The Binary World of Steve Jobs

I’ve commented before on Steve Jobs but, having just finished Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography, I’ve had some other thoughts that I wanted to talk about here.

I stand by my previous post, regardless of the success of Apple or Steve Jobs’ achievements, I still wouldn’t let him near my classes but there are still many things that they can learn from his ideas, his example, his life and, of course, his death. It’s just important to separate some of the innate Steveness from the ideas. His desire for the right solution, his attention to design, his drive for perfection are all things that I can use in my teaching. The amount of time spent trying to make every piece of something functional and beautiful – I couldn’t find better exemplars of the design principles I’ve been talking about and you can find them in most homes and in most people’s hands.

But one thing that was thrown into sharp relief for me throughout the biography was the strictly dichotomous nature of his world view. A dichotomy is the splitting of something into two, non-overlapping parts. An often heard dichotomy is “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” (This is usually a false dichotomy, implying that there are only two choices when there are probably more. If you’re curious, the “Saw” movie franchise exercises the false dichotomy for most of its running – pretending that the protagonists only have two options and that the choice that they make inside that morally and physically restrictive space is somehow a reflection of their ethics.)

Steve Jobs’ world was full of dichotomies. Things were either excellent or they were terrible. Sometimes this switched, very rapidly, depending on the day or who was being spoken to. People were heroes or… well, let’s say villains because I’m trying to keep this clean. There is no doubt that this contributed to the pursuit of excellence in many ways, but my reading of the biography rather obliquely suggests that it was the sheer brilliance and excellence of the people around in Apple that made this happen, to some extent despite this stark view.

A diagram of the hate/like dichotomy

This is pretty much what Isaacson reports as Steve Jobs’ world view and, while it’s quite clear and clean in many regards, it’s simplicity is undermined by the fact that the things in either set could cross that yellow line in unpredictable ways. Now, once again, yes, Apple are hugely successful and there is no doubt that this binary approach had a lot to do with a great deal of its success – but this is not a view that naturally generates discussion. Once again, this is an important part of my job: I need to get students talking.

It would be trivial for me to walk out, ask a question, mock people who give me a weak or incorrect answer, write ‘idiot’ on their assignments and never give them strong guidance as to how to fix it other than “It’s not right”, but it’s not what I’m getting paid for. I will happily talk to my students about purity of vision, strong design principles, try to give them feedback that they recognise as feedback to reinforce this (trickier than it looks) but, at the end of the day, me lecturing at people doesn’t get as much information across as me getting them involved in a broader discussion of issues and principles. It’s very easy to say “this sucks”. It’s much harder to say why this sucks and in discussing why we naturally start to head towards how we can fix it, because we can see the reasons that it’s terrible.

Now, I’m going to move away from Steve’s heroes/villains, great/terrible dichotomies to some of those I see from students while I teach. I have to be able to handle a far less dichotomous view of the world and I have to draw the students away from this as well. Hardware and OS dichotomies abound: PCs don’t suck, Macs don’t rule. Macs aren’t for grandmas and noobs, PCs aren’t the only true programming platform. There’s the regrettable and seemingly entrenched gender dichotomy in STEM – men and women are far more individually distinctive than any mindless and echolalic gender stereotypes that try to give a falsely dichotomous split. (And, of course, this doesn’t even begin to address the discussion on the number of gender identities being greater than two!)

I don’t have a fundamental problem with people being able to identify things that they like or don’t like, I just need to exercise this as a matter of degree in my teaching and I have to pass on to my students that even if they want to draw a line in the sand to separate their world, having only two categories imposes a very hard structure on a much more complicated world. I also need to be able to explain why a categorisation has been made or all I’m going to pass on is dogma – something indisputable that has to be specifically learned in order to be known, versus something that is a matter for discussion. I teach Computer Science – a discipline based heavily on mathematics, usually implemented in artificially-created, short-term universes with arbitrary physical rules inside the system. I’m not sure that I have enough hard ground to stand on to be dogmatic!

At the end of all this, there’s no doubt I would have found Steve Jobs charismatic, fascinating and terrifying, probably in equal parts, and I suspect that he would have had little time for my somewhat wooly, generous and contemplative approach. I certainly could never have achieved what he achieved and I don’t seek to criticise him for what he did because, frankly, I don’t really know enough about him and who am I to judge? But I can look at this example and think about it, in order to work out how I can improve the way that my students think, work and interact with other people. And, bottom line, I don’t think false dichotomies are the way to go forward.

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