Thursday, 6 October 2011

Steve and me

The death of Steve Jobs only just appeared in this morning’s papers and I’ve not read any of the obituaries or comments so I’ve no idea if I’m saying anything original or it’s already a cliché.

I’ll head straight to my conclusion. The fact is, I feel better for Steve Jobs’ death. Liberated, almost. Maybe now, I can escape Apple jail. Maybe I’m alone. Or maybe there are lots of us.

I’ll explain.

The first time I ever saw an Apple computer was sometime in the 1980s. I fell in love. It was in a producer friend’s home studio. It not only did the things I’d dreamed computers would do when I was a kid in thrall to Dan Dare and his future. It did them in a cool way I hadn’t even dreamed of. It was like Dan Dare had somehow had a side career in, say, a rock band.

Which, of course, was both kind of the truth about Apple. And kind of the shtick. (Which is, again, of course, where this story is eventually going.)

I decided right away that this was the computer I wanted. Till I could have one of these, I’d rather struggle on with my IBM Selectric — itself a dream machine, which made a noise like an assault rifle as you typed, turning the act of writing into a cousin of urban warfare. I still miss that noise.

(The machine itself is in a cupboard, along with its predecessor, an Olivetti Lettra 32, the portable choice of real war correspondents. Maybe I should have them buried with me. Or, as I want to be cremated, burned. I wonder if you’re allowed to do that.)

So I never bothered with Amstrads or shit like that. I waited till the price came down far enough for me to be able to afford one. Which, eventually, it did.

But, before that happened, Steve Jobs had already entered my life, revolutionised it even. I just happened to be around, in a position of relative responsibility, on the first magazine in the UK to move to Apples and what was then known as ‘full-page make-up’. It was, believe it or not, Punch, that repository — and butt — of old jokes.

So, overnight, I became something of an expert on Apples. That is, I was one page in the manual ahead of most everyone else. Soon, very soon, I was hired by The Guardian — mostly on account of this Rizla-thin skill — to help it reinvent itself for the 1990s. Difficult to believe as it may seem from this distance, but it had been hit hard the arrival of the Independent five years earlier — and still hadn’t figured out what to do. (This is not unusual at The Guardian. It is currently clearly foundering financially — dropping £30 million a year, while still paying its editor a few monkeys short of £500,000 — and pushing for accountability on executive salaries in other businesses.)

Anyway, as a result of this I became a true believer — an Applostle, perhaps. And, eventually, by semantic process, an Applostate, maybe.

As a fan, I proselytised for Apple, telling anyone who’d listen how superior an operating system it was to the clunk world of PCs. I also, for a while, had access to a NeXT machine — the test-bed for many of the great things that appeared on Apples, too, once Apple had brought Jobs back into the fold (and bought out NeXT).

Eventually, I stopped talking about it, coming to believe, I guess, that if people couldn’t see the difference with their own eyes, they certainly weren’t going to hear it through their ears. I never swayed from using Apples, though, even when the build-quality of their software tested my resolve to its limits.

Skulking around in the back of my mind, though, was something new, some kind of reserve. That was the real reason I became more reticent.

And the source of that reserve I realised was Steve Jobs — though that took even longer to realise. First of all, I became embarrassed at my own applosticity. An Apple computer was, after all, just another product. How could I have an emotional relationship to it? (I know, I know, that’s the story of modern capitalism but we all like to believe we’re different, don’t you.)

I started to see smugness and entitlement in Apple users — though never in myself, of course, ha, ha. Next, I read the court judgment on Apple vs Apple. It’s a fascinating piece. Long, though. Essentially, to my mind, the evidence all tilted the Beatles’ way. The Jobs lawyers presented a case of such casuistry that they could have as well been arguing over angels and pinheads. It was the kind of case I would have made up if I was having a laugh.

But they got away with it , for one simple reason. Or, rather, one simple person. Neil Aspinall — who ran the Beatles’ Apple. His evidence was such that there were only two plausible alternatives. One, he was a complete idiot. Two, he was pretending to be a complete idiot.

The judge — clearly a highly competent man — fell victim to the reverse Dunning-Kruger effect. That is, his own competence rendered him incapable of seeing others’ incompetence. He decided Aspinall was a liar rather than an idiot. The truth is, he was the latter. He had no idea of what was going on, no understanding of computers etc etc.

I was, though, more or less repulsed by the approach of Jobs’ lawyers. I know lawyers are meant to be devious etc but I just couldn’t stomach this for some reason— probably because it made me feel an idiot for ever having been a believer.

Then I went into an Apple store and, fuck it, it felt like church. If I ever do have to go into an Apple store, I have to breathe myself through the experience.

The last straw — see how emotion brings clichés to the fore of my brain — was seeing one of Jobs’ presentations. They were like — and here we go into the inexorable relationship between length of posting and likelihood of a Third Reich analogy — a Nuremberg rally. I sometimes think what I loathed most about the couple of the I watched was Steve Jobs clothes. That and the fact that — although he had made great computers — he seemed to be a quite loathsome human being, self-satisfied, arrogant etc etc. The fact that everyone there seemed to love it was even more distressing.

I guess that’s what happens when you fall out of love. You fall into hate. One projection replaces another.

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