Steve, Myself And i: The Big Story Of A Little Prefix
TERRY GROSS, host: Steve Jobs always believed that technology required the point of view of the liberal arts. It's a vision encapsulated in the products he introduced, from the Macintosh, to the iPod, iPhone and others that bore the prefix i. According to FRESH AIR's linguist, Geoff Nunberg, that prefix stands in for a vision that is coming of age throughout the world of technology.
GEOFF NUNBERG: Steve Jobs did his last product launch last March, for the iPad 2. At the close, he stood in front of a huge picture of a sign showing the intersection of streets called Technology and Liberal Arts.
It was an abiding ideal for Jobs, the same one that had drawn him to make his famous 1979 visit to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or Xerox PARC for short. That was where a group of artistically minded researchers had developed the graphical user interface, or GUI, which Apple's developers were to incorporate into the Lisa and the Macintosh a few years later.
The interfaces bundled pretty much everything we take for granted now: the mouse and windows, icons and pop-up menus, bitmapped displays where what you saw was what you got, point-and-click and drag-and-drop. Suddenly, operating a computer could be an aesthetic experience. Who knew?
I wound up at PARC myself a few years after Jobs' visit. The director, John Seely Brown, was bringing in linguists, anthropologists, psychologists and even philosophers and artists, the idea being that no technology as intensely social as this one should be entrusted to engineers to figure out. It made for a lively lunchroom, and we got to use these workstations that were more sophisticated than anything Apple would be selling for the next 15 years.
But in those days, the Xerox Corporation was a complacent office-equipment company that had no idea how to get most of its researchers' insights out the door. It was left to Apple to make a first installment of that vision accessible to a wide public. With just 128k of memory, the first Macintosh landed with a modest thump, not the crash of a hammer. But the echo is still audible.
The second installment of that vision would have to wait until Jobs returned to Apple in the late '90s. In the meantime, the Internet had come of age, chewing up a succession of prefixes along the way. First there was cyber, which conjured up the opening sequence of "Star Trek," a vast universe on the other side of the screen that we could cruise from our own private holodecks. Then came e. The image here looked less like "Star Trek" than "Mall Rats," with virtual arcades lined with virtual businesses purveying virtual wares. But after a while, the boundaries between online and offline got blurry: Where do the real banks and newspapers leave off and their e-clones begin?
Then finally, there was i. The prefix had actually been in circulation for several years before Apple adopted it for those gumdrop-colored iMacs that Jobs introduced in 1999. It was originally meant to stand for Internet. But the meaning of a product name isn't something you fix in advance. It has to accumulate bit by bit, like dust bunnies. And by the time that prefix was fleshed out, Apple had transformed itself from a culty computer-maker to a major religion. Or anyway, that was the impression you got from the global surge of sentiment that was evoked by Jobs' death.
A lot of that feeling was rooted in the obsessive attachment that people form with their i-devices, particularly the mobile iPods, iPhones and iPads. In a period when others saw personal technology becoming a mere commodity, Jobs showed how to make high-tech appliances that were as easy to fetishize as a Rolex watch. That obviously owed a lot to Apple's genius for design, from the interface and hardware down to those nested white boxes.
But the i-devices are more than just elegant and easy to use. They also invite fondling, even when they're hidden away in your pocket. In a way, they're less like a Swiss watch than a blankie or night-night, those transitional objects that children clutch to allay their separation anxiety.
There's a bit of that in every cell phone, but the i-objects are standing in not just for absent loved ones, but absent music collections, TV shows, restaurant reviews, driving directions and baseball scores, not to mention those angry avians. We don't think of those things as floating out in cyberspace anymore. They're right here, literally on hand.
The i-devices pushed the Internet out of our consciousness. Nobody's separated from anything anymore. Make that i for inseparable, or immanent. When you think of the digital phenomena that have changed the face of daily life over the last 15 years or so, the breakthroughs are less technological than social. There are things like the iTunes store and the App store, blogs and Twitter, Craigslist and Wikipedia, social networks and Internet dating. Or just think of the way cheap cell phones are shaping popular political movements or helping African fishermen find out which port is paying the most for their catch. This isn't just about hardware and software anymore.
It isn't just about computer science anymore, either. That isn't where you go to find out how technology changes people's lives or where it fails them, or how to make it less intrusive and more humane. Those are the questions people are taking up at the schools of information that have sprung up at research universities like UCLA, Toronto and Washington. As it happens, they're called iSchools. It's a different i, but it, too, stands in for a connection between technology and the social world.
I wound up at the one at Berkeley, surrounded by another mix of anthropologists, historians and legal scholars, with techies and humanists to fill out the ends of the lunch table. But nowadays, it isn't odd to find technology and liberal arts intersecting on the campuses of Google and Microsoft, either. Jobs knew better than anyone that it's a bit trickier to make the final leap to artistry. But we're closer to his vision. As Victor Hugo might have put it, nothing is as powerful as an I whose time has come.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.
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