Steve Jobs (2011), by Walter Isaacson


Some comedian once defined Hell as being confined to a small room forever with an insurance salesman. Today he might replace the insurance salesman with the editorial staff of GQ or Wired.

Scanning those rags (in a waiting room to which you forgot to bring a book, surely), you get at least two strong impressions: first, a lot of what’s wrong today in the Republic, especially naive and arrogant wrongheadedness, is flaunted therein; second, the coolsters of urbia preening between those covers were the prototypical customers of Steve Jobs.

In his sneering rejection of market research, Jobs said contemptuously of the preeners: they won’t know what they want until you show it to them. And, of course, he knew the coolsters would stampede for something “cool.” Jobs called them “bozos,” “idiots,” and much worse. Publicly. Directly. In Steve Jobs these epithets are uttered cover-to-cover with the regularity of people drinking before noon in The Sun Also Rises.

Jobs played nasty, confirming jokes on his herds of bozos in high school: for example, switching bicycle locks. (Woz was gentler as an anti-authoritarian; for example, after figuring out how to rig phones to make free long-distance calls, he impersonated Henry Kissinger and called the Pope for diplomatic advice [and reached a prominent Papal aide before the mimicry faltered]). For me Jobs’s early pranks foreshadow his own special sense of “cool” as well as his sense of the “bozos’s” sense of “cool.”

As to Isaacson: both kinds of “cool,” respectively as in artful technology and in cynical salesmanship, are what he needs to deconstruct. But staid Issacson, a Stranger in the Silicon Valley Paradise, doesn’t. His biography is valuable as a data collection and shortsighted. In spite of the dozens of interviews with the right people–later books on Jobs will feast on this treasured collection of precarious recollections–and the orderly factual history, Isaacson doesn’t, I think, find Jobs.

As an overall take on Steve Jobs, my pure hunch is that (a) Jobs sought out Isaacson because of the Einstein and Franklin biographies and Jobs’s reaching the point of knowing he must memorialize his legacy; (b) Jobs saw immediately when he started telling his story that he was eluding Isaacson, Isaacson prestigious and accomplished but–no surprise in hindsight, I’m guessing–an outsider who would merely if dependably get the main events of the record straight; (c) accordingly, Jobs’s wife–Isaacson calls her one of the smartest people he’s met–apparently politely soon washed her hands of it and said that Isaacson should try to draw the darker selves within Jobs; (d) the significance of Jobs’s late declaration to Issacson that Jobs wouldn’t read the book for a year after its publication because parts of it would no doubt anger him was not concern that Isaacson would inaccurately credit others’ impressions of Jobs but that too much essential of Jobs–an understanding, an explanation–would be missing; and (e) all this bespeaks the urge everyone has to have someone sage, the knowing outsider, reveal you to yourself.

Isaacson writes a lengthy, inclusive plot summary with a few careful, obvious asides. For the tabloid media: Jobs is “prickly.” He takes undue credit. He isn’t necessarily the ideal husband. He distorts reality. His diet is eccentric. He is driven. As to the storyline itself: adoption; high school ups and downs; dropping out of Reed College but not before calligraphy and Hare Krishna; Zen; India; Woz; the Mac; Apple 1; NeXT; Apple 2; Powell and marriage; family; Pixar and John Lasseter; the i’s; cancer; passing. As we go along: Nolan Bushnell; Mike Markkula; Regis McKenna; Alan Kay; John Seely Brown; John Sculley; Bill Hambrecht; John Doerr; Larry Ellison; Bill Atkinson; Tim Cook; and many more.

One unintentional piece of great fun in Steve Jobs is the background Silicon Valley history for those of us who were there. There are many stations where you take a walk off the stopped train of the narrative as, far away imaginatively in past times, you smile and remember; and a few such times when you might frown.

By far Isaacson’s best chapter is on Jobs the designer. Jobs’s greatest and most original genius was to fashion from Zen visions, Cuisinart cases, road signs, sleek Mercedes and Porsche masterpieces, the Kyoto Gardens and other beautiful inspired designs, the look of his products, early Macs through the NeXT to the i’s and to his stores. He was a contrarian artist of his time, say, the opposite of Warhol: he didn’t want to portray the pedestrian monotony of a vulgar pop culture by letting it speak for itself, arranging it in numbingly repetitious patterns which intensely revealed its dismal aspect to force an inescapable, truthful, dismaying revelation; he wanted to shame the enormous and wearisome dreariness he saw all around him with beautiful, magical, transporting replacements. Perhaps the signature episode here is the day Jobs walked a doubting member of the iPAD team outside, a developer you could call a “square,” to see the many rounded corners, as opposed to squares, everywhere around them, for example, traffic signs: hence the look of the iPAD case.

Like many who went out and about in the Valley, I spent a little time a few years back with Jobs–it was during his NeXT days, doldrums–and he was an unforgettable presence, a genius, a true L’enfant terrible. Several things must have been clear to anyone who met him. He was in a hurry. He was affronted by the slow slouching way of much of the world. He had no patience with patience. He was especially affronted by careless ugliness. Fools were not merely suffered but insulted. Youthful in every other way, he had already an old aesthete’s contempt for any and all people and things unimaginative.

Yes, he couldn’t wait to make elegant art. In the hard days and lessons of the NeXT episode, it seems to me, he became increasingly cunning and guileful if no less nastily impatient and contemptuous. Obviously he told himself he must become a great businessman and, rather than making superb machines better than any others which cost double-digit thousands and wouldn’t sell to the institutional Old Boys with their infallible sense that the NeXT customer service line would be disconnected in several months but the one for those clunky IBM’s would still be answered, he must sell to the herds, albeit his businessman persona might well have been ever a little of a pose for him. (When I met him–it was in a lobby of a famous institution in Virginia–he was in disguise, wearing one of the most beautiful tailored suits, a dove gray, I’ve ever seen, and I suspect it was not merely Brooks Brothers or Savile Row but a design he’d browbeaten some tailor into building after paging through those enormous booklets of every feature of men’s suits, variations thereof: his suit had small-but-declarative rebellious flourishes, e.g., slight trouser bells, that made it both more than acceptable amidst greys with narrow ties and simultaneously better–clean-lined and stunningly arresting–than any other in the vast buildings there. [Isaacson does note that Jobs’s houses were scantily furnished because he rarely could find furniture whose ugliness didn’t affront him]).

Jobs had well before then, you feel sure, learned that he, a glorious thief like Picasso (he loved Picasso’s “Great artists steal”), wouldn’t so much invent as fashion. (I don’t know who started the Thomas Edison comparison. Isaacson? Anderson Cooper? Some screamer on CNBC?)

I knew Jobs but briefly, but knew slightly better two who influenced him: John Seely Brown and Alan Kay; and I hired as a consultant another who did so but whom I did not know very well: the innovative Doug Englebart.  Brown directed the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and as Isaacson makes clear (in an episode already famous or infamous, as you prefer, and the subject of at least one book) the young Jobs and Woz, touring the miracles up on Coyote Hill Road, were thunderstruck by the innovative, inspired work at PARC, such as Smalltalk, which had already laid the foundations for many of Jobs’s future great product successes; the two rushed home and began to reverse-engineer key functionality.

It was a crucial episode.

PARC was, in my view, largely a big, crucially important sandbox: the pull was clever discovery, the psychology was innovation and “putting the human in the loop” with software magical illusions [“metaphors” such as virtual “cabinets” and “windows” on the screen]; but in my view the driving force there was not business on an enormous scale, though such a judgment would never be made officially. The deepest dreams there seemed to me of a distant future: one evening at PARC years ago on the eve of Thanksgiving, Brown and I talked for hours about the possibilities of a technologically enabled indefinite life. Alan Kay, who was for a while at PARC (and later an Apple Fellow), was probably closer to Earth, and he already had an idea along the lines of the iPAD which he called Dynabook. But my overall impression of him was that finally he too was largely a most important visionary.

Jobs, a visionary and a businessman, was a true original. There was no one like him. Certainly he was no mere member of the Digerati. I think Michael Wolff, in his extraordinarily insightful Television is the New Television, saw well that if anything Jobs hints of traditional visionaries and businessmen if not of Ahab, the absolute master of the ship, the sole creator of the mission:

Jobs himself was, relatively speaking, anti-Web. He was rather the last guy who would be at home in an unruly, contributory environment. He was basically an old-fashioned, ever-controlling, hopelessly obsessive media mogul. It was his way. It’s a closed system. Or, in a better metaphor, it’s his theater and his show.

Even though he was a toddler when the decade began, perhaps he, not Dylan or Kesey or Steinem, might well be viewed as the apotheosis of the Sixties cultural shift. He’s the one with the greatest influence carrying forward. How far forward? In today’s world, perhaps not too far.

Jobs, the Original, was a paradox. My strong impression is that fundamentally Jobs never did care deeply about his product consumers, though he understood how inviting were his simple and beautiful product designs, and he needed his consumers mainly as a validation of his works of art. His legion consumers brought in the big money, but Jobs was never much of a conspicuous consumer like his friend the Veblenesque Larry Ellison.

I’ve heard it said that Jobs was the main hero of a saving American “knowledge economy.” Millions of iPODS are made in China.

So: It is crucial, I think, to see him ultimately as an aesthete, but an aesthete in a certain tradition of elegance and simplicity which, to summarize a very complicated matter, cannot accept, let alone understand, how there might be beauty of form in anything baroque. (This is clearly, it seems to me, just where to think about Jobs’s savage driving of his developers to do far more with far less, to shrink down the designs of the i’s while stabilizing or raising the power: not the epic but the haiku. And it’s also where to think about Jobs’s determination to hacker-proof his lovely pieces of art and why he abhorred the intrusion into his art of “apps” from outsiders [though he had to come to terms with it.])

Most essentially, he was an aesthete with as impatient a demiurge as you could imagine.

And especially he had the storytelling instinct, as his Pixar adventure dramatizes. One revelatory inclusion in Isaacson’s book–it’s about as deep as he gets, in my view, and very deep–is his noting that Jobs’s two literary heroes were King Lear and Captain Ahab. Jobs evidently declined to discuss with Isaacson his admiration of these figures.

King Lear, I imagine, = the early betrayal at Apple and the years out of shelter on the wintry heath at NeXT.

Ahab, we’ve noted, is surely the more important when we think about Jobs. Ahab defiantly hated the suffering inherent in the natural human condition. He was no Romantic. He thought waves monotonous, the sunlit ocean a shroud over monsters. He roused his crew to go on the offensive, to transcend Nature, to punish Her. (There are no brownshirts aboard the Pequod; Ahab isn’t the literary forerunner of Hitler.) Ahab threw his compass overboard, relied on his own dead reckoning. He devised his own ocean surveillance system to locate his great foe and carry out his plan. There’s no one quite like him in the world of the human imagination.*


* The brilliant entrepreneur and investor, Peter Thiel, in his contrarian book on all things entrepreneurial, Zero to One, says:

Anyone who has held an iDevice or a smoothly machined MacBook has felt the result of Steve Jobs’s obsession with visual and experiential perfection. But the most important lesson to learn from Jobs has nothing to do with aesthetics. The greatest thing Jobs designed was his business. Apple imagined and executed definite multi-year plans to create new products and distribute them effectively. …Jobs saw that you can change the world through careful planning….

His point is well-taken, though Jobs the aesthete-artist coming out of definite traditions of elegance and simplicity strikes me as a “distributor” and “planner” who, like a novelist or painter, produces a series of works or pieces which turn on a few themes and amplify those themes, and that the artist “plans” to send them into the world according to a creative inner “schedule” along which they show up in a certain order when they are ready to show up and not before. Perhaps Jobs’s insistent product schedules and deadlines were after-the-fact servants to the mysterious process by which his ideas for his art-piece products germinated: at certain points, he had arrived at knowing just what he wanted and now colleagues needed to help make it a reality as soon as possible if not as soon as impossible! I find it infeasible to separate Jobs’s aesthetic drive from any and all aspects of his business sense and conduct. Coolidge famously said that the business of America is business, but I’m not so sure that observation applies easily to Jobs.

I also suspect that Jobs’s irrepressible nasty view of coolsters–e.g., how much could small minds absorb at once–is one likely “practical” or “business” factor playing into his product roll-out plans and schedules.