How Steve Jobs’ Sense Of Zen “Ma” Made Apple The New Sony



Columnist Jeff Yang has a great piece on how Steve Jobs used his extreme focus to make Apple into the new Sony.

There’s tons of great stuff in here. It’s a very well-informed piece.

Here’s Yang talking about how Jobs’ study of Zen has influenced his approach to design, which I’ve never seen discussed before:

To understand why, one has to remember that Jobs spent much of the 1970s at the Los Altos Zen Center (alongside then-and-current Gov. Jerry Brown) and later studied extensively under the late Zen roshi Kobun Chino Otogawa — whom he designated as the official “spiritual advisor” for NeXT, the company he founded after being ejected as Apple’s CEO in 1986, and who served as officiant when he wed his wife Laurene in 1991.

Jobs’s immersion in Zen and passion for design almost certainly exposed him to the concept of ma, a central pillar of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Like many idioms relating to the intimate aspects of how a culture sees the world, it’s nearly impossible to accurately explain — it’s variously translated as “void,” “space” or “interval” — but it essentially describes how emptiness interacts with form, and how absence shapes substance. If someone were to ask you what makes a ring a meaningful object — the circle of metal it consists of, or the emptiness that that metal encompasses? — and you were to respond “both,” you’ve gotten as close to ma as the clumsy instrument of English allows.

While Jobs has never invoked the term in public — one of the aspects of his genius is the ability to keep even his most esoteric assertions in the realm of the instantly accessible — ma is at the core of the Jobsian way. And Jobs’ single-minded adherence to this idiosyncratically Japanese principle is, ironically, what has allowed Apple to compete with and beat Japan’s technology titans — most notably the company that for the past four decades dominated the world of consumer electronics: Sony.

SF Gate: How Steve Jobs ‘out-Japanned’ Japan