Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, 2011. Glossy's rating: 5 out of 10.

I read this book with interest even though, like almost everyone else, I already knew a lot about Jobs. There were some interesting new details on the margins, yes, but Jobs's famous personal magnetism must have been the biggest draw. Even a bore like Walter Isaacson couldn't obscure it all that much. Throughout the book I kept wondering how decent, level-headed people could go to work for Jobs, invest money in his enterprises, trust him during negotiations. Everyone always knew he was a sociopath. Well, why did I keep reading this book? If humans could be very excited by honesty and altruism, the world would be a pretty different place.

Where did Jobs's sociopathy come from? He was very smart - his teachers asked him to skip two grades in school - but he didn't have a single bit of nerdiness in him. His interests and mental power were from the beginning mostly turned towards humans. He had an intuitive understanding of people's weaknesses, boundaries and motivations and a superior ability to manipulate them. And unlike a smart woman, he had all that machismo.

Are all non-nerdy smart people sociopaths? If the average guy was suddenly granted these particular talents by a miracle pill, would he instantly become an asshole? Perhaps. I can think of at least one other contributing factor though. Bill Clinton, the other super-famous, brilliant-but-not-nerdy American sociopath of our day, may well have been as much of a bastard as Jobs, since the identity of his bio-father is disputed.

Obviously, Jobs's manipulative alpha nature benefited him enormously. Did it benefit society? Not technologically. File management and a lot of other PC tasks were always easier to do on a command line than in a GUI. There's less latency, you have more choices, and the learning curve isn't as steep as most imagine. Hardware keyboards are easier to use than software alternatives. The relationship between the quality of an artist's output and the complexity of his tools can't be very strong. The technical innovations that Jobs thrust onto the market earlier than they would have gotten there without him tended to be superficial.

I do think that his overall impact on society was positive, but that this was mostly confined to aesthetics. The original iMac, the Power Mac G4, the iPad 4 on which I'm typing this review and many other Apple products were rays of beauty in our increasingly ugly world. As such they've raised millions of people's moods and consciousnesses. 

Of course he didn't bring back any classical forms - he never thought that different. But he did as much within the narrow confines of modernism as anybody I'm aware of. He didn't sketch - that's one of the things I learned from this book. Those who are able to easily push around others rarely enjoy doing anything else. So he just yelled at underlings until they made things that looked good to him. He did unquestionably have a great sense of style though.

When Pixar needed a new headquarters, Jobs became intimately involved in the building's design. He wanted it to have lots of open, public spaces where employees from different departments would be forced to bump into each other. He even pushed for the building to contain only two very large bathrooms for the same reason. 

"Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions." 

Nope. That's schmoozimg. Creativity comes from men concentrating on difficult problems alone for many hours in total silence. 

"You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” 

This is like a clown decreeing that fishing needs more makeup. He wasn't even curious about how his minions worked, how the stuff he sold came into being.

Naturally I was interested in the effects of Jobs's mixed parentage. Some aspects of his personality (verbal bombast, weepy, self-pitying sentimentality, the desire to be worshipped) were 100% Middle Eastern and others (an obsession with quality, an understated, stark, spare visual style) were 100% German. You'd expect people of mixed backgrounds to congregate around the 50/50 line on most traits, but for some reason it rarely works that way. 

Group photos of Apple's management team can look like pictures of Saddam's cabinet meetings once you realize that jeans and mock turtlenecks were playing the role of black moustaches. Everyone present felt the need to copy the leader. Phrases like "insanely great" and "make a dent in the Universe" clearly share a sensibility with "the mother of all wars". Yet in the visual sphere he always went for the unadorned, the elegantly understated.

His thought processes were extremely irrational. One only needs rationality (and humility) when dealing with facts and inanimate objects, and he, after all, dealt with people instead. For example, already during the design of the original Macintosh he became dogmatic about rounded edges. You can make a beautiful object with square edges (just look at old books) or sharp edges as easily as with rounded ones. True aesthetics are always much more complex than a choice between three options anyway. Intuitively he knew what was beautiful and what wasn't, but his consciously verbalized ideas about it were illogical.

Another example of this was his genius/bozo (I'm being PG-13) dichotomy in evaluating employees. In the real world talents are distributed as bell curves. You'd think that an erroneously binary view of people's capabilities would severely hurt a manager's effectiveness. But the human world doesn't work logically, so he was able to have great success in it regardless. 

This irrationality must be related to the shocking amount of hypocrisy in Jobs's work. In the 1984 commercial he presented Apple as a rebel fighting totalitarian control freaks at IBM. Yet it was he who always fought to take choices away from Apple's customers. You couldn't even open the original Macintosh with a screwdriver. The nerds who liked to modify their systems had to buy IBM compatibles instead. My iPad is glued shut and won't accept a USB drive. I lack access to its file system and it only runs apps approved by Apple. Hackers have justly named programs that remove Apple's software controls "jailbreaks".

Jobs's second most famous commercial introduced his "Think Different" slogan. 

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo." 

And on and on in that barf-inducing vein, while Picasso, Ghandi, MLK, Bob Dylan, etc. appear on the screen. Those guys weren't rebels. They always went with the flow. It's impossible to get that famous while doing anything else, certainly not in art or politics. And of course the "counterculture" was the flow of Jobs's youth. Now, if he cited someone like Evelyn Waugh...

Bono opines on the pages of this book:

"The people who invented the twenty-first century were pot-smoking, sandal-wearing hippies from the West Coast like Steve, because they saw differently. The hierarchical systems of the East Coast, England, Germany and Japan do not encourage this different thinking." 

It was deeply satisfying to see someone so full of himself being so hilariously wrong. The PC industry was created by nerds, not hippies. Nerds are the most rules-loving, routines-obsessed, regimented people on Earth. Also some of the most clean-living, if you disregard junk food. Nerds like Woz's father were ultimately gathered in the Bay Area by the Pentagon. Besides nerds, the most rules-loving entities in the known Universe are of course first-world militaries. If the Pentagon decided to invest in Alaska or the East Coast, that's where all those engineers would have settled and that's where the PC industry would have had to be born. And if Jobs grew up in a community obsessed with the aforementioned fishing, his business ventures would have had to revolve around that, since he was born to lead men, not to become an expert in any area of knowledge. Technology can, in principle, exist without hucksterism. But not without technologists. 

And why was Jobs so drawn to Indian and faux-Indian gurus? Because they were controlling lots of impressionable minds. They were successful manipulative alphas. It was natural for a guy like him to want to see the masters at work. Same for his obsession with Dylan.

Isaacson devotes a lot of space to Jobs's weird diets. Jobs sometimes ate nothing but one particlar kind of fruit for weeks on end and was a vegetarian for most of his life. There was also lots of fasting and purging. Before Woz came up with the Apple I, Jobs likely saw himself in the future as a patriarch of a hippie commune in the mold of one of his closest friends at Reed College:

"In order to raise some cash one day, Jobs decided to sell his IBM Selectric typewriter. He walked into the room of the student who had offered to buy it only to discover that he was having sex with his girlfriend. Jobs started to leave, but the student invited him to take a seat and wait while they finished. "I thought, 'This is kind of far out," Jobs later recalled. And thus began his relationship with Robert Friedland, one of the few people in Jobs's life who were able to mesmerize him."

You can't have a religion without fasts and weird diets, so I'm guessing that early on Jobs's dieting served to prepare him for that career path. Friedland's commune included an apple orchard where Jobs sometimes worked pruning trees during the period when Apple was founded. The company's name is not unrelated to this. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Friedland later became a billionaire gold miner. 

One humanizing aspect of Jobs's story was his love for his home town, Silicon Valley. He considered his California childhood to have been idyllic. That's not entirely how it sounded to me though. This book describes Jobs being bullied by "ethnic gangs" in a school situated in a "bad neighborhood". There was a gang rape there around the time he started attending. He gave an ultimatum to his parents to make them move to a better school district, where they had to buy a more expensive home. There were no bad neighborhoods or gangs, ethnic or otherwise, in my Soviet childhood.

Jobs once did a prank with his school buddies where they changed the codes on their classmates' bike locks. Everyone in my neighborhood had a bike when I was a kid, but no one had ever heard of bike locks. And no bikes were ever stolen.

A couple of random things I didn't know before I read this book:

1) Jobs went out with Chris-Ann Brennan in high school, but they later split up. She reconnected with him right when Apple started taking off. This is also when she became pregnant. Isaacson ignores the gold-digging implications of this entirely, but I bet Jobs didn't. Does this justify his subsequent abandonment of his first child? No. But it's a bit of context.

2) Xerox put out a GUI-based computer in 1981, more than a year after they showed the GUI technology to Jobs, 2 years before the Lisa and 3 years before the Macintosh. It was a failure. It cost $16,595 and sold 30,000 copies. The idea that Jobs simply stumbled upon a ready-to-use unexploited goldmine at PARC is not entirely correct. Without his business sense, marketing, without the numerous improvements to the GUI experience for which he pushed at Apple, this technology was not an automatic winner.

I'll end this review with predictions. It will be fun to read this 20 years from now, even if just to wonder how I could have been so wrong about something so obvious.

I'm guessing that without Jobs Apple will steadily decline. iOS will lose most of its market share to Android. At this point, before either Google Glass or the iWatch have gone on sale, the former seems more exciting than the latter. The phenomenon of other companies coming out with technologies that Apple would have pioneered if Jobs lived on will become a trend. The aesthetics of Apple's products will surely deteriorate. Unless Jobs's son Reed ever heads Apple, the company will from now on be run by hired hands, and those usually care far less than owners, founders or their families. Eventually Apple will be bought by a more successful firm, but its logo and brand may well live on for decades afterwards.

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