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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Intersection of Technology and the Liberal Arts

This has become one of the more quoted sayings of the late Steve Jobs: he wanted Apple and its products to exist at the intersection of technology and what he termed, alternatively, the “humanities” or “the liberal arts.”

What does this mean?

Toward the end of Walter Isaacson’s biography, Jobs is quoted as observing:

The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation. I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves. In fact some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side. In the seventies computers became a way for people to express their creativity. Great artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were also great at science. Michelangelo knew a lot about how to quarry stone, not just how to be a sculptor.

There’s a lot to think about in these interesting remarks.

First of all, what sense of “art” does Jobs have in mind? Self-expression? If so, does modern digital technology especially lend itself to art conceived as self-expression (as opposed to art conceived as an imitation of nature)?

Jobs clearly doesn’t have a precise idea of the “liberal arts,” confusing them indifferently with “art” and “creativity” and “humanity.” But what if one reads his remarks with a more robust idea of the liberal arts in mind (i.e., one stemming out of the medieval Christian intellectual tradition)? How would the liberal arts conceived in that way relate to contemporary digital technology?

In other words, in what ways, if any, does digital technology successfully reflect the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (the traditional objects of the liberal arts)?

I’d appreciate your thoughts…

Meanwhile, for my own humble attempt to bring digital technology into conversation with art, see here


  1. First, I'd like to applaud your decision to make a Chesterton quote your header. Always a wise choice.

    In reference to Jobs' own work, the iPod and the Apple brand in general, his motif seemed to have been slick, clean, and aerodynamic, a reference to the space-age tradition of the 50s and 60s updated for modern sensibilities.

    That sterility, itself, seems to have little to do with artistic work, which is generally subconsciously percieved as growth, life, the messy and dirty side of human nature.

    I think perhaps Jobs' comments fall into a mnore sensible pattern if one reflects that what he meant was not that his products were tools for art, but that they were art themselves. And this, in its own way, is very true. The iProducts are beautifully engineered, amazingly crafted miracles of technology. Their user interfaces are designed to be so simple that they blend into the background, slotting perfectly into their small niche in the monolith of modern society. Perhaps Jobs meant his work, his "art", to be an inspiration to others in the technology and machine design industries. Technology can be beautiful.

    That said, the Mac has traditionally been seen as a more expressive, simple, and liberal-arts oriented platform than Windows. OS X comes pre-loaded with software to aid artistic and musical expression, and is just generally designed to be a tool fitting the hand of the artist rather than that of the programmer or businessman.

    In terms of technology in general, there is a thriving digital art community, which does fantastic work with tools like Photoshop and digital drawing tablets with pressure-sensitive styluses. It's quicker, cleaner, easier, and takes less space than traditional painting, and there is much to be said for learning how to adopt it, particularly in the ever more digitally-oriented atmosphere of today.

  2. Sorry to take so long, Andrew, to respond to your perceptive response to the questions in my post about Steve Jobs, the liberal arts, and technology. I think you're right about the minimalist sensibility driving Jobs's aesthetic--a sensibility which, if suitable for anything at all, is more suitable to computers than, say, to domestic architecture. (One of Jobs's architectural heroes, as we learn in Isaacson's biography, is Le Corbusier, who had the unfortunate idea that houses should be designed as "machines for living." For a hilarious send-up of Le Corbusier and his ideas, see Evelyn Waugh's masterful debut novel, DECLINE AND FALL.)

    I also think you're spot on in saying that Jobs wanted his products to BE works of art. Jobs himself is quoted making just this point time and again in Isaacson's bio. And I think as well that they are beautiful pieces of design + engineering.

    Jobs may also have had in mind, as you indicate, that Apple software is more geared to artistic creation than other (mainstream) software. This is certainly the case with iMovie, iPhoto, Garage Band, etc.

    It's an exciting time, indeed, for those interested in the intersection of technology and the arts. My hope, as I suggested in the post, is that a more robust understanding of what it means for human beings to be "liberal" would accompany this exciting technological innovation. Freedom is a function of living in the truth, and insofar as we fail to live in the truth, by that much we fail to be free. Such a conception of freedom would greatly enrich our art, and the marvelous technology that is daily being invented to serve it.

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  5. I think that Mr. Jobs thought of each Apple product as a "masterpiece," in the same sense as a painting (for example, the Mona Lisa, by Da Vinci) would be referred to as a masterpiece. In that sense, I think Mr. Jobs saw each Apple product (the Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad) as a work of art, a "masterpiece," if you will. At least that is how I interpret what is meant by Apple products "standing at the intersection of technology and the humanities [or liberal arts]." I also think that it is significant that Mr. Jobs practiced Buddhism. Perhaps, he had the mind-set of a Zen Buddhist when he made that statement (about technology and humanities)?

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