Think Different; Change Your Life: Apple and the Value of Philosophy

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on March 7
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No doubt, Steve Jobs’ famous admonition to “Think Different” speaks to Apple’s capacity to design and deliver products that re-envisioned how we use, think about, and interact with technology. Of course, as a slogan, the words may not have had much impact if they simply expressed a set of design principles composed for a niche readership of computer designers. The words also had to speak to a broader audience. 

How does the ability to “think different” shape our sense of how we might live?

Given the continuing success of the slogan—which circulates just as much as an example of powerful messaging as it does for the power of the message itself—the words did and continue to speak to audiences. But why? And how? 

Many have already explored how the power of Apple’s vision speaks to Jobs’ interest in the humanities. But, for me—perhaps as a stereotypical “humanities guy”—discussions could go further to explore the connection. In what follows, I certainly do not presume to present any final words on the issue, but I do hope to broaden the scope of the discussion.

“Think Different” and the Value of the Humanities (Especially Philosophy) 

Personally, the words “Think Different” plug into two key terms that have long informed my interest in the humanities—particularly, my interest in philosophy. Jobs’ vision for Apple was, famously, also very much dedicated to a vision that, in its own way, “married technology with the humanities.” In simple terms, the now-famous story of Jobs’ vision comes down to his ability to popularize a different attitude toward technology. The short version of the story goes like this: In the 70s and 80s, most people saw computers and computing as the exclusive terrain of highly trained experts. Manufacturers did not help matters as they tended to present computing in technical terms that reinforced the perception that the technology would remain inaccessible to popular audiences. Jobs saw how computers could become, like television sets and refrigerators, a valuable and user-friendly centerpiece of daily life for everyone. Yet, the hard part was how to demystify computing, get a whole culture to unlearn their established views. Ask any social activist: changing cultural attitudes is no easy task. 

Jobs came along and redefined the value of computers and computing by presenting the technology in new ways. As many have explored, Jobs' strategy involved moving away from the technical concerns of computer engineers and turning instead to the concerns of the humanities. Perhaps the most famous instance of Jobs' humanities inspired vision is Apple's famously Orwellian commercial for the company's early Mac computer, aired, appropriately, in 1984.  

For Jobs, the relevance of humanities-related questions and themes went beyond effective brand messaging; these concerns also informed Apple's vision for the design of new technologies themselves. Many have linked this concern with Jobs' investments in the minimalist aesthetic design of Apple's products. The concept and importance of the beautiful has long served as a key theme in the humanities: What precisely does it mean to be beautiful? And why are people drawn to those things considered beautiful? These concerns also informed Jobs' desire to create devices that were not simply practical, but beautifully crafted, artful objects that enhanced how people live. 

Jobs' Interest in Big Questions

Broadly speaking, one useful way to understand the influence of the humanities on Jobs’ vision of technology involves the ways in which the humanities provided Jobs with the right kinds of questions. Jobs' presentations of computing engage big, philosophical questions. These questions enabled Jobs to communicate the purpose and relevance of new technologies in the context of a big-picture sense of meaning. In simple terms, these questions boil down to a singular concern: how can the endeavor to think different transform how we live? 

Philosophy's Brand Problem

Take it from an English teacher, poetry can be a hard sell. In many ways, the challenge of selling the value and beauty of Shakespeare to popular audiences parallels Apple’s early challenge to sell the promise of computing as an accessible technology. Much as computing once suffered under the perception that it was the boring terrain of experts, the value of the humanities has long suffered from branding issues. 

The challenge goes well beyond Shakespeare. Philosophy has a particularly challenging “brand” problem. Philosophy remains, for many, an abstract and impractical indulgence in irrelevant questions, ideas, and pursuits. The popular cliché about the poverty of philosophy majors speaks to widespread assumptions about the value of the discipline and what it has to offer the world.

The irony here, of course, is that Jobs' capacity to sell technology to the masses stems largely from his ability to present and frame technologies in accessible philosophical terms. The imperative to “think different” speaks to one of the fundamental concerns of philosophical thought. In fact, inquiry into the very concept of the “different,” or “difference,” constitutes a defining concern of philosophical movements that dominated much of European and, later, American thought, in the 70s and 80s. Jobs’ wording of “Think Different” purposely omits the adverbial suffix “ly,” implying not simply the importance of thinking differently, but the importance of thinking about the very concept of the “different” itself: what does it mean to be different? What role does the different play in our lives? How does the "different" work? 

Despite often well-founded perceptions to the contrary, philosophy, like computer design, does not merely exist as a rarefied realm of experts speaking to other experts. Nor does philosophy merely exist to confuse us with an obscure, set of hyper-academic terms—terms that can seem to exclude the “un-trained” from the benefits of the discussion. 

Certainly, academic philosophers do need to do more to foster appreciation for the discipline beyond campus gates. Still, in defense of academic philosophy, the discipline also tends to get a bad rap. As in any other profession, these more technical professional discussions of philosophy have their place. Philosophy is, after all, a particular discipline. And, like any field, it requires training. Nobody accuses dentists of intellectual elitism when they discuss an abscess in the alveolar bone. (I just looked that up!) 

Every profession has its jargon—and that jargon is useful for communicating very particular ideas. Still, given its philosophical dimensions, Jobs' imperative to "think different" has arguably done more than most academic philosophers to promote the value of philosophical thinking to mass audiences. And the success of Jobs' message speaks to the fact philosophical thinking can take hold of the popular imagination: the success of Apple is largely a testament to the value of posing philosophical questions. In what follows, I explore how the fundamental questions that have driven Jobs’ vision of Apple have long driven philosophy. 

Philosophy's Principle Concern: Think Different, Change Your Life

What I plan to say here is not difficult or abstract. I am not interested in extending the philosophical map to cover new corners of our thought, or in adding to the philosophical lexicon. In my discussion of philosophy, I am interested not so much in our theories as in our lives, or better, I am interested in the place at which the two intersect. It is a philosophical life, or at least one of its paths, that concerns me here, and I will try, temptation aside, not to betray that concern as I move along. In what follows, I diverge from my direct discussion of Apple to explore the essential value of a more fundamental concern: Philosophy, like Apple computers, highlights how the ability to think different enables us to envision new possibilities for how to live. 

In order to do explore the importance of this question, I am working on upcoming posts that explore the ideas of some of my favorite philosophers. I will begin with two: Marcus Aurelius and Michel Foucault. If I have enough time, I would like to follow up by exploring some others... 

Daily De-affirmations with Marcus Aurielius

Let’s begin with Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. The book is a collection of notes, admonitions that, after some initial expressions of gratitude, open with the words, ‘‘Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsociable. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.’’ 

Throughout the Meditations, Aurelius exhorts the reader with stoical advice: be just to your fellow human beings; recognize that everyone dies and few are remembered; change your attitude toward the world instead of expecting the world to change for you; neither fear nor favor the opinions of others. At first read, the themes of the Meditations often sound like bad cliches or uninspired branding slogans: They are brief, limited, and the advice often repetitive. It can, in fact, read the wrong way, sound preachy and patronizing. 

How, then, do we read Aurelius’s advice the right way? By recalling that the Meditations were not written to be read by others. They were Aurelius’s notes to himself, written in the respites between battles, while he was away from Rome on military campaign. What Aurelius was doing in the Meditations was exhorting himself, reminding himself of the truths of Stoicism he believed he needed to bear in mind in order to live a worthwhile existence. If we read the Meditations with that in mind, their entire tone is transformed. No longer do we hear the preacher berating us with our shortcomings, reminding us of the necessity of living right, offering us the same tired advice week in and week out. Instead, we find ourselves in the presence of a human being struggling with himself, seeking against the odds to hold himself to standards he fears are beyond him. 

Seen this way, the repetitive character of the Meditations is no longer distracting or patronizing; it becomes part of the poignancy of the notes. Stoicism is by no means an easy philosophy. Simply put, stoicism is the belief wisdom lies in the capacity to live in harmony with natural realities, an endeavor that requires the ability to confront the emotional turbulent aspects of life with rational indifference.

Aurelius does not live up to the necessary standard of his Stoical beliefs. He recognizes this. Day after day, he must remind himself of those simple truths that he failed to follow, even though he had just brought them to mind the day before. ‘‘You will soon die,’’ he tells himself, ‘‘and you are not yet simple, not free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed toward all; nor do you yet realize that acting justly is the only true wisdom.’’ He does berate, but it is himself that he berates. He seeks to become something more than he is, and the Meditations is a record not only of that seeking but of its difficulty and of his perceived failure. 

Why is Aurelius’s struggle so difficult? Why can he not just become the man he would like to be? Because the world and his character do not lend themselves to it. Aurelius lived, much as we live, in a world in which the denial of death, the accumulation of objects, the pandering after praise and recognition, constitute the given conditions of daily existence. He was sculpted by those conditions, and if he is to escape them, to rise above them, this will not happen through a single epiphany that will carry him through the rest of his years. It will happen, if it does, through continuous struggle against that which pulls him away from the truths he seeks to live by. Aurelius reminds himself of the precepts of Stoicism because the world does not, and because who the world has molded him to be is not oriented toward them. 

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher whose work focused extensively on the relation between knowledge and power. He began to develop his influential work in the 60s, continuing on until his death in 1984. His ideas profoundly transformed—and continue to transform—how many thinkers across all branches of the humanities and beyond think about our immersion in traditions of thought and knowledge. More specifically, Foucault’s ideas focus on how existing knowledge can determine perceptions of the world in unseen ways that often limit our ability to envision and pursue new and potentially more fulfilling possibilities for living. In other words, Foucault believed the need to "think different" can renew our sense of how we might live.

The latter project turned living into a kind of art, as Foucault once remarked:

in our society art has become something which is related only to objects, and not to individuals, or to life. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not life? (The Use of Pleasure, Pg. 9)

Both Aurelius and Foucault present a concern with the need to think different as a means to transforming how to live. Yet, in contrast to Aurelius, Foucault’s works transform the question to which much of ancient philosophy seeks to provide an answer. The question he wrestles with is not, ‘‘How ought I to live?’’ It is, instead, ‘‘How might I live?’’ Throughout the Meditations, Aurelius struggles to meet the standard for living he can see before him; the Meditations are his spiritual exercises, his means, for trying to rise to that standard. Stoic philosophy has answered the question of how he ought to live; now he needs to mold himself into someone worthy of that standard. 

For Foucault, the question and the struggle are in many ways different. Yet Foucault writes: 

As for what motivated me, it is quite simple; I would hope that in the eyes of some people it might be sufficient. It was curiosity – the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower’s straying afield of himself? (Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, Pg.8)

In Foucault's reflection on knowledge, I see the intertwining of both a convergence with and a divergence from Aurelius. Foucault’s lines regarding the rejection of "knowledgeableness" and his desire to get free of himself could surely have been lifted from the Meditations themselves. Knowledge must be bound to one’s living if it is to be worth pursuing, and it must free one from one’s given individual character. On the other hand, for Aurelius, the object of that knowledge, and of his attempt to keep that object always before his eyes, is to rise to the standard Stoicism has set. For Foucault, in contrast, it is, as he says, in ‘‘straying afield of himself.’’ Freedom’s task is not that of hewing to principles that tell one how one ought to live, but of seeking to create a life, something perhaps new and different, something that would be worthy of being lived.

For Foucault, creating a life, to live in new ways, requires the ability to "think different." But what does it mean to think different, and what role does this this practice play in creating new possibilities of living?

To answer these questions, let's take another look at the above-quoted passage from Foucault. In it, Foucault distinguishes to kinds of "curiosity": not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. Foucault's discussion of curiosity effectively contrasts two kinds of knowledge: The knowledge that is "proper" for one to have, and the knowledge that helps one "get free of oneself." To make things easier, let’s call the first form of knowledge “proper knowledge” and the second kind “liberating knowledge”. Foucault would likely have concerns about this simple division, but it works for my purposes here. The first kind of knowledge—proper knowledge—is the kind Foucault has long criticized in many of its forms. It’s the knowledge that tells you who you are, what your proper role is, to whom you should listen, whom you should ignore, and, undergirding all this, why it is the natural order of things to be exactly as they are rather than another way. 

The other kind of knowledge, I would argue, provide insight into the kind of thought at work in Jobs' call to "think different." For Foucault's this other kind of knowledge-- "different knowledge"--frees us from the constraints of "proper" or conventional thinking. Throughout the course of Foucault's work, different knowledge can operate in 3 ways.  

  • One way “different knowledge” works is simply by displaying “proper knowledge” as an unnatural invention that is not the necessary order of things but instead part of a passing set of beliefs. In Foucault’s early works, he focuses on exposing those aspects of knowledge deemed “proper” for one to have.
  • Another way “different knowledge” can free us is by showing that who we are told that we are is not so much the product of objective or disinterested inquiry into our nature but instead the result of social practices that have their own power interests. Labels like “typical” and “a-typical,” can for instance, limit one’s sense of oneself and how she or he might live. In other words, proper knowledge is often presented in terms that make it appear natural and objective—for instance, when certain forms of knowledge are presented as scientific fact. As in his early work, this second way of “different knowledge” shares a commitment to designating “proper knowledge” that may seem to be eternal as little more than historically specific “truths” that can change over time.
  • Foucault’s third way of showing how “different knowledge” can free us from established rules of proper knowledge is to display other kinds of knowledges (for instance, how people lived in previous times and in other cultures) and their engagement with other forms of living, so that some of our own kinds of “proper knowledge” and forms of living can loosen their grip on us. 

What Foucault offers us here – and all I have done here is to remind us of this – what he offers us is the persistent vision that our lives do not have to be the way they are. We can loosen, if not cast off, the grip our present has upon us in order not only to see other worlds and other lives but to live them. If, some two millennia ago, Marcus Aurelius exhorted himself to resist the movement of the world, to make of himself something more beautiful than it told him he could be, so, too, in our age philosophers like Foucault exhort themselves and us to something more strange and beautiful than we are told that we can be.

Jobs believed that the capacity to transform how we live depended on the capacity to "think different." Seen in light of the broad history of philosophical thought, Jobs' vision continues a long tradition of different thinkers.

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