Date: 3rd January 2012
A life of the late Steve Jobs catches the great man’s many contradictions with unerring skill.
Technology begets the future and, thanks to Steve Jobs, it sketched the next phase in the evolution of lame-brained Homo sapiens. The headquarters of Apple in Silicon Valley are located in a galactic street called Infinite Loop and Jobs felt at home in such an abstract location. His preferred non-colour was white and the transparent buildings he helped design had spiral staircases of glass shaped like coils of DNA. He was, he believed, “enlightened”, a luminary to be ranked with Gandhi or Einstein.
As Walter Isaacson says in this incisive biography, Jobs behaved like a Nietzschean superman, using his will – transmitted through an unblinking stare – as a remote-control device that compelled others to do his bidding. As a child, he made his parents sell their house and buy another one that was beyond their means so he could qualify to enrol in a better school. As an adult, he drove his silver Mercedes at the speed of thought and parked it straddling spaces reserved for disabled drivers: the normal rules were for ordinary mortals. When first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he refused surgery and thought he could zap the malignancy by applying mental force, backed up – since this was ditzy, faddish California – by a regime of “organic herbs, juice fasts and frequent bowel cleansings”.
At his best, Jobs mimicked the serene demeanour of a Buddhist priest, just as the white or silver gadgets he sold exemplified a style that Isaacson calls “techno-Zen”. He negotiated multimillion dollar deals while walking barefoot through the countryside and bought himself a mansion in which he had to sit cross-legged on the floor because he disapproved of possessions and had theoretical objections to furniture.
But at his worst, as a colleague said, he resembled Rasputin. He screamed that underlings were “bleep, bleep bleep” before abruptly firing them, and his vindictive temper worked like a guided missile. During a dispute with Google, he declared that he intended “to go to thermonuclear war on this”.
Jobs attended Apple’s first Halloween party dressed as Jesus Christ, while his most devout admirers cast him in the role of God the Father, the creator of new worlds. Product launches were staged as re-enactments of Genesis, unveiling inventions that looked, as Jobs said about the 1988 Macintosh, like visitors “from another planet. A good planet. A planet with better designers”.
Customers believed in his wares with a cultish fervour. The iPhone was soon nicknamed “the Jesus phone” and when Jobs turned up at his local Apple store as it went on sale he was greeted, according to Isaacson, as Moses might have been “if he had walked in to buy the Bible”. The iPad‘s arrival provoked a journalist to refurbish the metaphor by remarking: “The last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it.”
Yet the saviour stank, physically and sometimes morally. The young Jobs abhorred deodorants and seldom showered, confident that his vegan or fruitarian diet laundered him from within. Despite his preachy claim that paying for music downloads disseminated “good karma”, he sometimes lied to colleagues and competitors and stole the credit for ideas that belonged to others. He was a man of the media age, inept at unmediated human relations – an adopted son who resented his abandonment by his birth parents but abandoned a daughter of his own born out of wedlock; a disengaged and narcissistic lover, who during his affair with Joan Baez insisted that she should have a particular Ralph Lauren dress, took her to the mall to see it and then after scooping up a few shirts for himself left her to buy the dress using her credit card (which she declined to do). Revealingly, he importuned Isaacson to write this biography because, he said, “I want my kids to know me”. Did he think that a book was a proper substitute for parental attention and care?
Isaacson catches these contradictions with unerring skill and partly justifies them by placing Jobs at the awkward intersection between two generations with opposing creeds. Born in 1955, he belonged to the bratty clan of baby-boomers who rebelled against the suburban conformity of their parents. He dropped out of college and simultaneously dropped acid, visited Indian gurus and idolised Bob Dylan. But although he emerged from the counterculture, he became an emblem of corporate culture and even commissioned Issey Miyake to design a uniform for Apple employees.
He may have disdained material encumbrances, but his business relied on inciting consumerist desires in others. The revolution he dreamed of in the days of flower power turned out to be electronic, not political. The former hippie sold his iPods and iPhones to hipsters who have no interest in changing the world but simply want to enjoy it as they groove to their pocket library of iTunes and loll on digital clouds cyber-chatting with friends they have never actually met. Isaacson almost blasphemously calls into question the purpose of the gadgetry that is now compulsory if you want to be young, stylish and hyperlinked: iPad apps, he says, place the world at your fingertips, and in doing so allow you to “waste glorious amounts of time”.
The biography is honest and therefore often harsh, but it confers on Jobs a kind of tragic desperation when, with the onset of cancer, he discovers that his infinitely looped and ingenious mind is housed in a fallible body. So cerebral that he disliked eating and preferred to starve himself, he was eventually eaten alive by his greedy tumour.
Isaacson laments Jobs’s infantile tantrums, while recognising that this childishness – exemplified by his Pixar blockbuster Toy Story – turned his products from tools into delightfully frisky playthings. When you remove the cover from the iPad 2, as Isaacson puts it, the screen “pops to life like the face of a tickled baby”. That beautiful phrase sums up Jobs’s bequest: he did redesign the universe and he reminded us to be amazed by it.
Posted in: Latest News