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What does Steve Jobs have to do with IT?

October 10, 2011

What does Steve Jobs have to do with Archaeology, Museums & Outreach?  My answer is not found in any of the recently published homages on his life or in one of his visionary quotable quotes.  Instead, consider the perspective that likens Steve Jobs and Apple Computer to a museum and the Apple products to the exhibits or the archaeological excavations.  Here are just a few points of comparison:

  • Apple products are intuitive but not simple.  They have the power and the ability to do any task but they excel in taking the user from the skill level where they are to where they want to go.  Consider something as simple as the difference between Apple’s Keynote program compared to Microsoft’s PowerPoint.  I think of this point when considering exhibit design.  A while ago I wrote about how we envisioned an ethnobotany exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa that took complex material but presented the information on multiple intuitive levels.  Last week I wrote about presenting the intricacies of prehistoric engineering to the public.   The punch line is that contrary to our assumptions that folks just won’t understand or be interested in complex concepts, the Apple model suggests that you take folks from where they are at and launch them on a journey without limits.  Apple excels in achieving this end.
  • Here is a dangerous statement – Apple’s customer service is fantastic.  I am certain that some folks have horror stories to tell about their Apple product service.  Here is my story – I have owned nothing but Apple computer products since 1988.  Over that period, I have never had an unresolved issue with anyone at Apple computer – including on one occasion replacing a warranty expired Power Mac at no cost.  My concerns were always at the forefront of the Apple employee who answered the phone or was assigned to my case.  A standard line I go over in both the classroom and at the Museum is that the only reason we exist is for the visiting public.  Without the visitor, museums would function only as repositories or research institutions.  As I noted in last week’s post, I also remind students and staff that the majority of us in museums are on the public dole, supported by tax dollars in one form or another, and  we must be able to explain our relevance to the public who pay our salaries.
  • If you have visited an Apple Store, you know they can be rather chaotic places, especially around the time of new product releases.  But I am impressed that the focus of these stores remains on the Great Thing or the Apple products themselves.  Each store has rows of wooden tables on which sit the complete range of Apple products for the customer to try.  If you look around the store, there are no bells and whistles, techno light shows and so forth.  There are just tables of products and people.  In museums and in archaeology, we often become enticed by the glamor of touch tables, mobile apps, or gaming that become ends in themselves and draw attention away from the Great Thing.  Last year I posted on a low-tech but thoroughly engaging experience at the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine Iowa.  As well, this book cover has always impressed me with what a very simple tactile engagement with the Great Thing can mean.
As I said at the outset, I don’t know anything about Steve Jobs the person or the business person.  But my 20 year plus relationship with the products his vision inspired has been a great trip.  I am reminded of my experience in  linguistics classes as an undergraduate.  I took more than the required number of the dreaded courses because I found them to be so interesting and applicable to other aspects of my life and research interests.  In fact, those linguistics courses led me to focus my doctoral dissertation work on prehistoric “architectural grammars.”  I find the same thing in what I perceive as the vision of Steve Jobs – it leads in directions, to borrow from Levi-Strauss, that are “good to think with.”  I thank Steve Jobs for the vision.
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