Ever since the death of Steve Jobs I've been thinking of the Woody Allen line about reincarnation, how if there's an afterlife he wants "to come back as Warren Beatty's fingertips."
The wisecrack has seemed apropos because, among his many uncanny gifts, the technocrat was also a master seducer who, as many have said in the past week, somehow know how to make us fall in love with Apple products.
What these tributes don't really explain, though, is the source of his amatory prowess. If his design philosophy were simple and his techniques easily duplicated, his rivals would by now have captured (and broken) as many swooning consumer hearts as he did.
It wasn't just the packaging: the white plastic shells connoting perpetual, tabula rasa newness; or the liquid-light transparency of the facades on the Apple stores. Yes, his laptops were sleeker than boxier PCs, and priced higher (but not so top-shelf as to be beyond the
reach of the aspiring middle class.) The graphical user interface was certainly innovative for
the 1980s, and the Vegas showmanship of his product launches in Cupertino over the last decade never failed to arouse the supposedly cynical business press.
All of these elements increased our desire to own his inventions, but none of them were more important than his understanding how much we want the information age to be a warm, sensuous experience.
Specifically, I believe he seduced us through our fingertips.
Apple products were among the first gadgets that encouraged us to stroke and caress them, not just tap them. Indeed, such gestures are essential to their operation. Whether it's twirling the dial on the iPod or "brushing" the iPhone to move photos along, it's the touch and pressure of our digital body heat that starts them up. A single finger is enough to "awaken" one of his electronic devices and make it do our bidding.
Almost other piece of electronics that I have owned--TV, landline phone and cellphone, VCR, living room and car stereo, and all of their remove controls--has required that I punch a button or twist a knob to get it to work. But the first Mac PowerBook laptop I bought in 1994 had a trackpad that allowed me to move the cursor around the screen with a swirl of my thumb and fingers. I have never wanted to use a mouse again.
Many Apple products after 2001 further developed this idea and underscored it through marketing. The Macbook Air and the iPad are advertised as being so thin and feathery they
can be held aloft by two fingers. The iPhone/iPod Touch even introduced a gesture unique to
its users, a secret sign language, the flick of two fingertips that opens up the screen or enlarges type.
The fingertips have more nerve endings (approx..2,500 per sq. centimeter) than almost any part of the body except our sex organs. Products for women, like face creams and body lotions, are often sold with close-up photographs of the index finger and thumb rubbing together. Indeed, women are traditionally much more focused on their hands--whether doing their nails or choosing a wedding ring--than men.
Jobs feminized what had been an overwhelmingly male domain, the world of techno-geeks. Like Warren Beatty's character in "Shampoo," he succeeded by listening to women's frustrations and needs. Apple computers built their fan base among graphic designers and film editors, not data crunchers at Lawrence Livermore Labs. His customers didn't have to know how to write code.
The iPhone doesn't reward brute strength. It takes finesse to make it respond. Smaller hands, a softer touch, are advantages. The ad campaigns for Apple's products over the last 15 years by its long-time agency TWBA have reflected this metrosexualism and may be the "cleanest" since Irving Penn's marvelous photographs for Clinique.
In his Stanford commencement speech from 2005, Jobs credited a calligraphy class he took at Reed College for developing his sensitivity to typefaces. By drawing slowly in ink with his own hand, he began to sense that differences in spacing between letters affected how we read them. The lessons he learned in this class came back to him, he says, when he was designing the MacIntosh, "the first computer with beautiful typography."
The irresistible allure of so many Apple products lies in the sensual connection they make between eye and mind and body. Writing on a computer and moving information around post-MacIntosh became sexy, tactile. Each new piece of technology they introduced has married old and new sensations. The "Brushes" app on his iPad has recently captivated David Hockney by blending the infantile pleasure of finger-painting with the expanding resources of an electronic palette.
Computer science has steadily advanced in part because Moore's law, which states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double every two years, has continued to be true. Proof of its relevancy is commonly illustrated with a photograph of the latest Intel or Samsung chip poised on the tip of a finger.
Jobs knew that the gauge for how far we've come is still measured by one human finger and that one of the keys to digital technology is communicating through the digit. He was always as much "E.T." as IT.