, the Apple I required substantial effort to be turned into a workable computer. Only some two hundred were produced. A year later, the pair released the Apple II, a more capable machine with an integrated keyboard built into a case. During fifteen years of production, Apple manufactured over five million units.
From a design perspective, the Apple II was the archetypical PC. In contrast to Eliot Noyes's modernist IBM System 370 mainframes, the Apple II nodded meekly to the environmental design movement of the 1970s, its chunky beige plastic shape signifying friendliness and accessibility. Nevertheless, it paved the way for a new conception of what computers might be. Accessible to anyone, the Apple II brought computation from the mainframe facility to the home and school, fulfilling a McLuhanite vision of democratic access to technology. Its ease of programming and lack of bundled programs kick-started a nascent hacker movement. For my generation, this was liberating. Where the boomers had rock music and drugs, we had the Apple II, we were digital. With a computer in your bedroom, anything seemed possible. You just had to code it.
Jobs soon proved accessibility was more than merely a matter of beige. Visiting the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1979, he saw a prototype Graphic User Interface (GUI) controlled by a mouse and understood it to be the future of computing. Apple's GUI-based computer, the Macintosh, was released in 1984. If still beige, it was a radical departure from the PC of the day: in contrast to the original Apple II and the PCs that aped it, the Mac made access to its insides and its code difficult. Taming the machine's complexity, however, and adding a GUI made it not merely a toy for hobbyists but rather a productivity tool for everyone. The first microcomputer to be released with multiple typefaces, the Mac made desktop publishing possible, revolutionizing graphic design. It fulfilled the vision of Ettore Sottsass's Olivetti Valentine: a machine that one could write a love letter on. When Jacques Derrida updated Friedrich Nietzsche's declaration that he was the first philosopher to use a typewriter by stating that he was the first philosopher to use a computer, Derrida was referring to his own "little Mac."
Ousted from Apple for spending too much on developing the Mac, Jobs started NeXT Computer, a startup producing a new generation of machines that combined power, ease of use, and a flexible programming environment. Designed by Hartmut Esslinger's Frogdesign, the NeXT machine was a sublime matte black box, full of power and menace. Regardless of his vision of the computer as an immensely powerful, highly-designed computer, NeXT proved unable to compete in a market dominated by commodity PCs running Microsoft Windows.
While building NeXT, Jobs acquired Pixar, a Lucasfilm spin-off that focused on three-dimensional rendering. Pixar's Renderman software brought computer-generated imagery (CGI) to major motion pictures for the first time. In 1988, Pixar's animated short "Tin Toy" became the first computer-generated film to win an Academy Award. Pixar released Toy Story, the first full-length computer animated film in 1995 and the first in a string of critically and commercially successful movies. Moreover, the possibilities of using software like Renderman to photorealistically simulate three-dimensional environments on affordable hardware paved the way for the revolution in computer rendering in design.
Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 when the company purchased NeXT as the foundation for Mac OS X, its future operating system, and soon wound up in charge again. Working with Jonathan Ive as his Senior Vice President of Industrial Design, Jobs produced a string of popular computers and personal electronic devices, beginning with the 1998 iMac, a colored, translucent machine. A month after 9/11 Jobs introduced the iPod portable music player, which made it possible for individuals to paint the city around them with sound. Unlike the earlier Sony Walkman, its capacity allowed individuals to bring large music libraries with them. By making easily-copied digital music formats essential for a new generation, the iPod spurred music piracy, which in turn compelled labels to adapt to the digital marketplace exemplified by the iTunes platform. By 2011, over 300 million iPods had been sold worldwide and the music industry had been transformed.
Strongly influenced by both the designs and theories of Dieter Rams, the devices Apple made during the new millennium played a key role in the revival of modernism, but departed from the modernist ideal by refusing to sit in the background, acting instead as objects of desire. To market its products, Apple launched a chain of supermodern retail stores to sell its line of computers and iPods. Its flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, an underground space surmounted by a glass cube ten meters on each side has been estimated to be the fifth most photographed site in the city and twenty-eighth most popular site in the world.
In 2007, the iPhone introduced powerful portable and networked digital computing to the public and, with the release of the assisted-GPS iPhone 3G, brought networked, locative media from science fiction to reality. The 2010 iPad expanded the multitouch interface of the iPhone, making media consumption—in particular books and magazines—ever more digital.
Jobs's last public appearance was on June 7, in front of the Cupertino City Council, where he presented a new headquarters for Apple, in the form of a giant ring designed by Foster & Partners, sitting in a 150-acre wooded landscape where sprawling office developments currently stand. Ever optimistic, Jobs argued that the building, which would only be completed in 2015, would be essential to the future of the corporation. Optimistic about its architectural value too, he told the councilors: "I really do think architecture students will come here to see this."
We can hardly overestimate Jobs's impact on our environment. The decentralized nature of modern work would be impossible without the personal computer. As we navigate the landscape with smartphones, listening to a soundtrack of our choosing while staying in constant touch with our fellows, we have him to thank. To be sure, most of these developments would have come about anyway. Jobs's life was a Braudelian crest of foam upon a technological sea. Moreover without employees like Jonathan Ive, Andy Hertzfeld, or Susan Kare, little of it would have been impossible. But without Steve Jobs, it would have been far less elegant, less compelling, and less fun.
Kazys Varnelis has been Director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Art and Planning since 2006. With Robert Sumrell, he coordinates the non-profit architectural collective AUDC. He is currently writing Life After Networks: A Critical History of Network Cultures, and his blog can be found at varnelis.net.