Steve Jobs’s Low-Tech High-Tech Aesthetic

With Steve Jobs sadly stepping down from his position at Apple, there have been numerous early tributes and appreciations. Little known to many, however, is the connection between Jobs’s extraordinary success in the world of high tech and business, and his exposure to, of all things, one of the most “useless” of the fine arts, the ancient aesthetic of calligraphy.

Jobs overlapped briefly with my wife when both were students at Reed College in the early 1970s, a time when Reedies were notable for their commitment to both sexual freedom and dropping acid (the horror, the horror!), as well as a fierce intellectuality combined with fascination with the medieval, baroque, and renaissance. I dunno about the sex and drugs, but the latter focus was powerfully influenced by noted art professor Lloyd Reynolds, who single-handedly generated a calligraphic culture that permeated the school … and not just the Art Department. Thus, during Reynolds’ reign, it was not uncommon for senior theses in mathematical cosmology, political science, or ethnomusicology to be introduced by an extended illuminated manuscript of the sort that might otherwise grace pages coming out of a medieval scriptorium.

It happens that Steve Jobs spent some time at Reed (not very much, and, like Bill Gates at Harvard, he never bothered to graduate), but during his stay he—like so many other Reedies—found himself entranced by Professor Lloyd Reynolds and his calligraphic art. Here are Jobs’ own words, in a 2005 commencement address at Stanford:

I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.

And as it turns out, one of the special appeals of the Mac was that it offered users the potential to vary fonts at will. To an extent that we’ll probably never know, the success of the computer revolution may thus have been a specific consequence of an ancient, arcane aesthetic, channeled by a brilliant and charismatic teacher.

Incidentally, Professor Reynolds had been a member of the Young Communist League in his youth (the horror, the horror! yet again), and had refused to name names before the egregious House Un-American Activities Committee, as a result of which he was suspended by Reed College, then eventually reinstated.

For a video of Professor Reynolds doing his beautiful thing, click here.

I’ve never been especially fond of the argument that we should preserve rainforests, for example, because some day we might discover cancer-curing drugs therein; they deserve continuance, in my opinion, simply because they are part of the wonderful diversity of the natural world and regardless of whether they contribute directly to human flourishing. By the same token, I’m not convinced that humanities programs merit continuance because they make us better thinkers or better computer designers, but rather, because they are part of the wonderful diversity of the human-generated world.

Nonetheless, as debate swirls around the justification and place of the fine arts in college and university curricula, the connection between Steve Jobs, computer advanced and “useless” humanities programs such as calligraphy shouldn’t be ignored.

[image from Wikimedia]

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