“… the season
Wherein the spirits hold their wont to walk
the fruitful matrix of Ghosts …”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Steve Jobs died a year ago October 5th, and we can expect his ghost to appear in any number of recollections and assessments as the anniversary approaches.
I’d like to talk here about a spirit that Jobs carried within himself. It’s a spirit he relied on for inspiration, although he seemed at times to have lost track of its whisper. In any event, what it says can tell us a lot about our relationship to machines.
I refer to the spirit of Romanticism. I spent much of this past summer reading about the Romantics — the original Romantics, that is, of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — and it’s remarkable how closely their most cherished beliefs correspond to principles that Jobs considered crucial to his success at Apple.
What Apple does that other companies don’t, Jobs often said, is infuse the technologies it produces with human values. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said during one of his famous product introductions. “We believe that it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”
Jobs can be forgiven for never getting very specific about what he meant by marrying technology to the humanities. It’s by definition a subject that’s hard to pin down, though not especially hard to understand. Basically he was saying that Apple’s products have soul and that people are attracted to those products because they can feel that soul, both consciously and unconsciously. These are things the Romantics thought about a lot.
That the creative artist can bring life to inanimate objects was a central conviction of the Romantic poets. (I’m speaking of the thrust of the Romantic movement in general; individuals within the movement disagreed on specific issues.) For them, the inanimate object in question was words; for Jobs, it was technology, but the basic point — that a work of art, properly executed, carries within it an invisible, living essence — was the same. Devoid of this essence, said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, what’s produced is as lifeless as the “cold jelly” of a corpse.
Put in contemporary terms, soul from the Romantic perspective is an emergent quality, a product of the harmonious, organic relationship between constituent parts. Even when those individual elements are familiar in other contexts, as the elements of Apple’s products were often said to be, combining them with due attention to essence can bring something new into the world. As Coleridge put it, the true artist “places things in a new light… What oft was thought but ne’er so well exprest… [He] not only displays what tho often seen in its unfolded mass had never been opened out, but he likewise adds something, namely, Lights & Relations.”
By “Relations,” Coleridge meant unity. Each part is completely faithful to the creation as a whole. To construct a work in accord with some “mean or average proportion” is to dilute its essence, said William Hazlitt, “for a thing is not more perfect by becoming something else, but by being more itself.”
This supports Jobs’ insistence that Apple maintain control over both its hardware and its software, a policy that insured they would work seamlessly together. Soul emerges on its own in nature, but not in art. The unity on which it depends is concealed, as one critic put it, beneath “a surface world of chaos and confusion.” To reveal essence requires not only vision, but also focused attention and deliberate action. Coleridge coined a word to describe the unifying power of the creative imagination: “esemplastic,” derived from the Greek for “to shape into one.”
Nor will essence emerge on the strength of reason alone. Indeed, Romanticism was explicitly and decidedly a revolt against reason, a rejection of the empirical presumption of the Enlightenment. Coleridge considered the “Mechanico-corpusluar philosophy” his lifelong enemy; its endless reductionism smothered, he believed, any trace of vitality. What remained wasn’t art, he said, but “a lifeless Machine whirled about by the dust of its own Grinding” — a fair description of how Steve Jobs viewed the products of Apple’s longtime rival, Microsoft.
There’s no question that Jobs was intimately familiar with and sympathetic to the Romantics’ convictions, if only because they were shared by two of his most formative influences, Eastern religion and the 60s counterculture. This is not to say he was directly aware of that coalescence; I’ve seen no interview with Jobs in which the Romantics are mentioned. Nor is there evidence to suggest he recognized how freely the streams of the three philosophies intertwined. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, wrote poetry based on the Bhagavad Gita and paid tribute in person to Coleridge and Carlyle. Autobiography of a Yogi, a book Jobs claimed to have read annually since he was in college, quotes Emerson several times. Values regularly celebrated in Romantic texts — passion, spontaneity, authenticity — were counterculture touchstones as well.
Jobs’ philosophy, then, overlapped with the Romantics’, whether he knew it or not. Coleridge famously said that every person was either a born Platonist or a born Aristotelian — the Romantics were Platonists, Bill Gates would qualify as an Aristotelian — and that no one changed from one orientation to the other. It may be that Jobs was, as he and many others contended, an exception to that rule, able to play successfully on both sides of the technology/humanities divide.
There were signs that Jobs wasn’t finding it easy to hold on to his Romanticism as his business career progressed. In Apple’s early days he’d been a believer in the messianic promise of the computer revolution, convinced they could be the greatest force in history for human liberation. In more recent interviews, he dismissed suggestions that computers were going to solve the problems of the world, and he was stung by critics who said that some of Apple’s products were more about consumerism than creativity. He was also disappointed in the narrowness of vision he saw in the students who came to hear him speak on college campuses. The only thing that seemed to impress them, he said, was how much money he’d made.
Jobs’ weariness speaks to a point I’d mentioned at the beginning of this article: that the spirit of Romanticism can tell us a lot about our relationships to machines. To believe that technology can be our savior was a minority opinion in the counterculture. The predominant sentiments of the time were more in tune with the Romantics, who believed that salvation was to be found not in the power of machines, but by living as simply and as closely to nature as possible.
Pastoral retreat on any substantial scale isn’t likely at this point. Our technologies are with us to stay. Living more simply would seem to be an option, though. We might also consider the possibility of constructing those technologies more Romantically. That would entail recognizing, as Steve Jobs did, that the things we create really do have souls and that they speak a language we can hear.
Books that were especially useful in research for this reflection were Richard Holmes‘ two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp, David Newsome’s Two Classes of Men: Platonism and English Romantic Thought, and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.
Photo: Screenshot from Apple’s iPad 2 announcement.