Today Apple will release new iPhones and other gizmos and services, and as they do every year, the tech pundits will ask: “Does this live up to the expectations and vision of Steve Jobs?” I, on the other hand, will ask: “Does this live up to the expectations and vision of Jef Raskin?” Apple likes to imagine itself as the humane tech company, with its emphasis on privacy and a superior user experience, but the origins of that humaneness—if it still exists beyond marketing—can be traced less to the ruthless Jobs than to the gentler Raskin. Jobs may have famously compared a computer to a “bicycle for the mind,” but Raskin articulated more genuinely a desire that computers be humane and helpful instruments.
To be clear, Raskin, like Jobs, wanted to sell millions of personal computers, but only Raskin worried aloud about what would happen if that seemingly ridiculous goal was achieved: “Will the average person’s circle of acquaintances grow? Will we be better informed? Will a use of these computers as an entertainment medium become their primary value? Will they foster self-education? Is the designer of a personal computer system doing good or evil?” It is remarkable to read these words in an internal computer design document from 1980, but such reflections were common in Raskin’s writing, and clearly more heartfelt than Google’s public, thin, and short-lived “Don’t be evil” motto.
Jobs may have dabbled in calligraphy and obsessed over design, but Raskin was the polymath who truly lived at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. In addition to physics, math, and computer science, Raskin studied philosophy, music (which he also composed and performed at a professional level), and visual arts (he was also an accomplished artist). He clearly read a lot, which was reflected in his clear and often mirthful writing style, flecked with nerdy guffaws. (The end of one of his long Apple memos: “Summery: That means fair, warm weather, just after spring.”) He wrote a book on user interface design called and sought to build a new computing system called . For the purposes of this newsletter, and for some ongoing conversations I would like to have with you about the ethical dimension of technological creation, he is one important touchstone.