From the 1960s through the 1980s,the United States of America conducted a long experiment in ugliness. Our architects grew bored with beauty,our designers tired of elegance,our urban planners decided that function should trump form. We bulldozed row houses and threw up housing projects. We built public buildings out of raw concrete. We wore leisure suits and shoulder pads,buried heart-of-pine floors under shag carpeting,and panelled our automobiles with artificial wood.
This is the world in which Steve Jobs came of age. It was,not coincidentally,a world in which it became easy to believe that the United States was in decline. Our churches looked like recreation centres,and our rec centres looked like re-education camps. Our campuses and civic spaces were defaced by ziggurats of cement. Our cities had crime-ridden towers and white elephant shopping centres where the neighbourhoods used to be. Our suburbs were filled with what James Howard Kunstler described as the junk architecture of strip malls and ranch houses.
Then,gradually and haltingly,beauty began to make a comeback. A new urbanist movement championed a return to walkable neighborhoods,human-scale housing,and pleasant public spaces. Our clothes became less garish,our cars more curvaceous,our civic architecture less offensive. And most remarkably,our machines ceased to be utilitarian boxes,and became something beautiful instead.
When we think about what Jobs meant to turn-of-the-millennium America,this is the place to start: with the Apple founders eye for grace and style,and his recognition of the deep connection between beauty and civilisation.
There would have been some sort of desktop computer without the Macintosh,some sort of popular smartphone without the iPhone,some kind of big-screen computer animation without Pixar. But there was no guarantee that any of these technological wonders would be so exquisite,or that the age of information would also be an age of artistry. Jobs wasnt an artist himself. But he was a curator,a critic and a patron. Whether he was deciding that the first Macintosh computer would feature beautiful typography or telling Pixars animators to make it great, he played a decisive role in restoring a kind of defiant aestheticism to American life.
Like the glories of Art Deco,his products were a rebuke to the idea that the aesthetics of modern life needed to be utilitarian and blah. From the Apple store to The Incredibles,Jobs revived the romance of modernity the assumption,shared by Victorian science-fiction writers and space-age dreamers alike,that the world of the future should be more glamorous than the present.
The question is whether this revival has staying power. The age of architectural Brutalism is past,but between the travails of planning-by-committee and the red tape of bureaucracy,civic projects still tend to be uninspired in design and interminable in execution. For all its successes,the new urbanism sometimes feels more like a reclamation project than a renaissance: its saved the houses of yesterday without building the neighbourhoods of tomorrow.
So too with technology,where some of the eulogies for Jobs have highlighted the gulf between the computer revolutions rapid progress and the lack of advancement in fields like medicine and transportation. The iPhone and the iPad may be aesthetically perfect,but in an otherwise stagnant society their charms can be an invitation to solipsism holding up mirrors to our vanity,instead of opening windows to breakthroughs more impressive than the latest app.
You can see a version of this peril in our politics as well. In a sense,Barack Obamas 2008 march to the White House was the iPhone of political campaigns: a perfect marriage of aesthetics,spectacle and social media,a revival of the old New Frontier excitement,the natural culmination of glamours post-1970s comeback in American life. But three years later much of that looks like an illusion.
Right now,Steve Jobss legacy seems more secure than President Obamas. (Certainly his fan base is less fickle.) But theres still a danger that well look back on Apples golden age and see it as a fleeting creative spike in a larger story of cultural decline.
Whether that happens is up to tomorrows innovators. If they learn anything from Jobs,it should be that their vocation isnt just about uniting commerce and technology. Its about making the modern world more beautiful as well.
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