How Steve Jobs Used Design to Change the World


Image: Steve Jobs portrait by Foundry - Mint Digital

Environmentalists may be tempted to write off Steve Jobs as just another corporate titan that ushered in a wave of unnecessary consumption. To do so without recognizing the positive contributions Jobs made to our culture would miss what may be some of the most important lessons we can learn in the environmental movement. What Steve Jobs did for design will ripple throughout the world of technology for the next decade or longer, just as it has for the last two.

Being at SxSW Eco all week (more on that below), I didn't have much time to ingest the great essays and videos on what Jobs meant to the world, but after catching up a bit over the weekend, I think some of the most significant comments have come from BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin.

Speaking with Rachel Maddow earlier this week, Jardin discussed the ways Jobs democratized technology. At one point in the video, Maddow summarizes the ways Jobs changed our world:

"Apple and Steve Jobs created the expectation which did exist before. They created the expectation that people would have to be able to use this powerful technology in the way that made sense to the people, not just the computer or engineers who designed that machine."

Watch the whole segment here:

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The entire conversation is worth watching, but I want to highlight a few key quotes from Jardin and Maddow that I think help make the case for how Jobs contributed to the future of sustainability. Speaking on how Jobs changed the world, Jardin says:

"If you think about the way that this man saw design, he said it himself, design isn't just the way something looks and feels, design is how it works. So much of what he contributed to technology was seeing technology as an extension of the human mind. And as a way to extend our capabilities to communicate, to connect, to perceive the world more richly."

Maddow then states the basic, if at one point radical, notion of what it meant to democratize technology:

"There became an expectation that things be easy to use, because the easier things were to use the more people could use them. That's not the most complicated idea in the world except when you combine it with the idea that once everybody can use these machines, they can then use them infinitely."

Jardin continues:

"The idea that you didn't have to be a fancy person with a computer engineering degree in a suit to operate a highly powerful computer with incredible capabilities. The idea that you could just be a regular person. This idea that when technology becomes really, really revolutionary, it's the moment that our parents, that our children, that grandma and grandpa can do simple tasks on a device, that same device that might be used by scientists, by pilots, by people operating spaceships, by doctors in surgery rooms. If we have a common language of technology that common platform of technology, I feel like that's this sort of greater arch of Steve Jobs' legacy."

One of the big takeaways from SxSWEco is summed up in the tweet below from @SimranSethi.
Image: SimranSethi tweet on Steve Jobs

These comments about Jobs making technology easy to use, as well as an emotional experience reminds me of this post Mat wrote on how Jobs understood emotions and what it means for environmentalists.

Quoting Steven Fry:


"Steve Jobs has always understood that, as human beings, our first relationship with anything is an emotional one. ... A device isn't just a sum of its functions; it's something that should make you smile, you should cradle, you should love, you should have an emotional relationship with. If people think that's pretentious, then, in a sense, the success of Apple proves how wrong they are."

Mat expands on how well Jobs used emotion and how it could work for solving the environmental crisis, writing:


First and foremost we are emotional beings. Our connection to the world is emotional first, intellectual down the road someplace, and then probably emotional last as well.

But yet, when we talk about climate, energy, biodiversity, what have you, we too often try to appeal to reason, intellect and our inner accountant-cum-economist. And it doesn't work. That much should be obvious by even a cursory scan of TreeHugger's science, energy and politics reporting.

The earth, its ecosystems, its inhabitants both animal and vegetable, are surely not mere things in the sense that a new iPhone is, but the question we green campaigners need to be asking and answering more often is not 'how do we deploy more wind power?' or 'how do we conserve this endangered species?' But rather, 'how do we best encourage the development of love?'.

Connect those dots between Mat's point & what Jardin said about Jobs' vision. Millions of people, filled with passion and a desire to share knowledge have used their iMacs with iMovie and Garage Band to produce videos, podcasts or other media to express their passions and help inform and inspire others. From apps to game and documentation, there are already a plethora of ways to use Apple products to learn, connect and share knowledge. As far as physical objects, what Jobs created are modern tool-kits, instruments for a new century and a new future of possibility. In regards to the behavioral shifts Jobs created, his influence is even greater. He forever changed how we think about machines and data. Activism, journalism, medicine, Jobs' philosophies changed it all. And these changes are continuing to reverberate through the world of sustainability.

Also on The Rachel Maddow Show, but the following night, Ezra Klein sitting in as guest host introduced a segment on Jobs with a beautiful telling of the quote Warren wrote about of Jobs saying the computer was like "the bicycle of the mind."

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I love how Klein compares the intuitive and elegant nature of riding a bike with the way people use Apple devices. By making technology so intuitive, it's become expected that things will work the way we think they should, be easy to use and make our lives better.

Learning about the news of Jobs' death in the midst of a SxSW conference last week, I couldn't help but see the connections between what we were discussing and how so much of it was made possible or just easier by what Jobs invented. Several panels focused on the role of technology in creating a sustainable world.

In "An "Arab Spring" for the Environment", Chris Miglino of Social Reality, Justin Winters from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Karl Burkart of Tcktcktck and Kevin Grandia from Greenpeace USA spoke about the ways social media is influencing activism. What we think of as social media today is the way it is because of what Jobs did with the iPhone. Every service of note has evolved in the same technological ecosystem as the touch-interfaces created by Apple.

In "Experiential Data Visualization Leveraging Personal and Community Action," Wendy Brawer of Green Map System
 and Beth Ferguson of SolarPumps/Sol Design Lab spoke on "using familiar apparati - maps and gas pumps - as mediums for gathering people" and "visualizing hometown sustainability assets and how solar energy could impact consumption." The data visualizations and infographics we frequently share on the internet are often created by people using tools inspired by Jobs. Democratizing data, breaking it free from the Excel spreadsheets more familiar to number crunchers is the same sort of reformation of knowledge as Jobs ushered in during the early days of Apple.

In "Eyes in the Field, Boots on the Ground: Citizen Science," Janis Dickinson of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Anne Haywood of National Geographic, Sandra Henderson - from the National Ecological Observatory Network, Damon E. Waitt and Travis Gallo from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center spoke on how "Citizen Science has been remarkably successful in advancing scientific knowledge and improving conservation practices." Citizen scientists are changing how traditional scientists collect large amounts of data and there are a number of ways this is taking place with technologies created by Apple.

In "Mainstreaming Personal Sustainability with New Technologies" Kimberly Henning from Gazelle.com and Susan Stevens from Practically Green spoke about how "New interactive technologies are making personal sustainability easier, faster and more fun. Whether it's bar code shopping tools, neighbor and friend social comparisons, gamification, or sophisticated energy monitoring, new technologies are reshaping how consumers approach sustainable living." Stevens once referred to Practically Green as like Weight Watchers for sustainability. By putting points on actions we all take, one can get a sense of their overall impact on the environment, while learning new ways to do even more. What's measured gets managed. And with devices making it easier and easier to access information, we'll be measuring and managing our impact on the world for years to come with the tools Jobs created.

In his talk on "Building a Knowosphere," Andrew Revkin spoke about our "quickly growing capacity to communicate through text, sound, and visuals -- from rural villages to city centers" and how we should be using technology to get ideas and visualizations where they're needed.

And all of these ideas were just a small sampling of the possible ways to use a Jobs invention to change the world.

Programmers can spend a weekend hacking session to create apps to help people use and get more value of out of public transportation.
Apps have helped people tell their city where infrastructure improvements are needed. Bicyclists in San Francisco can help inform the city on where bike lanes should go. can provide data to make cities work better. Complex systems are made user-friendly with touch-based systems, like an iPad-powered home energy monitor to see in real-time the amount of energy we're using. With the iPod, the digitization of our media makes us more stream-lined without the need to haul physical collections of photos, CDs or VHS tapes from one apartment to the next.

These are but a few of the countless ways this new toolkit will impact our lives, our communities and hopefully the environment for the better. And just think, all this is before we even get to the now legendary story of Jobs' humble beginnings tinkering in his garage! While not the only inspiration for this current resurgence of the DIY aesthetic, Jobs' story is a now iconic American tale of the do-it-yourself mentality and creativity. If the next big clean tech idea originates in a garage or outside of an already established companies, we'll all think of Jobs and Apple, even if just for a moment.

There's more to say about Jobs than can be said in one post, but to summarize I think it's clear he has done much more to our culture than just encourage consumption. And if technology continues on the trail he's blazed, I hope we'll move to a new normal where it is easier than ever for people to access and understand complex information, such as our impact on the world around us. When we reach that point, it will be in no small part because of Steve Jobs and Apple.

What do you think Steve Jobs' design philosophy and legacy will mean for the environmental movement? Let us know in the comments, Facebook or Twitter.

Note: A friend pointed out how in posts like this we're not discussing Jonathan Ive, the great industrial designer that work on Jobs' team. It's a good point. This post could probably be titled How Jony Ive Used Design to Change the World. It will be fascinating to see what else Ive does in his career.

@ChrisTackett likes to tweet about these and other things.
More on Steve Jobs
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Steve Jobs: The Computer is a Bicycle For Our Minds : TreeHugger
Steve Jobs Understood Something About Emotions That The Green Movement Too Often Ignores
5 Noteworthy Green Moments in Steve Jobs' Time as Apple CEO
Steve Jobs: The Most Important Patron of Design Of This Century

Tags: Apps | iPhone | longreads | Steve Jobs | SxSWEco | Technology

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