What Steve Jobs saw in 1985

There has been a lot of controversy about Apple in the last couple days as the National Public Radio show This American Life decided to retract the most downloaded episode in its history, which was about working conditions at Apple contracting factories in China.  The episode in question was based on the work of monologuist (and, it seems, fabulist) Mike Daisey, who had a successful show at the Public Theater called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs that, by chance, closes today.  I won’t dissect the details of that controversy — James Fallows at the Atlantic does a good round-up and if you’re especially keen the PDF transcript from the episode of This American Life about the retraction is worth reading.

But all this has brought Steve Jobs to mind and the worthy souls at longform.org (via Slate) have dug up a 1985 Playboy interview with Jobs that is a marvel of prescience and naivete.  Was there ever a pre-history in which one could ask a man like Jobs to explain what a computer is, as Playboy does here, or press him as to what could justify purchasing one?  I think this is a generational thing: because my mother was very early into computers I had been using them for many, many years by the time 1985 rolled around but maybe the old folks employed by Playboy — ah, the cruel irony of that sentence — just didn’t get it.  But Jobs got it, and how.  I’ll excerpt a few choice sections here but the full thing more than rewards the time it takes to read it.

Consider this concluding sentence as to the reason to buy a home computer — this, a decade before the commercialization of the internet:

Playboy: Those are arguments for computers in business and in schools, but what about the home?

Jobs: So far, that’s more of a conceptual market than a real market. The primary reasons to buy a computer for your home now are that you want to do some business work at home or you want to run educational software for yourself or your children. If you can’t justify buying a computer for one of those two reasons, the only other possible reason is that you just want to be computer literate. You know there’s something going on, you don’t exactly know what it is, so you want to learn. This will change: Computers will be essential in most homes.

Playboy: What will change?

Jobs: The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network.

Or this on why the telegraph never became ubiquitous in the home the way the telephone did — and how IBM (then the standard bearer for Microsoft DOS) was like the telegraph and the (just introduced) Mac was like the telephone:

Jobs: In the future, it won’t be an act of faith. The hard part of what we’re up against now is that people ask you about specifics and you can’t tell them. A hundred years ago, if somebody had asked Alexander Graham Bell, “What are you going to be able to do with a telephone?” he wouldn’t have been able to tell him the ways the telephone would affect the world. He didn’t know that people would use the telephone to call up and find out what movies were playing that night or to order some groceries or call a relative on the other side of the globe. But remember that first the public telegraph was  inaugurated, in 1844. It was an amazing breakthrough in communications. You could actually send messages from New York to San Francisco in an afternoon. People talked about putting a telegraph on every desk in America to improve productivity. But it wouldn’t have worked. It required that people learn this whole sequence of strange incantations, Morse code, dots and dashes, to use the telegraph. It took about 40 hours to learn. The majority of people would never learn how to use it. So, fortunately, in the 1870s, Bell filed the patents for the telephone. It performed basically the same function as the telegraph, but people already knew how to use it. Also, the neatest thing about it was that besides allowing you to communicate with just words, it allowed you to sing.

Playboy: Meaning what?

Jobs: It allowed you to intone your words with meaning beyond the simple linguistics. And we’re in the same situation today. Some people are saying that we ought to put an IBM PC on every desk in America to improve productivity. It won’t work. The special incantations you have to learn this time are “slash q-zs” and things like that. The manual for WordStar, the most popular word-processing program, is 400 pages thick. To write a novel, you have to read a novel‐‑one that reads like a mystery to most people. They’re not going to learn slash q-z any more than they’re going to learn Morse code. That is what Macintosh is all about. It’s the first “telephone” of our industry. And, besides that, the neatest thing about it, to me, is that the Macintosh lets you sing the way the telephone did. You don’t simply communicate words, you have special print styles and the ability to draw and add pictures to express yourself.

And, finally, this.  I was a creature of Apple’s marketing strategy of seeding the education market with its computers to get new customers when they were young so while the first computer I ever owned, in about 1981, was a TRS-80 (because it was relatively cheap, though you had to save programs onto a cassette tape — not even a floppy disk — and it came with 4K of RAM; yes, that’s a ‘K’ which is to say 0.00000047 the RAM of my current MacBook) Steve Jobs was probably the only business leader I knew a great deal about at age twelve.  Still, I somehow missed the news that he was adopted or that his biological father was Syrian.  I thought this was because it only came out near the end of Jobs’s life, but at least part of that story was known in 1985:

Playboy: Let’s go back to the predecessors of the Lisa and the Mac, to the beginning. How influential were your parents in your interest in computers?

Jobs: They encouraged my interests. My father was a machinist, and he was a sort of genius with his hands. He can fix anything and make it work and take any mechanical thing apart and get it back together. That was my first glimpse of it. I started to gravitate more toward electronics, and he used to get me things I could take apart and put back together. He was transferred to Palo Alto when I was five. That’s how we ended up in the Valley.

Playboy: You had been adopted, hadn’t you? How much of a factor in your life was that?

Jobs: You don’t ever really know, do you?

Playboy: Did you try to find your biological parents?

Jobs: I think it’s quite a natural curiosity for adopted people to want to understand where certain traits come from. But I’m mostly an environmentalist. I think the way you are raised and your values and most of your world view come from the experiences you had as you grew up. But some things aren’t accounted for that way. I think it’s quite natural to have a curiosity about it. And I did.

Playboy: Were you successful in trying to find your natural parents?

Jobs: That’s one area I really don’t want to talk about.


The photo above appeared on Bond Street not long after Steve Jobs died and can still be seen today, albeit degraded by time and weather.  It is made of narrow strips pasted to the sides of the metal bars on a fence that only reveals itself — Young Steve on one side, Older Steve on the other — at certain angles.  People would walk by, thinking they saw something out of the corner of their eye, then circle around to verify what it was.


Leave a Reply