small medium large xlarge

Shady Illuminations

The CEO of No

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  In which John contemplates the asymptote of the austere aesthetics of Steve Jobs.  

Subjugation to tyranny is never obligatory, although it can be extremely convenient. Even comforting.

Apple counts on this.

Apple sells convenience and comfort. That this is sometimes the comfort of a walled garden is something that Apple’s customers generally accept with equanimity. So I guess it works for them. OK, I admit it: for us.

But now and then Apple comes down on the side of the rebel. Apple’s iPhone OS has not really overthrown what Ted Nelson called the Tyranny of the File, but it has made it easier to flout it.

Ted might be pleased, though I somehow doubt it. Similarly, Jef Raskin, who invented the Macintosh only to see Steve Jobs turn it into something drastically different, who left Apple to design a machine that more or less did everything you needed it to do using only one file, would have seen the irony.

Apple didn’t hide the iPhone OS file system for Ted’s reasons. Ted deplored the single vision of file systems that force you to think of all your stuff in this and only this way, and to view the universe through a false hierarchy.

Keep It Simple, ’Cause We’re Stupid

Apple was dealing with complexity.

Beyond a certain threshold of complexity, structure becomes indistinguishable from randomness. From there on, you either accept that some of the structure has moved outside the cone of accessibility, or you search. For the average user, that threshold lies between three and four files, according to serious research.

So Apple hid the hierarchical file system. Clarity through obfuscation. Sort of like the portlessness of the iPad: the device isn’t ignorant of USB, it just doesn’t want to talk about it.

This what Steve Jobs does. He finds things to say no to. Some CEOs are takeover masters; Jobs is a takeaway master. The CEO of No.

The tyranny of files is just one case of the reification of metaphors. We mistake concepts for things. The stench of reification permeates our field: you can’t go for a stroll without stepping in a patch of it. Object-oriented thinking took too well, leaving malodorous deposits in places it was never meant to range. We swim in a sea of abstractions, and we ought to learn how to deal with them directly, rather than trying to recreate physical bookshelves on an iPad. The machinery of our culture has traded moving parts for altered states, and we should embrace the abstraction.

Which brings me back to Apple’s CEO, who dropped acid, made a pilgrimage to India, and once lived in a mansion with no furniture. Some say.

John’s Dream

I have a dream.

My dream is that Steve Jobs has not yet fully embraced his inner Buddhist. Deep down, I suspect that he wants to move beyond the colorful eye candy and give the customers a stark Zen garden experience, centered on the message of negative space. He wants us to realize the beauty of minimalism, the joy of No. He just hasn’t figured out yet how to convince us that we want it.

But when he decides to go for it, I have the perfect language for Apple’s developers to code it in.

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland on a cloudy day in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He has still not forgiven LA electro-pop band Fol Chen for promising him a fortune but never delivering.

Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.