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Steve Jobs: Master of Digital Meaning

Thu, Oct 13, 2011


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Apple’s success flows from deciphering and applying meaning to digital devices and it’s chief of meaning was Steve Jobs.  Indeed, as discussed in a recent article, Apple is the leader of meaning in not just its own business, but in a host of businesses that either ape Apple or are forced to adapt to its reinterpretation of our digital lives.

Bloomberg’s interview of Steve Wozniak about the life and times of Jobs provides quite a few insights into how Jobs created and thought meaning.  Revealing is the contrast between Wozniak, who is primarily an information leader excelling at understanding the wherewithal of how to put computers together, and Jobs, who is a meaning leader concerned with interpreting how individual life is affected by devices and information.

At the beginning of the interview, Wozniak mentions how, unlike other kids at school, Steve Jobs “spoke about things that mattered in life and in the world,” and “books that he had read (were) books that had meaning .. (and gave) clues and formulas to how we live,” and that Jobs “spoke about things that were important in life and (about) people who moved life forward.”  Things that mattered in the world is code word for meaning, for saying a thing matters is saying that a thing deserves our attention, and we pay attention to things that we assign meaning to and weave into the map of meanings by which we navigate our lives.  Clearly books were one source of inspiration for Jobs, but what is matters is not simply that Jobs was reading books, but that he was looking for clues and formulas to how we live.  Again such clues and formulas flow from networks of meaning by which we navigate our lives.

Another element to Jobs’ meaning creativity is living a “counter culture hippie life,” as mentioned by Wozniak.  Such a life would imply that Jobs had the independence to create his own meaning map free of social norms that could box him in a predetermined meaning landscape.  This independence seems to be the flip side of him being in the “dreaming category … (having) a lot of dreams that went all over the place,” again as mentioned by Wozniak.  Such dreaming or even day dreaming is associated with an individual process of meaning creation, common to many authors and artists who are also creators of meaning.  Tied with this counter culture was Job’s interest in music, which according to Wozniak was a big part of their lives, with Jobs being “into music that had words like modern poetry .. Bob Dylan stuff,” which dealt with, “how you live life.”  This is to be expected since music and poetry are primary vehicles for communicating and expressing meaning.

Having touched briefly then about how Steve Jobs developed his ability to interpret and create meaning, the interview moves on to how Jobs applied meaning making to the world.  When Wozniak showed Jobs the computer he had built, Jobs reacted to what the gadget could do saying “Oh my god this is great I know how we could make money off of it.”  Not only did Steve immediately recognize the potential of the computer, but he knew how to realize such potential.  What happened here was that Jobs accessed the maps of meaning he had constructed over his life, placed the computer within this map which, informed him exactly what could be done.  According to Wozniak, Steve would come up with ideas on “how to address the new market and introduce the computer in the home and what it should look like (sic).”  So Jobs, understood how this device would fit in a home and how he should make it look so people could relate to it, again an understanding based on what such a device would mean to people.  Wozniak explained that Jobs did not necessarily choose every modern technology but that the “ones he chose .. wound up being the ones the world went with.”  Again such ability is based on having a map that enables the individual to decipher the meaning consumers attach to objects, since such meaning is what determines their every day decisions, and Steve Jobs, who had concerned himself from an early age with constructing a map of meaning, would be able to see the archetypal meanings, or as I call them Towers of Meaning, by which society as whole navigates.  For example, in the case of Apple, the overarching Tower of Meaning is the individualism and the need to both support and compensate for it.  Over and over again Wozniak explains that Jobs concerned himself with understanding users, always asking what a computer “does for a person.”

Steve Jobs aimed to do things that made a difference in the world and he succeeded like no one else primarily by interpreting meaning in our modern world and applying such interpretation to products.  Along the way he was able to hire and inspire just the kind of of individuals who the right stuff for making his vision come true.  Some described him as the sun around which all the other companies revolved.  Perhaps in the future, by examining the life and times of such visionaries through the lens of meaning creation society will be able to come closer to creating leaders that, like Steve Jobs, are masters of meaning.


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