Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

Summary: A century from now, what kind of legacy will Steve Jobs have? It won't be about business or marketing, but how he humanized tech.


Who is doing the most important work in the tech world and which technologies are going to have the largest long-term impact on humanity? Those are questions I dedicate some brain cycles to thinking about every week. I like to ask, "Which of these things could have ripples that will last for a century or more?"

In tech, the truth is that most of the stuff we fret over, rave about, or argue bitterly will be barely recognizable 100 years from now. In most cases, even the staggering developments in tech over the past decade will morph into other products, be absorbed into new companies, and simply become the tiny seeds of brilliant new ideas championed by future generations of innovators. That's just the natural order of things.

What I look for are the exceptions. And, there are always exceptions.

Steve Jobs was one of them.

Since his retirement as Apple CEO on August 24 and his passing on October 5, there have been lots of well-written retrospectives about how Jobs helped usher in the personal computer era and transform four different industries -- PCs, mobile phones, music, and animated movies -- and bring Apple back from economic oblivion to become the most valuable company on the planet.

All of that stuff is fascinating and significant and will be talked about for years to come. However, I'd assert that Jobs's ultimate legacy will be something else entirely.

It won't be about money. It won't be about his famed "reality distortion field." It won't be about his brilliance as a marketer. It won't even be about an Apple product -- or, at least not one specific product.

Steve Jobs's most important contribution will be that he made technology about people and not about technology. The entire thrust of his career was about building useful tools that adapt themselves to the ways people already think and work, rather than asking people to retrain themselves to learn how to use their machines.

While other tech leaders have given lip service to similar ideas -- especially in the past decade following Apple's recent successes -- only Jobs has been able to thoroughly inculcate this concept into a company and all of the products that it produces.

The best example I've found of Jobs himself talking about humanizing technology came from Macworld Expo 1997 in a question and answer session. Here's what he said:

"One of the things I've always found is that you've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can't start with the technology and try to figure out where you're going to try to sell it. I've made this mistake probably more than anybody in this room and I've got the scar tissue to prove it, and I know that it's the case. As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?' [It's] not starting with ‘Let's sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how are we going to market that?'"

Keep in mind that this whole idea of human-centric technology is a rejection of the foundation of the computer industry, with its codes, keyboard commands, and programming languages.

It's probably going to take a couple decades for other technology leaders and companies to fully grasp, internalize, and institutionalize this change. But, make no mistake, they will. Today's technology companies and the tech companies of the future will embrace human-centric product development as an answer to the current design bankruptcy in tech and as the next stage in tech product design. Lots of companies are already taking baby steps in that direction -- take a look at companies like ASUS, HTC, and Microsoft (with Windows Phone 7).

While Steve Jobs left Apple in good shape and the company will almost certainly continue to be a leader in this area, Jobs's impact will be even greater outside of Apple as hundreds of tech companies are destined to emulate Apple's product design approach in the decades ahead. Within 20 years, every tech company is going to be about human-centric product design, and for decades after that I expect they will continue to perfect the idea until its roots at Apple become almost completely obscured. A century from now, it will be historians who will trace the idea back to the Apple co-founder.

For those who don't want to wait that long and want to start thinking about and paving the way for human-centric product design in tech, I'd recommend not spending a whole lot of time studying Jobs himself and obsessing over all of forthcoming documentaries and studies of his life. Instead, do what Steve did: push yourself to learn, grow, and expand your world view outside of technology.

In fact, the career of Steve Jobs may be the single greatest impetus for a liberal arts education in modern history. Although Steve never finished his undergraduate degree at Reed College, he spent his time there taking the classes he was passionately interested in, rather than following the standard schedule of courses. For example, he famously took a calligraphy class that deepened his interest in typography and he later used that knowledge to push for the excellent on-screen fonts in the original Macintosh, which of course, greatly influenced the use of fonts in Microsoft Windows as well.

The point here is that, as much as Steve Jobs loved technology, he was also deeply curious about other aspects of life as well, such as music, world culture, and philosophy, and his life experiences in those areas had a significant impact on his humanistic approach to technology.

Jobs even traveled to India after he dropped out of Reed College. Although he didn't find the enlightenment he was looking for, his travels helped solidify some of his ideas about what he wanted to do with his life and the impact he could make back in America. During the trip to India, Jobs reported, "I started to realize that maybe Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Kairolie Baba put together."

All of this, of course, advocates for a liberal arts education and a variety of life experiences in order to help you think bigger, understand life from lots of different perspectives, and discover more things that you're passionate about.

If you've already completed your degree, are in the middle of your career, or simply don't have the budget or freedom to travel or go back to school, then you can always take the more grassroots approach, as Jobs did. Go to a museum, volunteer for a non-profit, take Tai Chi, learn another language, do something creative like paint, write a story, or play an instrument. Travel the world, when you get the chance.

As touchy-feely as that might sound, if you want to think creatively and you want to start looking at tech from the standpoint of how humans can approach the tools, then this is the kind of thinking you'll need to do. There's no better evidence for it than the life and career of Steve Jobs, and the next 100 years are going to show just how far ahead of his time he was, and how many companies are going to emulate his approach to humanizing technology.

Steve Jobs said, "The reason Apple is able to create products like the iPad is because we've always tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts." Photo credit: Apple Inc.

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Topic: Apple

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  • Does anyone know how bad these boards suck?

    I don't know why we should even post here, when crap just disappears on pressing "submit".

    Did they outsource the design to some middle school or something?
    William Farrell
    • RE: Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

      @William Farrell

      Did you try to include a link? That seems to confuse the system. Post the URL with out the u and /u tags.

      Yeah, pretty amazing for a technology site.
      • Agree; the comments system is a gross failure; often times glitchy and ...

        @msalzberg: ... useless.

        But the article is good.
  • I'd make that 10 or 20 years

    I doubt that Steve Jobs will be thought of as the initiator of much of what'll go on in 100 years. 100 years ago, WWI hadn't happened yet, imperialism was still in full swing, and Dwight Eisenhower was about to turn 21. In other words, it was a very long time ago, and things were VERY different. The pace of progress has only accelerated since then. 100 years ago, the phonograph would have likely been considered as revolutionary (or more) as we consider an iPhone or iPad today - and it lasted a lot longer, too. The vast majority of people today have no idea of the contributions made around that time, and unless humanity changes her ways a lot over the next centuries, Jobs contributions will only be remembered and valued by a very few a full 100 years out.
    • RE: Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

      @WebSiteManager Are you kidding me? The pace of progress has increased because of him.
    • Edison is very well remembered, so, no doubt, Jobs will be, too

  • RE: Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

    Jobs humanized technology but Microsoft arguably was just as big but in a different realm. Jobs made learning and play more human but in the 1990s Microsoft through adjustments to Jobs's GUI and Office software made the working more intuitive and "human". In this century Jobs owned making mobile technology "human" both for work and play but Windows operating systems and Office are for the moment still dominant in the workplace. Internet Explorer has been a majority to dominant method of "humanizing" gathering information from the internet (If it got that way morally or legally is another story). And then there are the people who invented the internet, google, PC and on and on. Nobody did it more consistently in more areas over a longer period of time then Jobs but a blanket statement that "Jobs humanized technology" is misleading.
    • RE: Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

      @edkollin <br>To me, "humanizing" means making technology easier for (average) humans to use and be productive with. With that in mind, have you compared Microsoft Word with Pages on the Mac or iPad? Microsoft has been saying for years that they were were going to make their stuff more usable, but I've seen very little evidence that that's the case. They build software (Office) that is LOADED with features--it will basically do anything you want--but, because it's "feature-rich", it really isn't easy to learn and use. It's built to handle the worst case. There are trade-offs to be made. Microsoft has chosen the "features" route; Apple has chosen the "usability" route. That makes their apps a lot more "human" for me.
    • RE: Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

      @edkollin Microsoft's contributions were refinements within the paradigm. No Mac, no Word or Excel. Macs provided the original market for Microsoft GUI software and Microsoft provided the software that made the Mac platform serious.
      Lester Young
  • Jobs has assumed room temperature

    He was not God, proved by the fact that he is DEAD. How much more of this drivel do we have to suffer through?
    • And who claimed Job's was god?

      @sackbut ... He's done more to effect people in his limited 56 years of life than most people who have ever been or ever will be have managed to do in lives lived much longer. You nor I if we live to be a 1000 each will achieve half the effect of a Steve Jobs. For technology in one way or another does effect people all across the globe and Steve's vision and contributions will effect peope either directly or indirectly for years to come. That is something to admire, ponder, and maybe even strive for.

      Pagan jim
      James Quinn
      • RE: Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

        @James Quinn
        Read our own drivel.
      • &quot;Read our own drivel.&quot; Funny:) Well at least U admit to your words being

        @sackbut ... drivel:)<br><br>Pagan jim
        James Quinn
      • RE: Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

        @James Quinn: "You nor I if we live to be a 1000 each will achieve half the effect of a Steve Jobs."
        1. Speak only for yourself. Just because your life sucks and is worth nothing, doesn't mean it's the same for others.
        2. Havin an effect on many people's lives is not a positive thing per se. Many dictators, warmongers and US presidents had also a rather big effect on the lifes of hundreds of millions of people - still, we don't think most of them, as something to look up to, neither do we wish we'd have the same effect on people as they did.
        3. If you truly believe that all the advances, achievements and developments that are attributed by people like you to Jobs were really his - and not that of the miriads of "nameless" designers, engineers, marketing experts, etc. working for him -, then you're indeed someone who can't, and even if he could, better have no effect at all on people accross the globe. Not even in 1000 years.
      • You are amusing....

        @ff2<br>1. My life does not suck but I'm a realist and while I don't think it's reasonable to think that I will achieve anything near what a man like Steve Jogs has in his 56 years I do not look at that as a negative statement on myself or others just a realistic view of history and oh yeah I'm already 49 so well now you know:P As for the other fellow again I'm a realist.<br><br>2. Steve Jobs has never to my knowledge been a dictator in the traditional sense of say a Hitler or even a lesser one like Pol Pot. Nor has Steve Jobs been president and done any of the historically negative things I think you are referring too. So while I appreciate and found it amusing that you went so far off to never never land to make your point you did in effect neither effect my view of Steve Jobs nor his accomplishments for mine are those of a realist not an idealist which I assume based on what you went off on are.<br><br>3. Again you have no idea what I specifically attribute to Steve Jobs do you. No you do not. as for others being behind the work well DUH. What I do know of engineers and techies in general they are good sometimes great at what they do which is to make stuff work. However what I've found to be true is that while they are good at that they are awfull at making stuff work in an elegant and art full way unless told and told again "No this will not do" buy say a Steve Jobs type. A Captian of a ship does not sail the seven sea's on his own... He has a crew. A General does not win a war he has an army and a slew of support personal to feed and arm that army. The list goes on and on and on what we celebrate in historical famous Sea Captains and Generals is not the fact that they crossed the oceans in fragile boats of sail and wood nor that the general actually won the war single handedly but we do celebrate the fact that once in while a truly unique and bold Sea Captain comes along that does things differently and boldly and the same for the odd General. As I do for a Steve Jobs. Silly.<br><br>Pagan jim
        James Quinn
  • RE: Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

    Excellent article. Lessons for all professionals, not just in tech.
    Lester Young
  • RE: Humanizing technology: The 100-year legacy of Steve Jobs

    The internet is still in its infancy and its potential has yet to be fully realized. Having gotten my bachelors and masters the traditional route, I was skeptical about online learning given the obvious differences it has with lecture hall style education modes. This article helped me understand how online learning can be very beneficial for the right crowd: