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.

How to simplify language for marketing (Part 1) [Updated]

a yellow pineapple to represent content marketing simplified

This is Part 1 of a four part series. See Part 2 on simplifying language.

In content marketing, clear and precise language translates into a powerful and resonant message. Clear language is often simple, but it’s not simple in the sense of being basic or subpar. We call language simple when it’s easy to understand and when it presents no difficulty of comprehension to the intended reader or audience. The audience can instantly grasp the message. Yet how an audience embraces this message often depends on their prior knowledge of the subject.


English grammar and usage manuals often use the terms clarity and grace in place of simplicity. Language that has clarity is coherent and intelligible, and as readers we do not need to strain our minds to understand a key idea or concept. The late English professor Joseph M. Williams argued that prior knowledge of a subject usually influences how we interact with a given idea or concept. As he says, “What counts most in comprehending a text is how much we already know about its content.” Text and message are interchangeable. If we know a lot about a subject, chances are we interact positively with the message because we understand its argument, whether we agree or disagree with its overall message. If we know little about the subject, and we’re reading a text that assumes we know a lot, we usually respond with irritation and confusion. We ultimately fail to comprehend the message because the writer assumed too much.


The amount we comprehend about a company and its message depends on our prior knowledge of not only the brand but the industry and its accompanying technical knowledge. When I land on Uber’s main home page, I see the following message: “Move the way you want.” The message uses freedom to appeal to both drivers and riders. As consumers we can hail an Uber ride whenever we want; as drivers we have the flexibility and freedom to work at our convenience. We comprehend Uber’s message because we know that Uber offers transportation, and when we connect freedom with transportation, we have a message that communicates convenience and ease.


When a product or service is more complex and technical, prior knowledge becomes a key pivot point because writers have to estimate how much information their readers need in order to understand a message. Yet when there is no product or service, but rather a technology, the issue magnifies the implications. Take cryptocurrency, for example, an innovative technology built on blockchain, which is a decentralized ledger recording all transactions across a peer network. I’m not an expert in cryptocurrency, but after reading about crypto and the industry, I find myself fixating on the idea that cryptocurrency is often defined as an encrypted string of data, at its most basic level. Go further into the construction of cryptocurrency, and the tech jargon piles up: algorithms, hash functions, and Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance (PBFT). Fittingly, the prefix “crypto” means secret or hidden.


If I don’t have a knowledge of encryption—or even a generalized conception of it—then it’s much harder for me to grasp a company’s message or white paper about cryptocurrency, particularly when they emphasize its encryption methods. In other words, my lack of prior knowledge hindered my comprehension of a fundamental concept operating in cryptocurrency.


Companies face a fundamental issue in their messaging materials when deciding how much knowledge their target audience must possess. Each community or target audience will possess unique bodies of knowledge, or “characteristic ways of thinking about problems, of making and evaluating arguments,” as Joseph M. Williams says. A doctor will confidently discuss with another doctor how a virus replicates within the human body because the doctor can safely assume that the other doctor attended medical school and knows that viruses are obligate intracellular pathogens that need a host cell to replicate. Both doctors are part of the same interpretive community.


If a doctor discusses the biology behind virus replication with a patient, chances are the patient does not have the same background to instantly (and I specifically say “instantly”) understand the full scope of the main message. The doctor would have to go back to basics to make sure the main message and concept of virus replication relay to the patient. To drive the cryptocurrency example home: a strong writer must juggle a concise but in-depth explanation of encryption while not diminishing or foregoing the main value points of cryptocurrency.


Each audience possess different knowledge sets that vary in scale. While people in IT most likely will have a deeper understanding of various encryption methods, and will better relate to a cryptocurrency message touting some unthinkable advantage over others, a different audience may not. The marketing fundamental, know your audience, is commonplace for a reason. And to those that say cryptocurrency does not have a target audience because it is a global currency, I would then put forth the argument that the audience is everyone. For crypto to become global and widespread, people with various backgrounds would need to know what it is.


In marketing a product or service, the ability to predict how much our audience knows can mean the difference between a sale and a bust. In other words, the rate at which we process a message is key. If an audience can quickly and almost instantly comprehend a company’s message in marketing collateral, then the message forges a strong identification with potential customers. And given that an audience’s attention span has decreased dramatically in the last decades as research has shown, there’s a limited window to craft a resonating message. Williams rightly says “that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see.” While there are other components to clear writing, the fundamental idea is that we want our audiences to hopefully use as many human senses as possible to experience a brand and message with clarity, despite the varying amounts of technical information needed to understand a given product and its industry.


Finding the right balance between knowing how much to assume as a writer is vital. Given that this balance is often different when writing a slogan or white paper, and varies according to each industry’s specifications and target audience, the right balance is often the difference between confusion and comprehension.*

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

How to simplify language (Part 1)

a yellow pineapple to represent content marketing simplified

In content marketing, clear and precise language translates into a powerful and resonant message. Clear language is often simple, but it’s not simple in the sense of being basic or subpar. We call language simple when it’s easy to understand and when it presents no difficulty of comprehension to the intended reader or audience. The audience can instantly grasp the message. Yet how an audience embraces this message often depends on their prior knowledge of the subject.


English grammar and usage manuals often use the terms clarity and grace in place of simplicity. Language that has clarity is coherent and intelligible, and as readers we do not need to strain our minds to understand a key idea or concept. The late English professor Joseph M. Williams argued that prior knowledge of a subject usually influences how we interact with a given idea or concept. As he says, “What counts most in comprehending a text is how much we already know about its content.” Text and message are interchangeable. If we know a lot about a subject, chances are we interact positively with the message because we understand its argument, whether we agree or disagree with its overall message. If we know little about the subject, and we’re reading a text that assumes we know a lot, we usually respond with irritation and confusion. We ultimately fail to comprehend the message because the writer assumed too much.


The amount we comprehend about a company and its message depends on our prior knowledge of not only the brand but the industry and its accompanying technical knowledge. When I land on Uber’s main home page, I see the following message: “Move the way you want.” The message uses freedom to appeal to both drivers and riders. As consumers we can hail an Uber ride whenever we want; as drivers we have the flexibility and freedom to work at our convenience. We comprehend Uber’s message because we know that Uber offers transportation, and when we connect freedom with transportation, we have a message that communicates convenience and ease.


When a product or service is more complex and technical, prior knowledge becomes a key pivot point because writers have to estimate how much information their readers need in order to understand a message. Yet when there is no product or service, but rather a technology, the issue magnifies the implications. Take cryptocurrency, for example, an innovative technology built on blockchain, which is a decentralized ledger recording all transactions across a peer network. I’m not an expert in cryptocurrency, but after reading about crypto and the industry, I find myself fixating on the idea that cryptocurrency is often defined as an encrypted string of data, at its most basic level. Go further into the construction of cryptocurrency, and the tech jargon piles up: algorithms, hash functions, and Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance (PBFT). Fittingly, the prefix “crypto” means secret or hidden.


If I don’t have a knowledge of encryption—or even a generalized conception of it—then it’s much harder for me to grasp a company’s message or white paper about cryptocurrency, particularly when they emphasize its encryption methods. In other words, my lack of prior knowledge hindered my comprehension of a fundamental concept operating in cryptocurrency.


Companies face a fundamental issue in their messaging materials when deciding how much knowledge their target audience must possess. Each community or target audience will possess unique bodies of knowledge, or “characteristic ways of thinking about problems, of making and evaluating arguments,” as Joseph M. Williams says. A doctor will confidently discuss with another doctor how a virus replicates within the human body because the doctor can safely assume that the other doctor attended medical school and knows that viruses are obligate intracellular pathogens that need a host cell to replicate. Both doctors are part of the same interpretive community.


If a doctor discusses the biology behind virus replication with a patient, chances are the patient does not have the same background to instantly (and I specifically say “instantly”) understand the full scope of the main message. The doctor would have to go back to basics to make sure the main message and concept of virus replication relay to the patient. To drive the cryptocurrency example home: a strong writer must juggle a concise but in-depth explanation of encryption while not diminishing or foregoing the main value points of cryptocurrency.


Each audience possess different knowledge sets that vary in scale. While people in IT most likely will have a deeper understanding of various encryption methods, and will better relate to a cryptocurrency message touting some unthinkable advantage over others, a different audience may not. The marketing fundamental, know your audience, is commonplace for a reason. And to those that say cryptocurrency does not have a target audience because it is a global currency, I would then put forth the argument that the audience is everyone. For crypto to become global and widespread, people with various backgrounds would need to know what it is.


In marketing a product or service, the ability to predict how much our audience knows can mean the difference between a sale and a bust. In other words, the rate at which we process a message is key. If an audience can quickly and almost instantly comprehend a company’s message in marketing collateral, then the message forges a strong identification with potential customers. And given that an audience’s attention span has decreased dramatically in the last decades as research has shown, there’s a limited window to craft a resonating message. Williams rightly says “that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see.” While there are other components to clear writing, the fundamental idea is that we want our audiences to hopefully use as many human senses as possible to experience a brand and message with clarity, despite the varying amounts of technical information needed to understand a given product and its industry.


Finding the right balance between knowing how much to assume as a writer is vital. Given that this balance is often different when writing a slogan or white paper, and varies according to each industry’s specifications and target audience, the right balance is often the difference between confusion and comprehension.*

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