Steve Jobs’ Binary Code

Ryan NealRyan Neal, Sermon Illustrations, Theology

The Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson is worth reading, especially if you’re interested in one of the most influential leaders of our time. After reading it last fall, I have continued to ponder some of the greatness and quirkiness of Jobs. Today I’ll focus on a quirk that has theological implications.

Steve Jobs lived according to a binary code. I call this code “binary” because it is identical in function to the binary code of computers, with the only option being a 0 or a 1. That’s it. Binary choices forbid a third option or a different path, consistently disallowing what philosophers call dialectical resolution.

On some level, Jobs subscribed to a “binary code” philosophy: Jobs had the habit of assessing people in extreme terms. Because this site is “family friendly” I’ll avoid using the precise descriptors that Jobs used, but suffice it to say that he would apparently make instantaneous judgments of products in development. For example, Jobs could glance at a box with the wrong shade of blue and proclaim it to be inferior junk, while a revision the next day would be labeled the apex of achievement, and completely perfect. In his world, it was either the best, number one or it was completely worthless, nothing, a zero. His code limited him to these two choices when gauging products. My guess is this enabled Apple to produce elegant and impressive products. His exacting demands resulted in a superior product, with every iteration better than the previous.

Additionally, and more problematic, he would apply the same binary code to people. He labeled people with colorful expletives, and yet just as easily he might praise them. According to those who knew him best, Jobs had the temperament of an artist and he indulged in it often, with neither apology nor explanation. He demanded perfection from products and people. Anything less was total failure. He assigned a 1 or 0. There was no alternative; the best or the worst. You were the best, #1 or you were a total loser, a zero.

As much as I’d like to label Jobs as an arrogant jerk, judging people too quickly, I’m pretty sure Jobs’ tendency in this regard is played out in my life as I deal with people. My judgments can settle, with very little room for someone to either improve their standing or come down from a high perch. So, perhaps some stay in their elevated position (in my internal rankings) too long, but just as easily, perhaps, an unfair first impression can stick, when I should modify it based on new information.

Though I think I’m guilty of some of the same extreme judgments that Jobs made, ultimately I find such a code problematic, because while Jobs had some keen, prescient insights on technology and the constant human condition of wanting what is new and improved, his binary code misses the mark on the essence of the human condition.

Martin Luther championed a phrase describing Christians “simul iustus et peccator,” simultaneously righteous and a sinner. The motto proclaims two simultaneous truths, accepting both facts of the Christian life. Admittedly, if pushed too far in one direction it can lead to resignation, to a life of sin, or pushed too far in the other direction it can lead to self-righteous pride. When both sides are kept in view, Luther’s motto shows the faulty logic of Job’s binary code.

Not one of us is a “total loser” and no one is “perfect,” as Jobs would have us believe.

Instead, those of us in Christ live between the times, existing in the eschatological tension of being righteous because of Christ’s sacrifice (Romans 4.3-8), and yet simultaneously we are sinners (Romans 3.23). Both are true. Paul assures the church in Rome that by faith sinners are made righteous through Jesus Christ (Romans 3.21-26). Christ’s righteousness becomes ours, not because of what we have done, but because of Christ’s fulfillment of the law for those who believe (Romans 8.1-4). Our performance gains us nothing toward righteousness; for how can imperfect attempts (Isaiah 64.6) add to perfection (see Hebrews 5.1-10.39)?

For the latest iGadget, feel free to follow Apple for magical devices, but for a code to live by, Jobs’ binary code is inferior and needs an update. Instead follow Luther’s motto, grounded in the New Testament.