Steve Jobs Talks About Art

by John Link



ITunes has released the full interview Steve Jobs gave in 1995 for the television series "Triumph of the Nerds". It is called "Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview". The video quality is amazing, given that it was produced from a VHS copy of the original tape. The copy was discovered more than a decade after a severely edited version was broadcast and the original subsequently lost. Unlike many of the man's public statements, this one is not a sales pitch. The analysis of product creation he offered is profound. Although it is explicitly focused on tool-making and specifically the making of computers, the relevance it has to art-making is solid, as is its relevance to the current state of affairs in the world of art. I wish to make this obvious. I will embellish on his ideas for the sake of making some points without detailing exactly where I depart from exactly what he said. I am not an historian of ideas, just a user. Buy the interview if you are curious. It is well worth the 10 bucks they charge.

His killer concept is simple. In most aspects of human endeavor, the difference between average production and the best seldom exceeds 2 to 1. Most of the time it is less than that. Often the best is only 20% better than average. But every so often, a huge gap opens up and the difference between average and best climbs to 50 to 1, or even 100 to 1. Those are times of great opportunity for the "A players" who advance product excellence, if they can be assembled into a well led group.

What is interesting about the A players, besides how very rare they are, is that they don't like to work with B and C players. Yet, that is usually their lot in life. Implicitly, when this is the case, their work is not as good as it could be. Once gathered into a group that is free from the B and C players, they are happier, but still need leadership, even though they are quite difficult to lead. The key to leadership is the exercise of taste as the unifying value, even when the goal is to produce tools that intrinsically serve some outside task. All aspects of design - from usability to pure aesthetics - form the spirit of the tool, so that it can rise to the level of being the best there is. It takes incredible attention to craft to accomplish this. What you don't do is just as important as what you do because the road to excellence is narrow and exclusionary. The obsessive insistence on quality that is characteristic of A players and diminished in the rest drives the project forward. Perhaps the reason A players don't do well with lesser talent is the lessors are numb to quality in the first place, so the hassle of communicating with them and accommodating their weaknesses is an exhausting and ultimately fruitless task that detracts from the final outcome.

The computer and software industry of the 70s and 80s operated in one of the rare times when the difference between average and best was 50 to 1 or more. Just as this leveraged the opportunity to make a difference that was easily recognized, it also leveraged some of the frustrations. When a corporation gains such acceptance for its products that they have a virtual monopoly on the market, the producers in the company are relegated to the second string, no matter how good they are at improving product. The fact is, the marketing arm does not need them or their better product. They just need to devise better ways to get those who have not yet bought in, to join the crowd. And so marketers rise to the higher levels of management, as they are more important to the company's success in such situations. Curiously, as product quality becomes more pedestrian thanks to the cold shoulder given to those who might improve it, the ever expanding audience does not mind. They may even prefer the pedestrian, as it offers the comfort of familiarity, just as the same familiarity is comforting to the marketers in charge of the company. And so a company like Xerox, which had created the graphical interface, networking, and object oriented programming, was not suitable for developing them, thanks to a management that did not "have a clue" about the importance of these creations. In truth, they were put off by them. They knew how to sell toner based copy machines. That was the only job they wanted. They all agreed it was the only job that counted.

I remember a conversation with a colleague in the art department where I worked in the 70s. He waxed eloquent about why we should purchase the very best Xerox machine they made. The machine he described was so clearly top drawer that it seemed like a dream come true. This machine would do this, that, and the other thing, at the mere press of simple buttons. Images would be transformed according to every whim of the operator's imagination. Any common picture or object placed on the copy glass would leave the output tray as a magical picture far removed from the original, yet under the complete command of the operator, and take no more than minutes to complete its journey. It was my unhappy task to remind my associate that Xerox machines could not do what he thought they could. Unknown to both of us, he was describing what computers of the future would do. But they would not be built by Xerox. The product people at Xerox PARC called the managers who ensured Xerox would never participate in this advancement of their technology by a simple term: "toner-heads". Jobs called the product people "content-creators" and shared their disdain for the toner-heads who controlled the company. If content-creators had installed someone of their type in charge at the top, he felt Xerox would have wound up "owning" the computer market.

Jobs observed that "toner-heads" and their marketing colleagues run most of the world. Content-creators may be the key to success in the tool-making business, where the avant-garde theory of advancedness is the relevant codec. But A level content-creators must be freed from managers who seek only to spread the status quo. They also must be set free from the confines of working with the less talented who form the majority that inhabit our world. Jobs said his contribution at Apple had been to do exactly that, provide leadership to an elitist group that he himself carefully selected. The unusually large gap between average and best in his industry at the time had provided the opportunity for the immense success that had come to him and Apple. To measure it in dollars, at age 21 he was worth nothing. At 23, a million dollars. At 24, 10 million. At 25, 100 million. To him, the best reason to be so rich was the ability to try things that did not need an immediate return in order to survive. But he and Steve Wozniak "hired the wrong man" when they brought John Sculley in as the CEO of Apple. Sculley came from PepsiCo, where their product hardly varied from Coke's. Together, the two colas dominated the soft drink space. Sculley's job as CEO was to increase PepsiCo's share and decrease Coke's. Changing the product would actually impede the process as the market for cola was a strong given. Thus improving the marketing for Pepsi was the only issue.

Sculley was hard-wired to be a toner-head. He came to Apple on the basis of his appreciation of well-designed things and his achievement as a marketer. While he had an interest in technology, he had no understanding of how it is produced. In retrospect, it seems startling that Jobs and Wozniak even considered him. War was inevitable. Sculley and Jobs offered different spins on how it happened, but they agree it was Sculley who handed Jobs his pink slip. Sculley has recently admitted he did this because he did not understand the difference between a company like Apple and one like PepsiCo. Click here to read more.

During the ten years Jobs was gone from Apple, Apple spent $5 billion for research and development. Jobs estimated the net improvement to the Macintosh was just 25 percent, thanks to poor leadership that favored marketing over product advancement. And thus Macintosh lost the substantial lead it had over the average computer in 1985. By 1995 the company was dying and in fact came within 90 days of bankruptcy two years later. When the interviewer asked Jobs what he was doing about this, Jobs answered "Nothing". Jobs' new company, NeXT, was too small to address the problem. It is one of the most surprising moments in the interview. "Nothing."

At the time NeXT came out, it struck me as the most impressive computer to emerge in the history of computing. Like the Lisa, it was ungodly expensive. But unlike the Lisa, it was a complete package. Everything about it reeked of excellence. Instead of the typical ABS plastic case, Frog Design had done the magnesium 12 inch square cube which housed the CPU and the monitor that went with it. Jobs had personally selected the exact shade of matte black for these components after several days of deep fretting. Paul Rand designed the logo that adorned the elegantly minimal box. Its operating system, NeXTSTEP, was built with the object oriented programming technique Jobs first saw (and initially ignored) at Xerox. It used strictly organized Unix as its core instead of the "spaghetti code" originally developed for Macintosh - and never replaced in the $5 billion upgrade effort. The 4-bit grayscale interface was minimally but beautifully conceived, right down to the swirling black hole that replaced the ubiquitous trash can. The motherboard was made from epoxy glass, a far more reliable base than the commonly used fiberglass. (I once disassembled five NeXTs and threw their motherboards against the wall, Frisbee fashion, then reassembled each computer. They all resumed working normally.) The monitor was driven by Display Postscript, the most advanced imaging software on the planet at that time, and the best for presenting media on the screen. Tim Berners-Lee developed the first web server software on a NeXT, and that was the first platform to run it. He also used NeXTSTEP to develop the first web browser. NeXT was not 50 times better than the Mac of its day, but I would give it at least 10 times better, quite an extraordinary margin. Jobs was to learn one of his most important lessons as NeXT failed to sell. Once the audience for a product has been worked over by the gods of marketing, that audience often prefers average. "Build it and they will come" does not work at that point. NeXT would never grow into the alternative to either Macintosh or the PC. Jobs knew that and accepted it. The black hole in his new interface was consuming his own creation. Nothing was the only alternative.

Thus Jobs at NeXT became like Ayn Rand's John Galt. He had "dropped out" with an exclusive group of A players, but very few in the real world had much use for them and the larger crowd did not miss them at all. That was his circumstance at the time of this interview. What does it have to do with art?

I hope the way I have written this makes the answer seem like it might be "a lot". Nonetheless, the interview could easily be read as the regrets of someone whose time had come and gone, and was now bitter. There is a cycle in nature during which a plant emerges, develops buds, grows magnificent blooms, then decays to make room for the next generation. Pissing and moaning are expected from those who are in the last stage. In their bias, they proclaim their old methods to be better than those of the new generation, which is natural enough, but to be guarded against because it is just the cry of a dying organism. This stereotype is widespread because it is often true. Returning to the old, out-of-date ways has turned out deadly too many times to ignore.

But just as the displaced generation might simply be serving its own self-interest, the same can be true of the new one, one that simply wants to maintain its dominance, even though its outcomes are inferior to the old. We knew at the time of the interview Jobs was bitter. Today we know he was also right and he soon used his analysis to save Apple from the death it almost achieved. Sculley has described in great detail the way Jobs managed the turn around. These details are available here. Instead of installing yet another "new" management structure, he reinstalled all the old ones. Out-of-date stuff like micro managing and crucifying anyone who did not turn in exceptional work. Stuff like keeping each development team small and populated only by A players, obsessing over craft and insisting that every detail be right. He narrowed the focus of each product so it could achieve the depth necessary to distinguish itself from average. He gave control to those who could return the product to its former level of goodness. He diminished it for those who would do the marketing after the work was done. He pushed the company forward by taking it backward.

Piri commented on my last post that a Jasper Johns picked by Harold Rosenberg for a show many decades ago was the best in the room reserved for his picks. Both she and I would regard that roomful of art as inferior to the corresponding room selected by Clement Greenberg. What I would add is the room picked by Rosenberg typifies what I consider to be the "average art" of that time. And if one compares that Johns to what you would find in a room representing average art of our current day, the Johns should look mighty fine. Thus the gap between the average art of our day and the best has grown by several magnitudes since the 70s. It might even be the 50 to 1 that Jobs said constituted great opportunity. Ben Shahn was a lot closer to Jackson Pollock than Damien Hirst is to Darby Bannard. If such gaps are opportunities disguised as problems, artists and art lovers who can't stand nonsense should be encouraged.

Likewise the clarity of Apple's turnaround should assist those who fear mining the past with understanding that it is sometimes a necessity. Jobs explained well how very successful marketing of pedestrian products induces numbness into the audience, so that they come to prefer average over the best. It seems clear that well-heeled collectors are not immune to this phenomenon. Money does not buy you taste, but it makes you worth manipulating. If the art collecting community had taste in the past, it has been twisted in odd directions since, and landed God knows where. It will take something very real to turn that around.

Other problems remain. The A artists do not have a good connection with each other. They are not inclined to work together, and even less inclined to be led. They have not attracted many young artists who want to inherit their tradition. In contrast, "average art" has achieved an overwhelming monopoly that is extremely well organized around the task of maintaining the acceptance of its familiar products, and is admired and emulated by millions. This is taking place in a vacuum of taste so complete that taste is actively scorned by "critics" on the grounds that it is part of the old, displaced order. With taste ruled out, the market for average art has unchecked permission to continue crushing what little competition there is to it. Its marketers would be unfaithful to their nature if they followed any other course.

Regardless, the gap between average and the best art today is extraordinary, and growing larger by the day - a great opportunity if you take Steve Jobs seriously. Most of our best artists embrace the methods and values of supposedly dead Modernism. The ugliness that has ensued after Modernism was abandoned by the mainstream will be the stuff of legends about our bizarre art-like phenomena for future generations. What those generations will treasure from our time is less certain. Anyone with a modicum of taste can see this. Yes, this is a circular assertion, but it is reasonable to hold as an observation so long as it is not confused with a demonstration. Aristotle taught not to pursue proof where none is possible. Whether any group can assemble that is strong enough to overcome the resistance now entrenched to protect the average is the more worthwhile issue.

March 23, 2014

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