Having surprised myself by quite enjoying Commodore: A Company on the Edge by Bagnall, I decided to try the Steve Jobs biography by Isaacson. We’ve just come through Jobs’ illness and death, so the release of this book is also timely and much discussed in the tech news I subscribe to — and the combination of nostalgic computer history and current events encouraged me to pick up the book.
I’m a computer geek, and I’ve used many Apple products over the years; the Apple II at school got me interested in coding, I’ve inevitably used Macs on and off in my schooling and career in graphic design (there’s an iMac on the desk beside me), like everyone I’ve listened to music on iPods, and for a long time me and my iPod Touch were inseparable. But I never managed to get caught up in the fabled “reality distortion field” and salesmanship of Steve Jobs; this “fanboy” part of modern computer culture has puzzled me: sure, these products were good, occasionally great, but never quite “magical” to me to a point where I would completely jump ship from my preferred Windows ecosystem and begin evangelizing for Apple. To be honest I had really hoped that this book could make me finally understand why Jobs is on such a high pedestal in so many peoples’ eyes.
You know, it did quite the opposite. I think I am more puzzled than ever.
Personally: Jobs was a manipulative, controlling, unsympathetic and all-around unlikable man. One of his on-again off-again lovers insisted that he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder, while someone else compares him to a televangelist, and that really is the exact picture that you come away with. It seems that the only time Jobs treated anyone civily was when he needed something from them, was manipulating them, or actively setting them up for a fall.
Professionally: you see that almost all of the innovations and ideas that are credited to Jobs actually originated elsewhere; but he seized on other peoples’ good ideas and took credit and championed them as their salesman. (This is no surprise; he used to famously brag about stealing ideas unapologetically.) Then he would nitpick over controlling the finest details — the nitpicking was clearly a sneaky way to put his own stamp on the hard work of the other designers, engineers or programmers. So many things that he is now given credit for weren’t his idea at all, and in some cases, he was actively opposed to them. For example, he was completely against the App Store — the board of directors insisted on having one and it took over a year to convince Jobs to allow it — but of course Jobs made sure that he was credited with “inventing” the App Store and “changing the world” with it, and you’ll see that repeated throughout the press and history books.
At so many points, I found myself itching to hear the point of view of the real wizards behind the curtain. Not just what they think about Jobs, but what they thought about the products and technology that they designed. Perhaps I’m being unfair, as this is a biography and not a history book; however — for example — I found myself annoyed when Jobs is ousted from Apple and the book then completely passes over everything that happened at Apple in his absence. Also, with the exception of Bill Gates and a little bit about Google at the very end, any mention of how Apple’s other competitors may have been influencing Jobs’ are absent as well.
Whenever Isaacson asks Jobs about his motivation for this or that, it is clear that Jobs was caught up in his own reality distortion field. Why did Jobs do the things he did? The author isn’t very good at getting very deep into that. If not money, what, narcissism? At one point one of his girlfriends suggests that his motivation was centered around his belief that beauty was universal — that is, not ”in the eye of the beholder” — and he was specially ordained (likely through his LSD-inspired cosmic Zen awareness) to teach the world that his vision of beauty is the ultimate truth. But how can a person who believes he is specially ordained to teach others ultimate truth or beauty be such a manipulative, self-centred, abusive and uncompassionate person, a neglectful father, and so strikingly non-philanthropic?
In a way though, it is this disconnect that makes his story fascinating: I understand now how Jobs accomplished what he did, but ironically it all left me wishing that we lived in a world where a man like Steve Jobs could not thrive and succeed… that talented people wouldn’t have to endure awful personal abuse, manipulation, and stolen ideas in order for a company to create successful products.
I hope Jobs’ story will be seen as a cautionary tale, rather than someone to admire or emulate. As successful as Apple has become of late, I hope that we have seen the last of his kind, and that better human beings will take the reigns from here.