How progressive was Steve Jobs?

a photo of Steve jobs to show apple content marketing tactics

It’s become a Silicon Valley mantra and platitude to hear of Apple’s early commitment to technology and the humanities. As Steve Jobs proclaimed, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” As the nuptial metaphor implies, there are many marriages occurring between the sciences and the humanities. Deciding if they are marriages of equality or disproportion reveal the extent of Jobs’s progressive vision for the humanities in technology.


Walter Isaacson’s best-selling book, Steve Jobs (2011), documents Jobs’s unique approach to technology. According to Isaacson, the path to the humanities began when Jobs took a calligraphy course at Reed College, which he first attended and then left, later dropping in on classes he preferred. One of the classes, calligraphy, introduced Jobs to “serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, [and] about what makes typography great.” In calligraphy Jobs found an activity that relied on intuition, perception, and aesthetics; this class was something altogether different than science classes.


Throughout Isaacson’s book, it’s easy to catch his appreciation and fascination for Jobs. In places Isaacson seems to praise Jobs’s conception of the humanities, noting that in “his products, technology would be married to great design, elegance, human touches, and even romance.” Like Jobs, Isaacson extends the nuptial metaphor, perhaps seeing a reflection of his own interests in Jobs. After receiving a B.A. in history and literature from Harvard, Isaacson attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. At Harvard, Isaacson was known as “the mayor of literary Harvard,” undergoing a now famous interview for the Rhodes scholarship from Willie Morris and Bill Clinton.


Isaacson’s appreciation for philosophy and literature led him to write biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. Jobs read Isaacson’s biography of Franklin––and he liked it. Isaacson recounts how Jobs came to his book event in Palo Alto and assuredly stated that he “would make a good subject” for a biography. Jobs mentioned to Isaacson his love of Edwin Land, the Polaroid founder, and about the “importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences.” After Jobs finished offering Isaacson possible themes for his biography, Isaacson had begun to notice how his previous biographies were indeed stories of the humanities and the sciences combining in one individual to form creative potential.


But here is where the similarities, when examined closely, become the differences. For Einstein, the humanities occupied the sphere of values and morals. Einstein believed the humanities taught others to understand “the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings.” The humanities and education provided human beings with “independent critical thinking” and the ability to appreciate the “spirit on which all cultural life depends.” Seeing the humanities as a bridge that developed empathy and the ability to connect with other human beings, Einstein believed that as a discipline it developed judgement, critical thinking, collaborative values, and communicative skills.


Jobs saw the humanities as a field that encompasses art and design, a discipline that is attentive to beauty, moods, feelings, and aesthetics. In one way, it’s possible to say that Jobs also saw the humanities as a mode of connection between people, but it’s more accurate to say that Jobs saw the humanities as a way to build a bridge between people and an inanimate technological product. It’s revealing that smartphone use and the growing distance between human-to-human connections have resulted in disruptive romantic and family relationships, underscoring a destructive effect that technology has on the human values Einstein praised.


Many are quick to point out the irony when considering Einstein alongside the humanities, noting that Einstein had a hand in the design of the nuclear bomb. Yet Einstein was the one who sent Roosevelt a letter declaring that the Nazis had an atomic bomb. In the 1940s, Roosevelt denied U.S. scientists working on the nuclear bomb from speaking to Einstein due to his political activism. Roosevelt even refused Einstein the right to work on the Manhattan Project, America’s attempt to build an atomic bomb. Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 explains the relationship between energy and matter, but it does not explain how to build an atomic bomb.


For Einstein, the humanities were not a means to an end, but an end in itself, used to better understand the connections between our lives and others. Even Franklin, as Isaacson explains, “espoused a kindly humanism that emphasized the somewhat sentimental (but still quite real) earthly goal of ‘doing good’ for his fellow man.” There are some similarities between Franklin and Jobs, but Jobs was not a humanitarian, and though giving to charities and helping others are not necessarily exclusive indicators of overall human goodness, the extent of Jobs’s humanism is certainly up for question and criticism.


Though Jobs did not see the depth of the humanities as holistically as Einstein and Franklin, he did progress the idea of the humanities and the sciences to Silicon Valley. Jobs’s nuptial metaphor most closely evokes the humanities and technology mixing, uniting, and forming a union together––albeit in a plain, reductive way. In a time when skills are shifting from knowing to thinking and problem-solving, Jobs’s statement about the humanities and technology holds potential that can be developed even more. Perhaps a first step to unifying the humanities and the sciences is to remember that both knowledge categories, disciplines, and methodologies came from philosophy.*

*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the companies mentioned.

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