Infinite Loop 24: Mac Philosophy Part One: Steve Jobs’ Philosophiocal Background

I have been practicing for about two
years what has come to be called “Mac philosophy.”
Some see it as silly; others as a fascinating sideshow,
but not serious. But I think Steve Jobs gets it. Much
of the digs aimed at Jobs are based in this fact:
They fail to see he is a serious thinker, in fact,
a philosopher in his own right. There are solid historical
reasons for saying this, though it will take me a
while to get there.

Please understand that I am working
my way through issues which I find innately interesting.
If someone wants to join along that is fine with me.
If I am the only one who thinks like this, that is
fine with me too. I have no idea where my thinking
will take me. I am still trying to just figure out
if the way some of us talk about the Mac makes any
sense. I am convinced some of it is sensible; and
I am convinced other parts are not sensible. I am
on a journey, a journey I think Jobs has taken way
back when.

Today I want to talk about why I think
it is a valid pursuit. That is, I want to talk about
the motivations for doing Mac philosophy in the first
place. In this series I will look at general issues
surrounding the practice, and try, in baby steps,
to arrive at the principles of a Mac philosophy. We
will look at Steve Jobs, Macs, Buddhism, and many
other issues. This is part apologia for the
practice of Mac philosophy, and an explication, if
I can do it, of its basic principles and outlook.
If done right we might get a glimpse inside the mind
of Steve Jobs. Maybe, anyway …

Why Mac Philosophy?

I thought it was about time to actually
try to state some tenets of what we might call “Mac
philosophy.” This is part defense and part clarification,
mind you. One point I will make below is that Steve
Jobs himself has a “Mac philosophy.” It might not
be the same as mine, but he has one. We all do really.

Now when I say “tenet” I mean several
things. First, I mean the assumptions that underpin
the practice of Mac philosophy in the first place.
In other words, other than merely being a philosopher
who loves the Mac, what would motivate one to actually
engage in the practice? That is what I want to address
in this article. There are four reasons, with Steve
Jobs himself figuring large in one of them.

(1) Many behind
the scenes on the Mac Web, and Apple Computer, are themselves
philosophically trained or oriented towards such thinking
I will talk about Steve Jobs later. Right now, I am
thinking of webmasters, editors, publishers, writers,
and others, who come to the Mac with a philosophical
sense. I can tell you that some behind the scenes on
the Mac Web are very bright, smart, well-read people,
especially in philosophy. Bryan Chaffin over at MacObserver
has dabbled in objectivist
; Dan Knight over at LowEndMac
has some formal training in philosophy from Calvin College
and is comfortable using words like “foundationalism“;
Charles W. Moore at AppleLinks,
while lacking formal training, is very well-read in
matters theo-philosophical. Also, one time I emailed
a webmaster about my “Losing
Myself in OS X
” column, which was very philosophical.
To my surprise, and joy, he wrote back saying “I was
just reading Heidegger for about three hours and this
seem to fit my mood.” Reading Heidegger
for three hours?! The list goes on.

So the point is that the Mac Web presents
us with a ready-made audience for something we might
call “Mac philosophy.” It’s a way of saying “I am
not the only one.” This group of webmasters, writers,
and editors is a bright group. Most are anyway. To
some, it seems only natural that there would even
exist something we might call a “Mac philosophy” site
like, and they haven’t even blinked
an eye at it.

(2) There is another reason for why I
started engaging in the practice: Mac
users say the most interesting things!
about it. We hear statements like “I love my Mac!”,
“The Mac is a piece of art”, “My Mac has a personality”
and of course “The Mac is more than a tool.” All of
these are interesting statements which at first sight
(or hearing), appear absurd in some cases. I mean, is
it rational to express “love” for an inanimate object
like a computer? If my Mac has a “personality” then
what sense can be made of saying I am person (or computer)?
Or that my cat is a person? And what is art and beauty
anyway, such that we say that the Mac captures them?
And what is a “tool”? Is
the Mac just a machine
? (I think it is most definitely
not, by the way.)

The point is that one might never engage
in what we call “Mac philosophy” if Mac users themselves
did not antecedently say the most interesting things
about the Mac. It presents me with plenty of fertile
ground upon which to plant my philosophical seeds.
So keep talking everyone, you are giving me a lot
to think about.

(3) And forget about simply saying
interesting things about the Mac. A whole culture
has grown around the Mac and Apple which at times
rises to the level of religion. While I am making
philosophical assumptions when I say this, I will
say it anyway: Apple is not
just a company that produces just a computer, it is
cultural phenomenon, and cultural phenomena are things
that interest me as a philosopher
. Why has
this happened? Why do some feel so strongly about
the Mac? What characterizes the Mac Community, as
Community, in the first place? If we can answer
these questions we might learn something about ourselves
as the quirky and peculiar species we are. I think
that the fact that there is such an Apple cultural
phenomenon speaks a great deal about us, as well as
the Mac.

The Jobs Factor

And now I turn to Steve Jobs. Most
of know his bio pretty well. We know he was adopted
and met Woz at HP. We know that he entered Reed
, in Portland, OR, in 1972. Reed is a private
humanities school. It was founded by a Unitarian minister
who asked the Reeds, a private local, wealthy family,
to donate their wealth to improving culture through
education. It has a strong Classics emphasis and provides
an environment for students to explore the world through
learning and independent study. It is a casual, though
affluent, school, and Jobs did have trouble fitting
in with his middle class background.

The current faculty of the philosophy
department includes some rather well-known philosophers,
albeit in a smallish department. But if current faculty
is any indication, the faculty back in 1972-73 when
Jobs was there would have been first-rate. The religion
department is just as good. I will say more on this
later in another column as I have contacted the school
to see just what Jobs took while there.

He went there in 1972. But he dropped
out after a semester. Yet this is not the whole story.
He dropped out of Reed’s program but stayed
on campus for a year. In fact, the reason Jobs stayed
at Reed at all was because, he said, after visiting
it, “nobody knew what they were going to do. They
were trying to find out about life.”

After Reed, Jobs went to India with
a friend, Dan Kottke. They went to meet Neem Karoli
Baba, a popular Indian ashram. But he had died. So,
as Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine again say, “they
drifted around India, reading and talking about philosophy”
(p. 261). You get the feeling that Jobs had something
bothering him; he had the itch, the crave, the desire
to understand, and it took him all the way to India.
He was serious about it. But he is serious about everything
and seems to devote himself wholly to any pursuit.

Think about it. He was adopted. This
means he may have doubted himself early in his life.
Why is he here? Is he alone, thrown into the universe
on his own to make due? Is he existentially guilty
of something? Did he sense a lack of coherence and
peace in his soul? Was he fearful that the universe
lacked meaning? These are the questions he asked,
maybe. They are the philosopher’s questions. He was
developing a philosophy. And he developed one. He
still has it if his vegetarianism is any clue. It
almost seems, in fact, that Jobs faced a dilemma:
He would either master a mysterious world or it would
master him. He seems to have chosen the former.

With this as background, let me put
the point like this: I think Jobs has a philosophy
of life he brings to the Mac and Apple. It is one
he developed primordially at Reed, and further in
India. He is not trained as a businessman. He doesn’t
have an MBA. If in fact he studied philosophy as much
as we read he has, then he knows full well that he
cannot divorce his philosophical pursuits from his
business pursuits. Philosophy doesn’t work that way,
and he is serious enough to know that (unlike many
who comment on him). Despite all of its abstraction,
philosophy remains a real-world pursuit in which one
deeply engages his world in practical ways; it influences
and permeates every facet of one’s life when it is
done right. And Jobs tries to do everything right.

So I think he brings a different set
of principles to the table at Apple. For that matter,
he brings them to the computer industry as a whole.
(I mean really, has Michael Dell ever wrestled with
Plato or Nietzsche?) I am not sure what they are (Buddhism
gives us many clues), but I am sure they are there.
What I am saying is that what
distinguishes Jobs from Gates, Dell and the rest (all
of them), is that he is the only philosopher in the
bunch and this is what makes him, and Apple, different.
If the others are philosophers in any remote sense,
then they are bad ones. In fact, “Thinking Different”
is a distinctively philosophical act, based in thinking
about possibilities, and Jobs knows this
. When
Jobs urges us to “think different” I think
he is urging us to think philosophically.

So if we are to emulate (poor choice
of words but I can’t think of any other), Apple and
Steven P. Jobs, then we’d better be serious thinkers
too. Thinking different is not buffoonery and idiocy,
or just being different for its own sake, so that
one can stand out in a crowd and play the town fool.
These are the very things Jobs despises, I bet. No,
he is a serious thinker, a serious person, who went
all the to India, and has changed his lifestyle and
diet in pursuit of a way of life. A way of life. A
way of life! Philosophy. And I think the way the company
is run and the kinds of products it produces evidence
his own philosophy; that is, both are based in principles
larger than mere accounting ledgers.

So why do I engage in “Mac philosophy”?
I do so not only because Mac people are so open to
it, being a fairly bright group, or because they say
the most interesting things, or because the Mac cultural
phenomenon is so interesting to me. No, I don’t engage
in it just because of these. I do so because
NOT to do so is downright anti-Apple, if Steve Jobs
is to be our model of what an archetypal Mac user

Next time we will look at some further
aspects of Mac philosophy, and tie it with some elements
of what Jobs’ view might be, namely, we will look
at how the elements of Buddhism might be incorporated
into things like iMacs and iBooks.

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