Form and Fortune: Steve Jobs’s pursuit of perfection—and the consequences.

February 28, 2012

The New Republic:

In 2010, Der Spiegel published a glowing profile of Steve Jobs, then at the helm of Apple. Jobs’s products are venerated in Germany, especially by young bohemian types. Recently, the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg presented an exhibition of Apple’s products, with the grandiloquent subtitle “On Electro-Design that Makes History”—a good indication of the country’s infatuation with the company. Jobs and Jony Ive, Apple’s extraordinary chief of design, have always acknowledged their debt to Braun, a once-mighty German manufacturer of radios, record players, and coffeemakers. The similarity between Braun’s gadgets from the 1960s and Apple’s gadgets is quite uncanny. It took a Syrian-American college dropout—a self-proclaimed devotee of India, Japan, and Buddhism—to make the world appreciate the virtues of sleek and solid German design. (Braun itself was not so lucky: in 1967 it was absorbed into the Gillette Group, and ended up manufacturing toothbrushes.)

The piece about Jobs in Der Spiegel shed no light on his personality, but it stood out for two reasons. The first was its title: “Der Philosoph des 21 Jahrhunderts,” or “The Philosopher of the Twenty-First Century.” The second was the paucity of evidence to back up such an astonishing claim. Jobs’s status as a philosopher seems to have been self-evident. It is hard to think of any other big-name CEO who could win such an accolade, and from an earnest German magazine that used to publish long interviews with Heidegger. So was Steve Jobs a philosopher who strove to change the world rather than merely interpret it? Or was he a marketing genius who turned an ordinary company into a mythical cult, while he himself was busy settling old scores and serving the demands of his titanic ego?

There are few traces of Jobs the philosopher in Walter Isaacson’s immensely detailed and pedestrian biography of the man. Isaacson draws liberally on previously published biographies, and on dozens of interviews that Jobs gave to the national media since the early 1980s. He himself conducted many interviews with Jobs (who proposed the project to Isaacson), and with his numerous colleagues, enemies, and disciples, but as one nears the end of this large book it’s hard not to wonder what it was that Isaacson and Jobs actually talked about on those walks around Palo Alto. Small anecdotes abound, but weren’t there big themes to discuss?

That the book contains few earth-shattering revelations is not necessarily Isaacson’s fault. Apple-watching is an industry: there exists an apparently insatiable demand for books and articles about the company. Apple-focused blogs regularly brim with rumors and speculation. Ever since its founding—but especially in the last decade, when Apple-worship reached its apogee—Apple has been living under the kind of intense public scrutiny that is usually reserved for presidents. Jobs relished such attention, but only if it came on his own terms. He did his best to manage Apple’s media coverage, and was not above calling influential tech reporters and convincing them to write what he wanted the world to hear. Not only did Jobs build a cult around his company, he also ensured that it had its own print outlets: Apple’s generous subsidy allowed Macworld—the first magazine to cover all things Apple—to come into being and eventually spawn a genre of its own.

As Isaacson makes clear, Jobs was not a particularly nice man, nor did he want to be one. The more diplomatic of Apple’s followers might say that Steve Jobs—bloodthirsty vegetarian, combative Buddhist—lived a life of paradoxes. A less generous assessment would be that he was an unprincipled opportunist-a brilliant but restless chameleon. For Jobs, consistency was truly the hobgoblin of little minds (he saw little minds everywhere he looked) and he did his best to prove Emerson’s maxim in his own life. He hung a pirate flag on the top of his team’s building, proclaiming that “it is better to be a pirate than to join the Navy,” only to condemn Internet piracy as theft several decades later. He waxed lyrical about his love for calligraphy, only to destroy the stylus as an input device. He talked up the virtues of contemplation and meditation, but did everything he could to shorten the time it takes to boot an Apple computer. (For a Buddhist, what’s the rush?) He sought to liberate individual users from the thrall of big businesses such as IBM, and then partnered with IBM and expressed his desire to work only with “corporate America.” A simplifier with ascetic tendencies, he demanded that Apple’s board give him a personal jet so that he could take his family to Hawaii. He claimed he was not in it for the money and asked for a salary of just $1, but he got into trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission for having his stock options—in a move that gave him millions—backdated. He tried to convince his girlfriend that “it was important to avoid attachment to material objects,” but he built a company that created a fetish out of material objects. He considered going to a monastery in Japan, but declared that, were it not for computers, he would be a poet in the exceedingly unmonastic city of Paris.

How serious was he about that monastery thing? Isaacson recounts well-known anecdotes of Jobs’s quest for spirituality and seems to take them all (and many other things) at face value. The story of Jobs’s youth—his pilgrimage to India, the time he spent living on a farm commune, his fascination with primal scream therapy—does suggest that his interest in spirituality was more than a passing fad. But how long did it last, exactly? Did the more mature Jobs, the ruthless capitalist, feel as strongly about spirituality as his younger self did? Surely there were good reasons for the mature Jobs to cultivate the image of a deeply spiritual person: Buddhism is more than just a religion in America, it is also a brand. And one of Apple’s great accomplishments was to confer upon its devices a kind of spiritual veneer.

Jobs was quite candid about his vanishing interest in matters of spirituality as early as 1985. When a Newsweek reporter inquired if it was true that he had considered going to a monastery in Japan, Jobs gave a frank answer: “I’m glad I didn’t do that. I know this is going to sound really, really corny. But I feel like I’m an American, and I was born here. And the fate of the world is in America’s hands right now. I really feel that. And you know I’m going to live my life here and do what I can to help.” In a more recent interview withEsquire he claimed that he did not pursue the monastery route in part because he saw fewer and fewer differences between living in the East and working at Apple: “Ultimately, it was the same thing.”

Jobs’s engagement with politics was quite marginal—so marginal that, except for him lecturing Obama on how to reset the country, there are few glimpses of politics in this book. He did not hold politicians in anything like awe. We see him trying to sell a computer to the king of Spain at a party, and asking Bill Clinton if he could put in a word with Tom Hanks to get him to do some work for Jobs. (Clinton declined.) When he was ousted from Apple, Jobs may have flirted with the idea of running for office but was probably discouraged by all the pandering it required. “Do we have to go through that political bullshit to get elected governor?” he reportedly asked his publicist. In an interview with Business Week in 1984, he confessed that “I’m not political. I’m not party-oriented, I’m people-oriented.”

But “not political” may be the wrong term to describe him. There is a curious passage in his interview with Wired, in 1996, where he notes:

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth…

Read it all.

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