Steve Jobs and the Digital Humanities

Note: when I started this post, a while ago, I intended to write a simple book review. At the end of the book, though, I was more and more thinking of the interest of transforming this book review into a small thinking about Digital Humanities. It explains the strange structure of this post.

The first computer I saw and used in my parent’s appartment was a Sinclair ZX 81 – a thing you had to program each time you wanted to use it. Then, we got a Thomson TO7. A French computer that the French schools had to buy to save the French firm Thomson – by order of the French State. Then, we started with Apple’s computers: an (excellent) Apple ][c first and, then, Macintoshes: Classic, Performa 6100 and my first own computer, a Performa 6400 AV. With the latter, I’ve learned to use Photoshop, Premiere, and set up my first database (with FileMaker Pro, of course). I then bought a PowerMac G4, at the begining of my PhD, in parallel with a series of second hands powerbooks.

During my PhD, my interest in computing changed. From a would-be (and very bad) designer, I had to turn my use of computers towards texts, databases, etc. I created my own bibliographic references database thanks to 4D. It was in 1999, and we saw at this time the rise of MySQL/PHP/Apache solutions. Free softwares started to be interesting for me and my computing practice. So, I tried Linux. It was not, at that time – more than a decade ago – an easy task to install Linux on a PowerPC. And it was not easy to set up a French AZERTY keyboard. But it was fun. Nonetheless, it became useless, when Apple released Mac OS X.

Mac OS X is a great OS. The first versions were slow, but I immediately had the impression to get the best of two worlds – Apple’s and Unix’s. The ability to install programs that run as command line or used XWindows graphic system as well as applications that are using Apple’s interface and functionalities is a great one. It was very clever to allow this. It was also a major change for Apple, towards a bit of openness. Nonetheless, today, I got back to GNU/Linux, using several flavour of, mainly, Ubuntu. The releases of the iPhone and the iPad are, for me, a return to close software. In the end, free software, since I’m working in the Digital Humanities field, became more and more important, as I see it as a condition to use digital tools in research (see the Digital Humanities manifesto1 and the conclusions of THATCamp Paris 20102).

Nevertheless, when Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs went out, I was curious about it and read the French version3.

A lack of method

I wrote a biography, about someone really different from Jobs4. So, I have some understanding for all authors of a biography. It is a hard task and sometimes a not realy gratefull one. But it’s methodologically a kind of writing that is well-known. Two things are suprising in Isaacson’s work: the lack of thinking about structures (God, that is a bad word) and the fact that Isaacson’s primary sources are almost only interviews.

It’s the structure, stupid!

What do I call structure? Well, here is how Bourdieu described the idea I have in mind concerning biography:

“Essayer de comprendre une vie comme une série unique et à soi suffisante d’événements successifs sans autre lien que l’association à un «sujet» dont la constance n’est sans doute que celle d’un nom propre, est à peu près aussi absurde que d’essayer de rendre raison d’un trajet dans le métro sans prendre en compte la structure du réseau, c’est-à-dire la matrice des relations objectives entre les différentes stations.”5

I’ve never interpreted Bourdieu’s Illussion biographique as a text that definitely dismiss biography as a genre – whether in history or in journalism. But it reminds us that we should take care of something more than just writing the history of a single person. A biography is not the history of a person. It is the history of a person in relation to the structures and to the other persons that are surrounding her/him.

With some rare exceptions, it seems that Isaacson more or less ignored this when he wrote his Jobs biography. It is a pity. As Max Weber reminds us6, someone is not charismatic (or a genius, or someone who changed your life, etc) per se, she is charismatic because some people, living in some society, see in her someone charismatic. That was precisely the case of Jobs: he was a charismatic computer’s industry leader because he precisely lived when and where this industry was born. In another period of time, in another country or state, would have he been that famous, that “revolutionnary”?7. Nothing’s sure. In fact, Isaacson wrote the biography of a first name and of a familly name. Nothing more. And it’s disappointing.

Primary sources

Another lack of Isaacson’s biography is the primary sources he used to write the book: more than 40 interviews. I’m not that kind of historian who thinks that oral history is not really history. That would be very contradictory with my own practice. But interviews are not enough. Steve Jobs asked Walter Isaacson to write this biography. Why didn’t Isaacson ask Jobs in return the right to consult Apple’s archive? It was a unique occasion to have access to private and original sources! And it would have forced Isaacson to be more nuanced on some points, including the story of the 1985 Jobs eviction. This story is written like a social drama movie – with even the bad guy (French, of course) – but, well, in real life and in primary sources, it is rare that things appear to be like in a social drama movie.

Clichés and no critical point of view

The methodological lacks of this biography led Walter Isaacson to systematically use some cliché-words: “genious”, “revolution”, etc. There isn’t any reflexion on what those words mean or if those clichés – that the Apple Marketing is very good at pushing forward – really corresponded to the reality. Did the iPad really changed our lives? Isaacson assumed that it was the case, but did not investigate if it was true. And, if ever the answer is positive, in what extent it really changed our lives?

Furthermore, Isaacson takes for granted large parts of the official Apple communication. Steve Jobs invented tablets? Invented smartphones? Invented MP3 players? Invented cloud computing? Good smartphones existed before the iPhone (yes, really). Tablets existed before the iPad. Good MP3 players did exist. I’m not meaning that Apple’s products were bad. On the contrary, it’s sure that Apple’s products are often better done for the users. The iPod, for instance, allowed users to use a straight forward interface, thanks to the fact that some functionalities were better assumed by the computer when the iPod was connected to it. That was the idea of the computer or, more recently, the cloud as digital hub.

Globally, what Isaacson is missing, is that innovation does not rely on a single man or on a single firm. That’s for propaganda. It relies on a larger economic and cultural ecosystem.

But, still, the biography have some interesting points. And here come the Digital Humanities

Steve Jobs often reminded to his show’s audience that Apple was at the crossroad between computing and arts/humanities. This is what we’re doing today – if we accept this very large definition – in Digital Humanities. And that’s probably why I sticked so many years to Mac OS.

But the way Apple is mixing both is unwholesome – that’s what strikes me the most in this biography, even if it is not at all the intent of the author. Apple aims at imposing behaviours and at imprisoning its users. Unfortunatly, a golden jail is still a jail. The iPad is closed. It does, surely, guarantee the global coherence of this device, thanks to a close integration between hardware and software. But, as it was shown with iBooks Authors8, Apple goes far beyond guaranteeing the coherence of its device, imposing the author to use Apple’s own bookstore if he  wants to use the .ibooks format.

The way Digital Humanities should mix Humanities and Computing is different. It’s the open way, that includes open access, open source, and open format. We don’t want to imprison data, or to imprison people’s work into a golden jail. It’s what the Digital Humanities Manifesto, that was collectively written, is rightly stating9.

  1. « Manifeste des Digital humanities ». ThatCamp Paris 2010 2010. Web. 15 févr. 2012, especially article 9 and 10 []
  2. Clavert, Frédéric. « Atelier conclusif (Frédéric Clavert et Björn-Olav Dozo) ». ThatCamp Paris 25 mai 2010. Web. 18 juill. 2012. []
  3. Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. [Paris]: JC Lattès, 2011. Print. []
  4. Clavert, Frédéric. Hjalmar Schacht, financier et diplomate: 1930-1950. Bruxelles: PIE – Peter Lang, 2009. Print. []
  5. Bourdieu, Pierre. « L’illusion biographique ». Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 62-63.62-63 (1986): 69‑72. Print. []
  6. For instance in Weber, Max, Le savant et le politique. Paris: Plon, 1982. Print. []
  7. Yes, I’m using quotation marks because I’m a bit tired of the revolutionnary vocabulary used to describe the computing industry []
  8. See the official FAQ. []
  9. « Manifeste des Digital humanities ». ThatCamp Paris 2010 2010. Web. 15 févr. 2012. []

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