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Erric Solomon

Meditating on Steve Jobs, Technology and Buddhism

There is a lot of stuff on the web right now about Steve Jobs’s spiritual life. Even his last words (“Oh Wow, Oh Wow”) have captured people’s imagination.


In any case, it seems Steve Jobs studied and practiced Buddhism, he was even married by a Zen Preist. The most thoughtful article I have read so far is by Steve Silberman, you can read it here. Perhaps Zen philosophy was a major influence on one of the most innovative consumer product companies of the day. The motto Jobs gave the Mac team was the very Zen sounding “the journey is the reward.” The article is a good read,

As a teen, I was a terminal rat at MIT, hanging out at the Artificial Intelligence Lab and listening attentively to conversations speculating about what machine intelligence would look like and the illusion of a “self”. Marvin Minsky along with Seymour Papert developed the Society of Minds theory, which deconstructed the mind and postulated that intelligence and sense of self result from the interdependence of certain very simple “mindless” processes in the brain. That had a lot to do with my eventual interest in the study and practice of Buddhist meditation and philosophy, much to Minsky’s disappointment (Buddhists being about 100 years behind the times, he said).  Hanging out at the AI lab also had a lot to do with my career as a software designer, specializing in Human/Computer interaction, eventually leading to executive management in a big software company.

In the early eighties it seemed like the only place people were thinking deeply about making computing devices with actual people in mind were in research labs. I worked for a small company that was based on Papert’s work creating computationally rich computing environments for children. Apple was a distributor of our product and it was sold under Apple’s name.

I met Jobs and Woz back then. Woz was a great guy. Geeky, socially conscious, super intelligent and very nice. Jobs was more complicated and seemed emotionally distant, judging everything and everyone and yet the only one in the industry from those days of Corporate Blue Suit uniforms, IBM PCs and Microsoft DOS, that really got what was potentially “Personal” about a personal computer. We were all impressed with him.

So, did Zen Buddhism influence how Jobs designed products? Maybe some of the artistic aesthetic of Zen did rub off on Apple products. Or maybe it translated into the way he managed product development. Or maybe his early interest in computing led him to a deeper understanding of the nature of reality, as in my case. I have no idea, but the Silberman article makes an interesting foray into that sort of speculation.

EDIT: I just heard from my aunt that Marvin sent her this blog post... :) I didn't know he read meditation blogs.


+2 # Richard Semper 2011-11-06 23:50
I must confess I've been kind of embarrassed by the way Buddhist "media" has been trying to associate Jobs with Buddhism. At some moments, it's been as if they wanted not to miss the opportunity to associate Buddhism with the success of Apple's products.

Jobs was certainly an innovator, but one that has built his life around products, not ideals. This may not be bad nor good. But that's what he did. There are many good articles in the internet too, on the meanings of "forgetting" one has dedicated his life to create products in a profitable industry. He's made consumerism cool again.

Also he has chosen to ignore inside his industry the issues of blood metals and slave job.

So maybe it'd be honest to ask, also, if Buddhism has influenced these other "achievements". It'd be more honest.
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0 # Erric 2011-11-07 00:56
Hey Richard,
One of the things I found interesting about the Silberman article is that he didn't gloss over some of the points you raise. Job's was a practicing Buddhist and just like most of us he wasn't perfect. As to what Jobs built his life around I have to confess you seem way more sure of what it was then me. I also don't see ideals as something in opposition to products.

And yes it sucks that it is impossible to buy products with chips inside them that don't depend at least a little bit on blood and child labor. Anyway, thanks a lot for your thoughts, I appreciated hearing them.
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0 # colin h 2011-11-13 16:34
i would think it would be good to be careful of who we advertise is a Buddhist, just because someone is a Buddhist dose not mean that he or she is practicing the wisdom of the Buddha, it is all so possible to have a understanding of Buddhism and use it to take advantage and exploit people,
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0 # Erric 2011-11-13 22:35
Hi Colin, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Speaking for myself, I rarely, if ever, come up to the high standards set by the teachings. Therefore, I don't really feel like I can be a particularly good judge of how much of a buddhist anyone else is. In Silberman's article, he makes some points about possible contradictions between Steve Jobs lifestyle and the teachings. The purpose of my post was more about how the teachings might have influenced one of the most innovative hi-tech/consume r product companies. For better or worse.
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