Business, Media, Sci-Tech

Book review: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

By Richard Poplak 30 October 2011

The response to Steven Paul Jobs passing, on 5 October was not measured. The encomiums flowed like, well, encomiums usually do in our culture. But in many important respects, Steve Jobs deserved the accolades. He was a lousy person who shepherded amazing technological products into being. Steve Jobs, the just-released biography by Walter Isaacson, will remain the definitive account of his life for decades to come. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Last week, I paid a visit to iTunes, via the “Store” function on my iBooks app. I searched “Steve Jobs”, was offered several options, and pre-ordered his biography. A day later, I was flipping through the digital pages, virtually highlighting passages, double-clicking the home button when my email bleeped an alert. This represents a once in a lifetime reading experience, and it should not pass unnoticed.

Firstly, though, some housekeeping: Steve Jobs did not “invent” the Apple II – the computer that revolutionised personal computing. Nor was he responsible for engineering or conceptualising its clunky predecessor, Apple I. Both those honours belong to Steve “Woz” Wozniak, the shy savant Jobs befriended, and then railroaded into a partnership in the mid-seventies. (And managed to screw out of a few bucks during their time at Atari, but more on that in a moment.) Jobs did not engineer the Macintosh, or any other Apple product; he was, in fact, merely average when it came to such pursuits. He did indeed “borrow” the notion of windows from Xerox, along with bitmapping and the mouse. (His rants about Google and Microsoft, companies he accused of the same sort of sharing, could peel paint from the walls in Cupertino.)

Indeed, Jobs’ achievements are both shallower and much, much deeper than anything the word “inventor” allows. We read a history of the Sumarians via the technology of writing they created; we read a biography of Edison under an electric light bulb. Our entire way of understanding our world often comes via the very inventions that have helped irrevocably change us. So it is with reading Steve Jobs on an iPad. But how to assess the man when the products he helped usher into the universe are so new, and his passing so recent?

Enter Walter Isaacson, the author of Einstein: His Life and Universe, and biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger. Isaacson was handpicked by Jobs to write this book, and this is entirely because of Isaacson’s beat: great men who transformed history. This is certainly how Jobs saw himself, and yet the courting process between author and subject, recounted in the prologue, makes it clear Jobs did not seek creative control over the book – at least, not always.     

So this is Isaacson’s account, and it is a clear-eyed, meticulous and readable take on an incredible life. Isaacson doesn’t allow for Jobs’ testimony to dominate, and the character that emerges is mostly unlikeable, often revolting, but utterly mesmerising. At Reed College, the elite Portland institute that Jobs forced his working-class parents to send him to, he affected a powerful stare and an almost demonic sense of resolve. When he did not get his way, he had a tantrum or cried; he was a big baby who was never able to the resolve the pain of being given up for adoption by his biological parents. Ever restless, he sought enlightenment and instead found drive and unimaginable success.

Jobs was born in San Francisco, California, to a 23-year-old mother and father who had no intention of keeping the child. Their one stipulation was that they wanted their son to be raised by college-educated parents. This, Paul and Clara Jobs were not. But they were committed parents, and Paul’s engineering background and their proximity to the massive technological advances underway in Silicon Valley, meant that there was enough going on to interest a young boy with a brilliant mind – a kid who was dubbed “special”, and not always in the good way.

The fifties and sixties in California represented a unique and particularly fertile time in the history of Western civilization. It was the intersection between the counterculture movement and the birth of the information age. Across the valley, hippies and engineers, and very often a hybrid of the two, encountered each other in the iconic ranch house garages that coughed out brilliant innovations as a matter of course. It was a time when an interest in the arts didn’t preclude a career in hi-tech. As Jobs tells Isaacson, “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics. Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

That reads as a veritable manifesto for Apple, the company Jobs would eventually start – in his parents’ garage – with Woz and Ronald Wayne in 1976. Before this, we encounter a host of characters who helped usher in the age that Jobs would end his life lording over. There’s Nolan Bushnell of Atari, who took enormous pleasure in the scraggly, stinking hippy and charged him with designing the circuit board for Breakout. There’s Hewlett and Packard, who both had listed numbers in the early seventies, and on whom Jobs called for favours. There’s the cast of gurus and swamis and charlatans and snake oil salesmen that flitted along the fringes of the counterculture movement, informing the experiences and outlooks of the men and women who would come to change the world. Jobs credits his LSD use as critical in framing his outlook – this feeling that there are myriad means of perceiving the universe, and there’s no need to pick just one. His brilliance came from his intuition – the ability to judge an idea’s worth in half an instant, and see it to fruition with almost no compromises.

Isaacson does a workmanlike job of rendering this era, but this isn’t anywhere near as definitive an account as John Markoff’s essential What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. His interest is, of course, narrower – but Jobs is the man who exemplified the bridge between hippy and hi-tech. We also learn how the young Jobs was fascinated with the homes built in California by developer Joseph Eichler – clean, simple designs that were affordable and usable. His aesthetic was a product of his universe.

These are the most fascinating elements of the book, mostly because they describe our hero’s intellectual passage, and the precise melding of his father’s engineering interests with the precepts of Timothy Leary. If anything, Isaacson rushes through this stuff too quickly, perhaps assuming that we want to get to the juicy stuff – the personal relationships that left Jobs with numerous black eyes over the years. And Lord, it ain’t pretty.

At Atari, Jobs cheated Wozniak out of the $700 bonus they received for designing Breakout with fewer chips than the schematics called for. An abandoned child himself, he walked away from a pregnant girlfriend and contested the paternity, shoving the incident to the back of his consciousness, yet naming the follow-up to the Apple II “Lisa”, after his daughter. His hygiene and manners were vile, and he relied on his intensity and enthusiasm to get him through personal and professional roadblocks. He was, in Isaacson’s words, an “admixture of sensitivity and insensitivity, bristliness and detachment”. His philanthropy was ad hoc and reluctant and his lack of interest in the environment shocking for an ex-hippy. The only place Steve Jobs could have found a home was in Silicon Valley, where eccentricities were tolerated and, more often than not, encouraged.

In short, this isn’t a hagiography. But on one point Isaacson is firm: Steve Jobs changed the way we live. I wrote in this magazine, on the eve of Jobs’ passing, that he is the Shakespeare of our age, mostly because there will be a time when future humans marvel at the breadth of his cultural influence, all achieved in an attenuated lifespan. (And perhaps attribute his work to a nobleman or a fat German woman.) But history, Edward Gibbon once noted, is a confluence of character and circumstance. And so Jobs goes on to get booted from the company he created, develop NeXT, the outfit that would inform Apple’s second life, buy and influence the direction of Pixar, the movie company that reinvigorated the art of animation and create the finest consumer products of the 21st century. The iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. The iMac, iTunes, the MacBook.

But what is that really worth, in the grand scheme of things? What’s the big deal if we can use “face time” to speak with our grandkids, use a computer that doesn’t need anti-virus software, or get Siri to tell us what the weather is doing in Nelspruit? (This is ignoring all the crap Apple has produced, like, or closed system engineering.) What do Steve Jobs’ achievements add up to, other than the generating of massive amounts of wealth? Isaacson encourages us to see Jobs as an artist, and his foibles less as business liabilities than as the quirks of a creative mind. He likes the idea that Jobs’ legacy has the sort of intangible quality that someone like Da Vinci leaves behind. Jobs has provided us with another way of seeing the world, of encountering it – a means of consuming content, through a beautiful confluence between software and hardware that perfectly iterates our age. He is Edison and Ford. He will be remembered a century from now.

“Was he smart?” asks Isaacson. “No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected and at times magical. He was, indeed, an example of what the mathematician Mark Kec called a magician genius, someone whose insights come out of the blue and require more than mere mental processing power. Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds, and sense what lay ahead.”

If you buy that, then buy Isaacson’s book. But I warn you – there is something desultory about reading a print copy. For the full effect, read it on an iPad. If you enjoy the experience, you can reasonably expect to enjoy the future. DM

Photo: Reuters