The Art of Simplicity

Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Apple’s 1977 “Think Different” Advertising Campaign.

Steve Jobs went to Reed College where I taught psychology throughout my academic life and was a student while I was there before he dropped out after his first semester. For a while after, he continued to hang around the department, primarily in the heavily electronic physiological lab and audited several of our classes.

And it is true, as he noted in a graduation speech he delivered at Stanford several years ago that he was troubled by the fact that it cost his parents so much to send him there. I doubt, however, that was the only reason he dropped out.

I write about Steve Jobs not only out of respect but also because he and his original team at Apple brought the computer world to me. Throughout his life he remained extremely generous to Reed. After the first computers were produced at Apple, he gave each faculty member one and he continued the practice with each succeeding version of their personal computers.

I never would have learned to use one were it not for the simplicity, for its user friendliness as it is called, of these computers. That feature is characteristic of all Apple products, They are designed to be models of simplicity.

It was simple matter to learn how to use them, something I had previously found impossible with other computer operating systems around then and still do with complicated Windows-based computers. In a way, the early Mac with its graphic interface opened up a new life for me, gave me a better and clearer way to express myself, and eventually with the development of the Web and the Internet expanded the sources of information and the ease of obtaining them regardless of where I am.

You have to remember when this was, otherwise it makes no sense given the electronic world of young people today. It was in 1984, twenty-seven years ago, that the first Macintosh computer was produced. The picture above is what it looked like and something like it sat on my desk at Reed not long after it was manufactured.

I wrote my first book on it, a book on promoting energy conservation, with a word-processor known as MacWrite. Since my handwriting is atrocious, completely unreadable even to me, I never could have written such a heavily documented book without it.

Everyone once it a while I stop to think about the larger implications of the new products that Jobs and his group at Apple have developed—the iPhone, iPod, the iPad. I’m not entirely certain they represent the positive contribution the personal computer does.

Haruki Murakami wrote about life before and after the development of the electronic revolution recently. I was reminded of what he said about this issue in thinking about the death of Steve Jobs and his enormous influence on society.

By setting the story [“Town of Cats,” published in the New Yorker] in 1984, before cell phones and e-mail and the Internet had become common, I made it impossible for my characters to use such tools. This in turn was frustrating for me. I felt their absence slowing down the speed of the novel. When I thought about it, though, not having such devices at the time—both in daily life and in the story—ceased to be an inconvenience. If you wanted to make a phone call, you just found a public telephone; if you had to look something up, you went to the library; if you wanted to contact somebody, you put a stamp on a letter and mailed it. Those were the normal ways to do those things. While writing the novel (and experiencing a kind of time slip), I had a strong feeling of what the intervening twenty-seven years had meant. Sorry to state the obvious, but maybe there’s not much connection between the convenience of people’s surroundings and the degree of happiness they feel