Why Did Apple Lose Its Humanities?

The case for maintaining a connection to the liberal arts. Even if you're the biggest company in the world.

Ever since the passing of Steve Jobs, some folks have felt that Apple has lost its rudder. If you listen to the arguments of noted tech blogger Ben Thompson, you'll discover that's because the company that famously asked us to Think Different has lost its connection to the foundations of critical thinking--the liberal arts.

As you may recall, back in 2010 Jobs said that the "reason that Apple is able to create products like the iPad is because we’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts," that they can make technologically advanced products that are intuitive and fun to use, that the users don't have to come to the products--the products come to the users.

A year--and an iPad iteration--later, Jobs expanded on that point:

It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. And nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices. And a lot of folks in this tablet market are rushing in and they’re looking at this as the next PC. The hardware and the software are done by different companies, and they’re talking about speeds and feeds just like they did with PCs. And our experience and every bone in our body says that that is not the right approach to this.

Does Apple still have that insight?

According to Thompson, they don't: Apple's aligned itself with the discipline of design rather than of the humanities. iOS 7, which you may be fussing with as you read this, provides a primary case study to Thompson, for while the OS is gorgeous, it "absolutely compromises a certain level of intuitiveness and consideration in the pursuit of beauty."

But it's not just with design that Apple has lost its human(ities) touch: Thompson notes that while during his latest iPad introduction, CEO Tim Cook said that Apple wants to help people create "even more amazing stories" with the help of the new launch, he didn't go into the stories. He started boasting of the "speeds and feeds" that Jobs warned of. Which could be troubling.

So why would the humanities help?

Because they make you more empathic. Why? Because literature lets you demo other peoples' minds in the comfy confines of your own. Because social science trains you to observe and understand people, rather than bash them with speeds and feeds--which is maybe why so many corporations are bringing in anthropologists.

[Image: Flickr user Marthin Sühl]

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10 Comments

  • Designer

    There is a difference between "design" and "aesthetics". "Aesthetics" is an emotional trigger and response. It may be functional, but is not intended to be. "Design" is solving problems and finding solutions to functional needs, with "aesthetics" being just one component. The other components, "function", "economy", are just as important. Good "design" is the symbiotic use of all components to complement and enhance each other. The functional problems in Apple products are not because "design" has supplanted "humanity", but because the "aesthetic" component of design supplanted the other components.

  • Guest

    Hee I don't know It seemed to my Apple's "commit" to liberal arts was always kind of rhetorical. Also I don't understand blogger's obsession to over-analyze what is Apple doing wrong since Steve Jobs pass away, they seem to be doing well to me.

    This remains me of Clotaire's Culture Code Book.. The good old American obsession with hyperbole, the new, and the revolutionary; it is either the best thing ever, or the worst thing ever.

  • ben_marko

    No truer words have been spoken. It is depressing to see Apple turning into this. The commercial for the gold iPhone is a prime example of how like everyone else they are becoming. No wonder they held onto Jonny Ive.

  • omaryak

    Yes, yes, yes! Good design is universal. The fact that an app transition can give some people motion sickness also makes it a waste of time for everyone else. White on black text isn't just garish but also difficult for those with low vision to read. Make your products work well for everyone, and they will work well … for everyone.

  • Daren F.

    I don't quite know what you're trying to argue here. That because Apple lost touch with the liberal arts, it's now struggling as a corporation to create innovative products? That's possible, I suppose. But doesn't innovation stem from vision? If Apple is to remain at the forefront of innovation, it needs a new visionary, regardless of background.

  • Neil McGillivray

    He's not arguing anything, as far as I can summarise - merely skimming Ben Thompson's much better and fuller article.

  • mediatico

    The lack of new (truly disruptive) ideas led to iOS 7. I just updated and some gestures are not as intuitive as previous OS. But, one can learn to use it. Nevertheless, as said in the article, Apple is sacrificing everything else for design, not "humanities" or even performance. Since I installed the new iOS, my battery runs out, the overall system is slower, had some issues sycronizing, but is beautiful.