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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Jobs’

02 APRIL, 2014

From the Gold Rush to Silicon Valley: How Mark Twain Became the Steve Jobs of His Day

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The power of mischief, timing, and typography.

Mark Twain has no shortage of cultural credits — celebrated humorist, irreverent adviser to little girls, opinionated critic and cultural commentator, underappreciated poet, recipient of some outrageous requests from his fans. But perhaps his greatest feat was his own becoming — how he transformed Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain, “the Lincoln of Literature.”

In The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (public library), Ben Tarnoff chronicles that becoming alongside the rise of the singular “vanguard of democracy” that shaped the course of the Western written word, a course largely steered by Twain. Embedded in the altogether fascinating story, on a closer read, is a testament to history’s cyclical nature as a parallel emerges between San Francisco in the Gold Rush era and Silicon Valley today, and between the respective patron saints of those worlds — Mark Twain and Steve Jobs.

Born in 1835, Twain came of age “at the best possible time,” as the country was on the cusp of a remarkable cultural change, driven in large part by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 — the spark for the famous Gold Rush, which drew risk-takers, pioneers, and enterprising vagabonds from all over the world and elevated San Francisco as a gateway to the era’s El Dorado. Twain, born in the west and raised in Missouri, found in San Francisco what many entrepreneurs today find in Silicon Valley — like many other young men, he “hadn’t come to stay, but to get rich and get out.” The confluence of all these cultural and personal factors created a unique backdrop:

They erected tents and wooden hovels, makeshift structures that made easy kindling for the city’s frequent fires. They built gambling dens and saloons and brothels. They lived among the cultures of five continents, often condensed into the space of a single street: Cantonese stir-fry competing with German wurst, Chilean whores with Australian. On the far margin of the continent, they created a complex urban society virtually overnight.

By the time Twain got there, San Francisco still roared. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured. The city craved spectacle, whether on the gaslit stages of its many theaters or in the ornately costumed pageantry of its streets. Its wide-open atmosphere endeared it to the young and the odd, to anyone seeking refuge from the overcivilized East. It had an acute sense of its own history, and a paganish appetite for mythmaking and ritual.

Mark Twain in 1863, taken on his first visit to San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the city quickly sprouted a thriving literary scene — a “band of outsiders” known as the Bohemians — for writers are a culture’s foremost mythmakers. Tarnoff captures their spirit:

The Bohemians were nonconformists by choice or by circumstance, and they eased their isolation by forming intense friendships with one another. San Francisco was where their story began, but it would continue in Boston, New York, and London; in the palace and the poorhouse; in success and humiliation, fame and poverty.

Two concurrent and seemingly opposite cultural forces contributed to the rise of the Bohemians: On the one hand, the Civil War disrupted America’s moral and aesthetic tradition, creating “rifts in the culture wide enough for new voices to be heard”; on the other, the technological advances brought on by the war had also shrunk the country, bringing East and West closer together with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph. San Francisco was in a unique position to reap the fruits of both developments, and “its writers found a wider readership at a moment when the nation sorely needed new storytellers.

In joining the Bohemians, Twain forever changed the course of both his own life and American literature. Tarnoff writes:

No Bohemian made better art than Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer, nurturing the literary powers he would later use to transform American literature. He would help steer the country through its newfangled nationhood, and become the supreme cultural icon of the postwar age. But first, he would spend his formative years on the Far Western fringe, in the company of other young Bohemians struggling to reinvent American writing.

Artwork by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.

Tarnoff’s enchanting portrait of young Twain is remarkable in several ways — it is exquisitely written, it paints a somewhat timeless picture of the eccentric entrepreneur archetype, but perhaps most of all it reveals details about the beloved author of which most of us are unaware, for seemingly trivial reasons related to the trajectory of recording technology: left with only black-and-white photographs as sensory documentation of his life, we are deaf-blind to details like his striking carrot-colored hair or the peculiar drawl and even more peculiar rhythm of his speech. Tarnoff brings young Twain to life:

What people remembered best about him, aside from his brambly red brows and rambling gait, was his strange way of speaking: a drawl that spun syllables slowly, like fallen branches on the surface of a stream. Printers transcribed it with hyphens and dashes, trying to render rhythms so complex they could’ve been scored as sheet music. He rasped and droned, lapsed into long silences, soared in the swaying tenor inherited from the slave songs of his childhood. He made people laugh while remaining dreadfully, imperially serious. He mixed the sincere and the satiric, the factual and the fictitious, in proportions too obscure for even his closest friends to decipher. He was prickly, irreverent, ambitious, vindictive — a personality as impenetrably vast as the American West, and as prone to seismic outbursts. He was Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain, and in the spring of 1863, he made a decision that brought him one step closer to the fame he craved.

Cover of 'Advice to Little Girls,' which Twain wrote at the age of thirty in 1865. Click image for more.

So on May 2, 1863, Samuel Clemens boarded a stagecoach headed to Mark Twain via a rocky two-hundred-mile journey to San Francisco. At age 27, he was already extraordinary before he had even arrived:

The young Twain … already had more interesting memories than most men twice his age. He had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, roamed his native Missouri with a band of Confederate guerrillas, and as the Civil War began in earnest, taken the overland route to the Territory of Nevada — or Washoe, as westerners called it, after a local Indian tribe.

Originally, Twain hadn’t planned to stay long, but he found himself entranced by the city’s perpetual cycle of eating, drinking, sailing, and socializing. In a letter to his mother and sister from mid-May, he announced he was only going to stay a little while longer — ten days or so, and no more than two weeks. But San Francisco’s bountiful buffet of saloons, dance halls, and gambling dens sang to him a siren song he could not resist. By June, he was still there, living “to the hilt” (to borrow Anne Sexton’s term) and estimating that he knew at least a thousand of San Francisco’s 115,000 citizens — “knew” in the pre-Facebook sense, which makes the scale of his social life all the more impressive.

He eventually left in July, but the spell had been cast:

Over the course of the next year he would find many reasons to return: first to visit, then to live. He would chronicle its quirks, and hurt the feelings of not a few of its citizens. In exchange, San Francisco would mold him to literary maturity. It would inspire his evolution from a provincial scribbler into a great American writer, from Hannibal’s Samuel Clemens into America’s Mark Twain.

One particular detail about Twain made me consider a curious parallel between him and Steve Jobs beyond their similar cultural legacy of revolutionizing their respective fields: Twain, like Jobs, was a disobedient boy (his mother described him as “very wild and mischievous”) who hated school. But perhaps most importantly, he was a typesetter by trade and dropped out of school (as did Jobs) to become “a printer’s devil,” as type apprentices were called at the time. It was through typesetting that he entered into literature, and through typesetting that he found his irreverent voice. Tarnoff writes:

The shop became his schoolroom. He put other people’s lines into print and composed a few of his own. He learned to think of words as things, as slivers of ink-stained metal that, if strung in the right sequence, could make more mischief than any schoolboy prank. At fifteen he began typesetting for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Western Union, and wrote the occasional sketch. When Orion left on a business trip and put his sibling in charge, the teenager lost no time in testing the incendiary potential of the medium. He ignited a feud with the editor of a rival newspaper, scorching the poor man so thoroughly that when Orion returned, he was forced to run an apology.

This sounds remarkably like the story of Steve Jobs, whose era-defining design vision was first tickled by a typography class that he serendipitous wandered into, out of academic mischief and boredom with his prescribed course. Type led Jobs to design innovation and Twain to literary innovation. Both men also came of age at a time of incredible technological progress — for Jobs, the golden age of modern computing, and for Twain, the momentum of the Industrial Revolution. As a young man, Twain saw steamboats and trains and telegraphs transform the diffusion of the printed word across the country. He witnessed America’s booming love affair with newspapers — a century before he was born, the country had 37 newspapers. By the time he entered typesetting, there were more than a thousand.

Tarnoff contextualizes the significance of this shift, and the particular fertility of Twain’s locale of choice:

The newspaper revolution created America’s first popular culture. Twain belonged wholly to this revolution, and the world he discovered in the Far West was its most fertile staging ground… By 1870, California had one of the highest literacy rates in the nation: only 7.3 percent of its residents over the age of ten couldn’t write, compared with 20 percent nationwide. The region’s wealth financed a range of publications and gave people the leisure to read them. As Twain observed, there was no surer sign of “flush times” in a Far Western boomtown than the founding of a “literary paper.” Poetry and fiction mattered to miners and farmers, merchants and bankers. For them the printed word wasn’t a luxury — it was a lifeline. It fostered a sense of place, a feeling of community, in a frontier far from home.

The Bohemians is fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Twain on religion and our human egotism, morality vs. intelligence, and his mischievous advice to little girls.

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10 FEBRUARY, 2014

How Apple Went from Underdog to Cult in Six Design and Innovation Strategies from the Early Days

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“Apple had to make real the dreams people didn’t know were dreamable.”

In 1982, Apple hired German-American industrial designer and inventor Hartmut Esslinger to overhaul the company’s design strategy. He created the Snow White design language, which would come to define Apple, and turned the Silicon Valley underdog not only into a global force of design and innovation, but also into a singular culture — an aesthetic cult, even. Esslinger’s design work went on to be included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum and the MoMA. When Jobs resigned from Apple in 1985 after a power struggle and founded NeXT — the logo for which another iconic designer created — Esslinger joined him. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 as interim CEO, Esslinger followed and was tasked with advising Jobs on a strategy for lifting Apple out of its sunken market position and establishing the company as a true leader of innovation in technology and design.

In Keep It Simple: The Early Design Years of Apple (public library) — a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Esslinger and Jobs, chronicling the gestational period of Apple’s greatness in more than 380 photographs and illustrations — Esslinger shares the six recommendations he made to Jobs in 1997. What’s striking about them isn’t only how prescient they are — from cultural phenomena that Apple didn’t capitalize on directly, like social networks, robotics, and augmented reality, to specific technologies that Apple brought to market, like Siri, AppleTV and the iPhone — but also how clearly they map onto the strategies of countless contemporary startups that have attempted to copy, with varying degrees of success, Apple’s aesthetics and ethos.

Esslinger itemizes the strategy:

  1. Make Apple’s design a game changer again … by returning to the classic values of “simple is best,” invigorating the products through fresh ideas, and re-focusing the overstretched product lineup.

    (Jonathan Ive’s and Thomas Mayerhoffer’s sensational iMac design would become the urgently needed game changer, and Jonathan Ive also would reconnect Apple’s design approach to its Snow White roots. Steve made the right move and had Jonathan Ive working as an Executive Vice President directly with him. Again, leadership in design was at the top, and ranked equally with all other top executives at Apple. . . . There is no other way to make design the core of a human-centric company.”

  2. Make peace with Microsoft and Bill Gates. The Macintosh platform had been eroded to low single-digits market share, and Apple needed to tap into the life-saving software suite, Microsoft Office. Therefore Steve had to repair Apple’s relationship with Microsoft. In the “peace talks” that followed, Bill Gates actually came to Steve’s family home in Palo Alto and, during several walks around the block the two men forged the beginnings of a working relationship. Afterward, Microsoft invested $50 million in Apple. The announcement of their alliance at the MacWorld conference in Boston was greeted with boos from Apple’s die-hard fans, but both the alliance and Microsoft’s support built trust in the marketplace — and helped Apple’s battered balance sheet.
  3. Make Apple a leader in “digital consumer technology” by converging “consumer electronics” into digital technology and media content. Convergence already was a reality; computing and communication were converging, along with media content from information to music to movies, with the Internet and the Worldwide Web providing an asynchronous distribution platform. Within the new marketplace these advancements were creating, Steve’s biggest concern was Sony, [which], as a leader in micro-electronics that also owned Sony Music and Sony Studios, could be Apple’s most dangerous competitor. But … Sony was asleep at the wheel, as was Samsung and a number of mobile phone companies such as Motorola and Nokia, who were expected to move into the emerging market of universal digital convergence. These companies made good and well-designed products, but they didn’t understand that they actually were putting computers into people’s hands, which could enable them for a totally new experience and culture. . . . We advised Steve to take on the competition with a product strategy focused on people’s real needs and proven innovations — a strategy that would avoid stupid risks. Instead of looking for inspiration in the developments of its existing and potential competitors in the space of consumer technology — whether Dell, HP, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Samsung, Canon, or others — Apple needed to focus on creating new ways to exploit the potential of proven technology to fulfill people’s unrealized dreams. In fact, Apple had to make real the dreams people didn’t know were dreamable.
  4. Create a Virtual Apple “community.” By connecting its customers, followers and fans and enabling them to communicate with each other, Apple could establish its brand beyond technology, as part of a lifestyle. In that environment, innovation would be defined by what people could achieve with an Apple product, rather than by the product’s level of advanced technology.
  5. Out-innovate and integrate television, audio and communication into a new paradigm. We projected that digital technology was going to replace analog line-interlace standards in television (NTSC, SECAM and PAL) and so Apple should create its magic and put away with the primitive user interfaces that still reigned in those technologies. Sound had already made the digital leap, both in 44.1KHz CDs and 92KHz PCM tapes.
  6. Explore and pioneer smart physical-virtual devices and useful robotics. We encouraged Steve to make Apple interfaces “human,” with controls activated by gestures, speech and emotional sounds. We also recommended that Apple form strategic partnerships for co-creation with MIT and other top universities around the world with programs in mechatronics, nano technology and advanced brain research.

It’s easy to see how this foundational vision shaped Apple’s output, both creative and cultural, in decades to come. Esslinger adds a note on the toxic cultural conceit that doing well and doing good are somehow diametrically opposed, a myth perhaps most famously discredited-by-example in the story of Jim Henson. Esslinger writes:

Yes, Steve also achieved stunning financial success, but it is his cultural contribution that makes his life story truly unique. Apple, like no other company, has brought world-class design and pristine branding to a new mass market — a market it actually created. And Steve takes his place in that small and exceptionally rare collection of entrepreneurs such as James Watt, Henry Ford, Robert Bosch, Thomas Watson Jr. and Walt Disney, who converted a technological revolution into a humanistic vision — one that resulted in fundamental social and cultural change. Nobody can copy the genius of Steve Jobs, but … what might this world be like if all of us followed his advice to “stay hungry and foolish”?

Keep It Simple, which follows Esslinger’s Design Forward, is an excellent read for anyone interested in the history of innovation and in design as a force of culture and commerce. Hear Esslinger discuss his collaboration with Jobs, including the secret to resolving disagreement, in this excerpt from Debbie Millman’s altogether fantastic Design Matters interview with the design legend:

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26 APRIL, 2012

Free Radicals: How Anarchy and Serendipity Fueled Science, from Newton to Tesla to Steve Jobs

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How Goethe fueled Tesla, why Newton pricked his own eye, and other lessons in breaking the rules of science.

What goes on at the moment of discovery? Is it a flash or a slow burn? Does it come at the end of a long day of work, or upon waking in the morning? Artists might evade explanation and just call it their “muse“, but what about scientists? Science is supposed to come from a rational source, a set of long equations or a series of dogged experiments. But the truth — to which some of history’s greatest scientists can attest — is far more irrational: Discovery is anarchy, inspiration is unexplainable, and getting that Nobel Prize might just be dumb luck.

Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks is the story of scientific rule-breakers, the men and women who experimented on themselves, had fantastic visions and unexplainable hunches, and took once-in-a-lifetime risks, all in the name of pursuing curiosity.

A corridor at Allied Chemical in 1967, by Eliot Erwitt

After the second world war, Brooks explains, scientists were suffering from an image problem. They had created the bomb, cracked the enigma machine, developed nerve gas, and performed experiments on prisoners of war. “You scientists,” declared a 1960s TV drama, “you kill half the world, and the other half can’t live without you.”

After the mad-scientist archetype had done its damage, it was time to rebrand the working scientist, clocking in from 9 to 5 in a crisp white lab coat. Indeed, for the second half of the twentieth century, scientists were perceived as subservient, rule-abiding, lab-dwellers. But for the majority of scientific history, this was simply not the case.

The charicature of Humpry Davy's laughing gas experiments, by James Gillray

Much of medical history involved scientists experimenting on themselves. Issac Newton once stuck a blunt needle, or bodkin, in his eye just so he could record what happened: “there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles… I continued to rub my eye [with the] bodkin.” In the eighteenth-century Sir Humpry Davy began a series of notorious experiments with nitrous oxide by delivering himself the first dose:

This evening… I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever — a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.

Sometimes, as with Davy, self-experimentation led to a moment of inspiration. Kary Mullins, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize for gene copy-technology, would often use LSD to create “a mind-opening experience… much more important than any courses I ever took.” Steve Jobs also called LSD “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.”

'The glow retreats, done is our day of toil; / It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring…' Nikola Tesla was reciting his Goethe poem when he saw his vision of alternating current.

Some of these inspirational hallucinations were undrugged and out of the blue. Nikola Tesla famously developed the self-starting alternating current motor after walking in a Budapest park and reading a passage of Goethe, when he was struck with a vision of a rotating magnetic field. While working on the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi had planned to induce radioactivity by shooting a lead target with neutrons, but at the last minute switched out the lead for paraffin for no apparent reason. “It was just like that,” he wrote, “no advanced warning, no conscious, prior reasoning.” For the first time, the experiment worked.

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that the secret to creativity was knowing how to hide one’s sources. Not because they were necessarily wrong, although fudged numbers were a part of Einstein’s success, but because the sources were often times unexplainable. One Nobel Prize winner described a “feeling of guilt about suppressing the part chance and good fortune played” in the work that earned him the holy grail of scientific acclaim.

Steve Jobs on LSD: 'one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.' The drug was popular among Silicon Valley pioneers.

“Scientific anarchy may not be beautiful,” writes Brooks, “but it gets the job done.” Free Radicals illuminates the role of the irrational in science, the mistakes that make scientists human, and reveals that breakthroughs that change our lives in the most fundamental ways may have the most serendipitous origins.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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