What Steve Jobs Had in Common with da Vinci (Vanity Fair)

What Steve Jobs Had in Common with da Vinci


Illustration by Tim Lahan; Photograph from Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images.

When Vanity Fair created the New Establishment, in 1994, it reflected
the shift in power from a genteel Wasp establishment led by East Coast
bankers and statesmen to a swashbuckling set of media-age moguls more
comfortable in Hollywood than in mahogany-paneled clubs. By the end of
the 1990s, as the Internet ushered in a new Information Age, there was
another shift: the list began gravitating more to the technologists of
Silicon Valley. In its latest evolution, the list is now becoming
increasingly populated by a new wave of innovators and rebellious
entrepreneurs who are less interested in stewarding great industries
than in overturning them.

For all of their differences, there are a few attributes that
distinguish today’s great disrupters and connect them to the influential
innovators of previous lists and generations. They tend to be relentless
and headstrong, fueled by a passion for their vision. Just as that was
true of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Thomas Edison, it is a trait shared by
Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and
Brian Chesky, Elon Musk and (yes, to a fault) Travis Kalanick. But there
is a more fundamental trait that connects many of today’s disrupters to
most of the great innovators of the past. It’s the understanding that
it’s not about the technology. It’s about connecting people to the
technology and using the technology to connect humans to other humans.

That requires an intuitive feel for emotions. Despite all the
proselytizing by STEM-education advocates, the best innovators have
historically been the ones who embrace art as well as science, who have
a feel for poetry, in addition to processors. At his final product
launch, Steve Jobs ended, as he had often done, with a slide of a street
sign showing the corner of Technology Street and Liberal Arts Street.
“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said,
“that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the
humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” Jobs
studied calligraphy and dance before he dropped out of Reed College. His
love of the arts helped him understand a simple but profound principle
of humanity: beauty matters. It was a creed reflected in everything from
the fonts on the original Macintosh to the simplicity of the first iPod,
to the intuitive swiping on the iPhone.

I began to sense the importance of combining the arts and humanities and
sciences when I wrote about Benjamin Franklin, America’s founding
innovator. He had no formal education, but he taught himself to become
an imaginative polymath who was arguably Enlightenment America’s best
scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist. He
devised bifocal glasses, enchanting musical instruments, clean-burning
stoves, a federal system of government, and America’s unique style of
homespun humor.

The ultimate example of such a universal mind was Leonardo da Vinci, the
patron saint of all great innovators. He created the two most memorable
paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, but he thought
of himself as equally a man of science and engineering. With a passion
that was both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of
anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, water
flows, and weaponry. His ability to transcend disciplines made him
history’s most creative genius.


With his wide-ranging interests and passions—space travel,
storytelling, digital assistants, robotics, movies, books, video,
journalism—Jeff Bezos is an example of an innovator whose success
comes not just from understanding technology but also from understanding
people. When I was at Time, we decided to make him Person of the Year in
1999, but as we were readying the issue the Internet stock bubble
started deflating. I asked Don Logan, then Time Inc.’s C.E.O., whether
we would look silly in a year. No, he said, Bezos is not in the Internet
business, he is in the customer business. Logan turned out to be right.
By being relentlessly focused on the customer and attuned to human wants
and whims, and by rebelling against the typical Wall Street pressure to
focus on short-term financials and quarterly earnings reports rather
than user happiness, Bezos built a transformative company.

Mark Zuckerberg likewise transformed our world with his understanding of
human connections, not just electronic ones. Yes, he was a programming
prodigy at Harvard, but he built Facebook around the focused mission of
making people more connected, and his travels across America over the
past year have refined both his business and his philanthropy. (Each
year Zuckerberg takes on a personal challenge—one year he learned
Mandarin, and for 2017 he pledged to visit people in every state.) Along
with YouTube, Twitter, and other social-networking services, Facebook
ushered in an era of user-generated and shared digital content.

That led to the latest wave of innovation: user-generated and shared
physical content, such as apartments and cars and tasks. Companies like
Uber and Airbnb have upended industries, and they’ve put forth a new way
to work (“the gig economy”) that can be both liberating and
exploitative. These businesses also can be humanizing. Stepping into a
stranger’s car or apartment, or sharing ideas with a virtual friend,
initiates a bond of trust. When it works, which it usually does, a
disconnected and alienated world becomes just a little less so. Perhaps
it is no surprise, then, that two of Airbnb’s founders, Brian Chesky and
Joe Gebbia, were artists before they were tech executives. They loved
drawing and music when they were young, and they met at the Rhode Island
School of Design. Many before them had launched apartment-sharing
services, but Airbnb succeeded because its founders had a passionate
drive and a desire to create personal connections.

So, what of the next wave, which, we are promised and warned, will usher
in a new generation of innovations based on machine learning and
artificial intelligence? Who knows? A robot may make it to the top of
this list in a decade or so. But I’m not so sure. Despite Alan Turing’s
prediction almost 70 years ago that machines would soon think like man,
the quest to create artificial intelligence has not been nearly as
successful as using technology to enhance human capabilities.

That is the triumph of most of the people on this year’s list, both
veterans and newcomers. With a feel for the arts as well as for
technology, they find new ways to allow the expression of creativity, to
augment our imagination, and to make us more connected and
empowered—and more human.


via Vanity Fair http://bit.ly/2xvuIXg

October 1, 2017 at 01:02PM