When the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was announced last night, if you were following Twitter, what you saw was a spasm of grief. Writers, actors, musicians, your friends, comedians ... the genuine sadness was palpable, not only because he was 56 years old, but because so many saw the news while holding one of his products in their hands. This is very much what popular culture is: this hive mind, this hum of collective response. And it makes all the sense in the world, because there's a good argument to be made that no one has affected popular culture more in the last — well, you can pick your number of decades — than Steve Jobs.
When you evaluate how technology affects popular culture, its invention is not as important as its adoption. It matters very little that Apple under Jobs didn't invent the personal computer, the portable music player, the smartphone, or the tablet. It doesn't even matter whether Apple produced the best versions of those devices, or whether its ability to persuade came from pure quality or marketing savvy or both.
What matters is that Jobs and Apple pushed all four of those devices forward, and particularly in the case of the three portable devices, it was certainly the company that transformed them from something hobbyists had to something it seemed like everybody had.
(One caveat: Smartphones still cost a lot of money. They remain a luxury item out of the reach of many, and tablets are even more so. Popular adoption does not mean availability to all, and it's important not to confuse the two, lest you sound like you never talk to anyone who still has a flip phone — which, rest assured, many many people still do.)
So what has the technology popularized by Apple meant for popular culture?
Let's start with the single-track model. For decades, music could be purchased as singles or as albums. But then we went through a long period, from the adoption of the cassette through the early years of the CD, where singles were essentially gone and almost all music was purchased as albums if it was purchased at all. (Yes, yes, perhaps you bought some cassingles. Most people didn't.) Digital music brought back the single-song purchase with a vengeance. Not only could the songs chosen for release as singles be purchased alone, but just about anything could be purchased alone. Albums went from being primary to being utterly secondary — or perhaps tertiary, behind singles and user-created playlists for specific functions like working out or meditating. There are absolutely those who lament the shrinking importance of the album as a document, but users have gained a huge amount of flexibility in shuffling and mixing their music as the basic unit has become that single track.
The single track also affected television. It's hard to remember now, but until the relatively recent past, it wasn't common practice for television shows to be released on home video at all, and when they were, they came only as either best-of sets of episodes or full seasons, generally not available until long after the episodes aired. The iTunes store was the first place to successfully sell a lot of episodes of television individually — sometimes beginning just after they were on. Streaming video has a lot of players in the game now, but purchasing single episodes was brought to popularity, originally, by iTunes.
Do you like comedy? The portable music player was critical to the development of podcasts, which went through a long period of tentativeness, in which few people seemed to know exactly what to do with them other than use them to distribute great radio content. But just in the last year or two, there's been a substantial increase in the number of podcasts that offer original content. Something like Marc Maron's interview show WTF would have been enormously difficult to get off the ground other than by using the cheap, simple, utterly populist podcast model.
How about books? Well, on the face of it, it's hard to credit Apple for the growth of e-readers. It was Amazon's Kindle that did for e-reading exactly what Apple did for music, though on a smaller scale: it put the technology in the hands of a vastly greater number of people and took it from a very niche-y product to a part of mass culture. But the Kindle model — buy the device, download the content, carry it around -- is fundamentally the iPod model, despite the fact that it wasn't Apple that implemented it. Apple continues to put its stock in pushing e-reading through tablets, and it's probably fair to expect the truly single-use e-reader to fade. But the Kindle probably would not have existed but for the success that Apple had developing a highly popular device that carried around digital content.
Apart from the consumption side, though, you have to look at Apple's products as ones that also affected the creation side. Apple has always prided itself on simple and user-friendly photo and video editing software, usually included right on your machine and ready to work with all the other Apple stuff you own. Programs like iMovie are designed to give you the feeling that you can create something professional-looking that you can show to your friends — and the growth of social media has, of course, made that an even more powerful idea.
On the other hand, if you give Apple credit for democratizing the creation of content, you have to also give them a share of the blame for democratizing the creation of content. Whatever you think it has meant to the culture that it's easier than ever to edit your own fan videos and upload them to YouTube, the Apple culture of including a lot of DIY multimedia software on consumer machines plays a role.
Of course, Apple has also been behind products like Final Cut Pro (video editing) and GarageBand (sound editing) that are loved and relied on by a significant number of professional content creators.
But really, while the iPhone and iPad are flashier, and while the iPod is perhaps the most ubiquitous product they've ever built, it's the steps Steve Jobs took as part of the personal computer revolution that may have changed popular culture the most. It is impossible to imagine culture without personal computers, because culture without personal computers doesn't include the internet.
Without the popularization of personal computers, there are no online wisenheimers, but there's also no Wikileaks. There are no blogs and there's no MySpace and there's no Facebook and there's no Twitter. Steve Jobs didn't create the personal computer or singlehandedly popularize it, but he was part of a relatively small circle of people who found success pushing forward a technology that has genuinely changed the entire relationship we have with culture, and especially our sense that we are entitled to talk back to it — for all the good and bad things that has meant.
Apple isn't even the only pop-culture project Steve Jobs had a hand in, of course. It's almost ridiculous that a guy who has this many successes in personal technology also owned Pixar, perhaps our only genuinely beloved movie studio, before its acquisition by Disney. But while Pixar has created great content, it's the Apple stuff — the stuff that's in hands and on desks and strapped to belts and tangled up in its own earbuds — that has actually changed the way people interact with content, both good and bad.
Steve Jobs was a tech CEO, but he also wound up functioning as a culture broker. He didn't have everything and he wouldn't necessarily give it to you quite the way you wanted it, and yes, there might be somebody else who had it too, if you could figure out where to go. But this guy was right there, and he sure had a lot. He lived behind an elegantly designed white door with a small, unassuming logo above it, and all you had to do was knock.