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For better or worse, he tamed technology

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 7, 2011

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In 2006, I bought a white MacBook from the Apple Store at the CambridgeSide Galleria. The kid who delivered the box looked me in the face, smiled, shook my hand, and said, “Congratulations from Apple on your new MacBook!’’ No one in the history of my buying anything - pies, socks, t-shirts, books directly from their authors - had ever welcomed me to a club. Not with so much earnestness and gusto and teeth.

Oh: and it was a computer. Made in China. That, of course, is the miracle of Apple. I wasn’t thinking about factory conditions. I wasn’t even buying a computer. I was a buying a lifestyle upgrade. I was buying a piece of Steve Jobs and what Steve Jobs knew to be true of me, what he knew to be true of most of us.

We don’t like computers.

Computers are scary. They’re nightmares to fix, lose our stuff, and, on occasion, they crash, producing the blue screen of death. Steve Jobs knew this. He knew that computers were bulky and hernia-inducing and Darth Vader black. He understood the value of declarative design. He was the Ernest Hemingway of technology.

Jobs removed the fear and essentially hid the computer: the iPod (computer as record crate), the MacBook (computer as personal office), the iPhone (computer as lifeline), the iPad (computer as, well, we’re still figuring that out). He took computers and turned them into something to play with and love. He turned them into toys. And he turned us into worshippers and fans. He also made us more confident with technology.

Jobs died on Wednesday after battling pancreatic cancer, and it seemed to suck the air out of a world already being roiled by bad news. What was striking about his death - the day after Apple unveiled a new iPhone - was that Jobs didn’t simply touch our lives. When he died, he was still in the act of changing them. That’s what separated him from the other chief executives. He always looked like he was working. For us.

His suit was a pair of jeans and a black mock turtleneck. No matter how much of him remained mysterious, his passion, as he put it, for “making something wonderful’’ was obvious. In 15 years, wonderful changed the world.

That’s why, in a moment of mounting public contempt for executives and corporations, people are building shrines for Jobs. Protesters have been rallying on Wall Street and around Boston, disgusted by the gulf between us and them. We don’t know what chief executives do. We just know how much they make. Jobs was endearing because, while he was rich, he didn’t make money; he made a product of utmost tactility. During a time of economic recession and high unemployment, he was a not-entirely-incidental beacon of optimism: His last name was Jobs.

That optimism changed the movies, too. In 1986, Jobs bought an animation house that became Pixar, and in 1995, Pixar released “Toy Story,’’ the first full-length, fully computer-animated movie. This frontier made us nervous. No more hand-drawn animation? But most Pixar films are better than most live action films.

At Apple, Jobs elevated the repairman to rock star. They aren’t techies or members of a Geek Squad. Openly, proudly, they’re “geniuses.’’ Even if they aren’t, really, they’re geniuses to us.

As much as Apple is a company, it never strikes the culture as a corporation. What Apple uses and creates has been bad for landfills, the designers of album covers, brick-and-mortar anything, and attention spans. Yet Apple maintains a high approval rating, particularly in relation to, say, Microsoft, which, despite having a philanthropic chief executive, has never succeeded in giving itself a human face. In the Mac vs. PC ads, Apple bills itself as the antidote to Microsoft. To love Apple wasn’t to sell out. It was to buy in. Most people use PCs, but Apple has the mindshare.

There are better electronic devices for reading, but none is as sexy as the iPad. And standing beneath the white light of an Apple store is like standing on a Stanley Kubrick movie set. His “2001: A Space Odyssey’’ predicted Jobs and a future where technology was our friend. Kubrick, of course, didn’t like what he saw. And occasionally, I have my doubts.

Through my window, I sometimes see a couple on their sofa in front of the television with their MacBooks. There’s a sad scene in Miranda July’s recent breakup movie “The Future,’’ in which a couple does a version of the same thing. Some nights, I’m in that relationship, too. The most terrifying sequence in Pixar’s “WALL-E,’’ more or less about two gizmos in love, is the way man has evolved into a dumpling obsessed with his screen. It was a vision of the future that occasionally feels like now.

We don’t know whether Jobs’s revolution has enhanced or ruined us. Are we smarter or ruder? More efficient or more indolent? More creative or more consumerist? It’s impossible to remember a before. We are our screens now. Which is to say that Jobs is the quintessential visionary. Without leaving civilization entirely, how can we see around what he saw? Would we even want to now?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com