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Friday
Nov112011

Who was it that lived at the corner of Tech and Humanities?

I've seen a comedic poster of Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie, both computer industry giants who passed away recently, circulating on the web. The poster is labelled to show that Jobs was "praised by the media as Jesus of computing," while Ritchie, who was instrumental in developing the C programming language and UNIX was "ignored."

The problem with this is that developing technology and envisioning end products that reach users where they live are entirely different functions. "Raw" invention and successful execution in business are entirely different functions.

Jobs made a habit of looking at existing, emerging, and even dormant ("gorilla glass") technologies and then imagining what normal people could do with them when no one else saw it, not engineers and not consumers. He explicitly defined his work not as technology development, per se, but as bridging large gaps at the "intersection of technology and humanities." This is detailed as a central life theme in the recent biography of Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

The kind of comparison in this photo may rightly promote Ritchie as a technologist, but as a snub against Jobs, it badly misses the point. It reveals a kind of engineering arrogance, the view that what "really" counts is the technocrat and his technologists, but not the marketer, the merchandiser, the designer, the visionary, the distributor, or the strategist. As it turns out, all of these functions "really" count and can do no useful work in isolation from the others. Real markets (and the real world) require much more than technology; in the end, they require its application to the "end" business of living.

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