essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Back in 1977 the great American fantasist George Lucas released one of the biggest grossing films of all time, Star Wars. He convinced a whole generation they too could be Jedi knights fighting to free the universe from the evil Galactic Empire, coming to the aid of the beleaguered Princess Leia with their lightsabers. Star Wars also pioneered movie special effects and the marketing of products based on the film. I have no idea what Steve Jobs thought of Star Wars, but he was to duplicate its impact early the following decade, convincing Apple computer users around the world they were freedom fighters waging war against Orwell’s Big Brother. Jobs was to make an impact as another great American fantasist. But his medium was advertising, and advertising doesn’t last, unlike the creative fantasy of Star Wars, which tapped into the dreams of millions. The famous 1984 ad of an athlete smashing a screen on which Big Brother (otherwise known as IBM) ranted to the masses, and revealing the tool of liberation, the Apple computer Macintosh, looks pretty silly now. The boot of totalitarian control grinding in your face (Orwell’s image) doesn’t go away by breaking a few windows.
The biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster 2011) does a good job so to speak, but only of showing the inherent and radical contradictions of the man within the way the book about him has been written. Otherwise it remains a useful compilation of source material.
There is quite a difference between a writer and a reporter: I’ve been both and can appreciate it. Isaacson is a reporter. His book is the fruit of literally hundreds of interviews with Jobs and his family and associates. Isaacson seems overwhelmed by this material, which he presents ad hoc, undigested, with no time given to himself to absorb the source material and come to a balanced view of his subject. Perhaps his publishers wanted the sales guaranteed for a book issued the same year Jobs died. But previously I had similar reservations for Isaacson’s book on Einstein (Simon and Schuster 2007). Lots of facts, meticulous research, but no views on the ultimate significance of either figure other than that reported by interviewees. All the same, both subjects are PC (trendy), and both books became bestsellers.
Einstein was an influential scientist who was also a brilliant educator, and he has impinged on the consciousness of ordinary people of his day and ours. The same can be said of Jobs, except that he was a brilliant marketer, not a scientist and certainly not a computer engineer. In other words, Jobs shouldn’t be taken at face value, because he was always trying to sell us something. Jobs’ life and ideas did impinge on a large group of people, those wealthy enough to explore emergent computer aided lifestyle technology, and he remains influential in the sense that many now regard as essential electronic devices they once would have thought of as optional. Jobs came up with a new definition of cool, one that involved people with white cords attached to their ears.
What emerges from Isaacson’s biography before very long is that Jobs was a dysfunctional personality, manic depressive, obsessional compulsive, and schizophrenic. Perhaps not clinically, but behaviourally. He thought he was above standards of ordinary behaviour, and that he could manipulate others at will. We find this out because Isaacson reports others’ opinions about and reactions to Jobs, both friends and enemies. Some despised and hated him, and hate him still, others admire and adulate him. In the course of the book we can watch as Isaacson succumbs to Jobs’ charm and becomes an admirer. Jobs’ achievement was that he turned his dysfunction around, and eventually came to inspire many people. Others he literally drove mad.
Steve Jobs seems to have lived in a fantasy world where there was only good and evil, black and white, for and against, “insanely great” products or shit ones. The allure of these polarities has political reverberations. It is the political perspective of Jobs’ career that has more interesting implications than its commercial one. Jobs’ life was a constant striving for certainty. Certainties are easier to market. Certainties bind people.
Jobs was an adopted child, and this fact is at first emphasised by Jobs and Isaacson. Isaacson unearths quite a lot of information about Jobs’ natural parents, the reason why he was given up for adoption, his relationship with his foster parents, and the effect all this had on Jobs’ personality. Isaacson follows Jobs’ lead on this. Jobs thought it quite important. Later in the book he changes his mind. His adoption didn’t mark him, didn’t influence the development of his personality, left him well adjusted. You can take your pick. Isaacson gives both versions, both points of view expressed by Steve Jobs.
As he grew up Jobs failed to do well at school or College, mainly because he failed to fit in or conform. He was a natural for the 1960s counter culture when he encountered it. He said that taking LSD was the single most important experience he had had in life. He was off and on a vegan and vegetarian, and indulged a belief in strict diet to an obsessive extent that may have harmed him. He spent time sitting at the feet of a guru in India, developed a fascination with Zen Buddhism, and admired the movement that resulted in the Whole Earth Catalog. The latter was to become a model for Jobs’ own career, making a profitable business out of selling alternative lifestyle materials.
At the same time Jobs was manifesting as a typical, and extreme, control freak, in his relationships and professional associations. Jobs had to be in control, over every part of what he belonged to, to the pain of his friends and colleagues. For Jobs, if you were not with him you were against him. Few remained indifferent. Jobs had discovered the Tom Robbins insight expressed in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, that you can change reality by the way you think about it.
Jobs had difficulty with his personal relationships, and this continued after he married and had a family. Isaacson’s treatment of Jobs’ personal life is awkward and one suspects that much has been omitted from the record. Jobs comes across as just like the rest of us in having difficulties with relationships, and this aspect of the book is its least interesting part. Jobs’ relationship with Apple, by contrast, is the most interesting part of his life.
The most important of his early colleagues was Steve Wozniak, a neighbour who shared Jobs’ fascination with electronics, but in a much more practical and effective way. The two shared a garage as a workshop. And here it was that Wozniak both conceived the idea, and made practical models, of the personal computer, one not for the electronics enthusiast but for the rest of us. And because Jobs asked him to.
Anybody who has worked in an office in the late 1970s will know what computers were like then. They took up whole rooms, and computer programmers had incredible power because nobody knew what they did or how they did it. Before the personal computer came along people felt as powerless about computers as they did about the atomic bomb. Wozniak changed all that. By inventing what became the Apple and then the Apple II Wozniak became one of the most influential people in history. Far more so than Johannes Gutenberg for instance. Wozniak had no idea what he had done, other than solve impossible circuitry problems. He just wanted to share it with all the other kids in his group interested in electronics. He was a geek before his time. Much of Jobs’ control mania he didn’t even notice. But Jobs thought different.
Jobs, it turned out, thought the same as all the businessmen who hadn’t gone to India. He wanted to sell the invention. More than that, he wanted to found a company to sell the invention. This was something pretty wild for a couple of kids to do. But the time was ripe. When Apple Computers was founded there were three owners. Jobs wanted to make it a public company. It was insane, but as it turned out he was proved right. As a public company Apple became one of the wealthiest in America within three years. Jobs and Wozniak were overnight millionaires, then billionaires. Jobs was able to give a contract to a neighbour named Bill Gates, whose then small company made software, a pretty revolutionary move in those times. Microsoft’s Word and Excel emphasised the integrated feel of the Apple computer, a small desktop machine with a new graphical interface developed by Apple from a prototype invented at Xerox, and enhanced by the revolutionary software MacPaint, created by another giant of the computer industry, Bill Atkinson. Before MacPaint, and the Xerox mouse driven initiative, everything was entered in to the computer on the command line, and users had to be to a certain extent programers. After MacPaint users could simply use their non computer skills, and the interpretation was done by the interface, the Mac OS, which used code created for MacPaint.
This development by Apple was revolutionary and changed people’s habits and ways of thinking in a substantial way. This is what Apple said in its advertising. Yet a distinction has to be made. When Jobs and Apple said it, it was just advertising. It helped that Jobs was supported by an advertising genius, Lee Clow. But it was the way people used the technology that was revolutionary.
Jobs’ role in this movement is hard to assess. Isaacson believes it was crucial, that the personal computer would not have evolved had not Jobs marketed it the way he did. I don’t know about that. It was a revolutionary idea and a useful one. I think it would have been adopted by many companies, but the process would have been slow, the design radically different, and there would have been no Apple Computer company to make billions of dollars from it without Steve Jobs. Jobs didn’t invent or even develop the processes involved, but made himself and Apple the focus of what ensured.
Throughout Jobs’ career there is this background ambiguity. Was he merely an astute businessman able to use technology to make money? Or did Jobs play a part in the development of the technology behind the personal computer, somehow form an environment where it could flourish? Was he an exploiter, or an inspirer?
Isaacson tackles the messy job of charting Jobs’ career as a manager at Apple by being non committal. Jobs was the classic bad manager. He over rode everyone, demanded complete allegiance or felt betrayed if he didn’t receive it, lied to his employees, took credit for their successes and blamed them for his mistakes, attacked them with personal abuse, was feared for his rages. Because he didn’t know much about computers Jobs often asked the impossible. But because he was participating in a new industry, there were few who knew exactly what was possible and what was impossible. Apple employees frequently delivered the impossible as requested.
Finally Jobs was removed as CEO of Apple. The Board of Directors could see Jobs’ style of management was causing a talent drain as staff left in anger or were arbitrarily fired. Former Pepsi chief John Scully was made CEO instead, and focused the company on achieving financial stability rather than exploring new technology. Finally Jobs was ousted entirely and left the company, retaining only one share in Apple.
This didn’t stop Jobs. He started a new company, NeXT Computing. His engineers developed a new operating system that was eventually to morph into Macintosh’s OSX. As part of a deal with OUP, and quite accidentally it would seem, Jobs established the ebook industry, in an effort to have NeXT computers ship with reference tools like dictionaries and thesauruses. He took a share in Pixar, a George Lucas computer animation company that was eventually bought by Disney, leaving Jobs with substantial shares in that company and apparently more powerful in business than ever.
Meanwhile Apple was going nowhere. Under a succession of CEOs it developed too many good ideas (including a predecessor to the iPad, called the Newton) and completed none of them, and diversified its range to an unnecessary extent. Costs began to exceed sales. They needed help, and thought that the company’s founder could somehow turn things around. There was nobody much else to consider.
Jobs came back, and slashed product range, R and D, and staff. At Apple he met Jonathan Ive, probably the most influential figure in industrial design since Louis Tiffany (and Jobs was to play a part similar to Louis’ father Charles in his relationship with Ive). Ive reinvented the personal computer by focusing on its design not its circuitry, a trend that has continued ever since. He created the iMac, the internet computer you just plugged into a wall socket and used intuitively, and made it a beautiful piece of furniture as well. Because of the success of the iMac, Apple stock soared, and it was again leader in the computer industry.
What was Jobs’ role? He didn’t invent the iMac, he sold it. Would it have caught on anyway? We’ll never know the answer to that one.
Jobs then did the unexpected. Having obtained market dominance for Apple for a second time, he turned away from the computer industry. The computer, he said, would be the mere hub for the digital lifestyle of the future. Microsoft felt the same, and diversified into digital TV. Jobs looked at the portable music player, and noticed that the music industry giants were not prepared for digital music formats. They were attacked by piracy which reduced their super profits, were attacking their own consumers in court cases over alleged piracy, and had little to offer customers in the way of portable music players. In what was probably his most astute move in the business field, Jobs let Jony Ive loose on a device which became the iPod, and negotiated a retail license with the music distribution companies which evolved into the iTunes store. Along the way Apple prevented the development of all the other great music players for the Macintosh, many of which were superior to iTunes, by removing access to OS code resources for developers. Apple also alleged, incorrectly, that there was a simple choice between piracy and iTunes. Two moves that significantly reduced consumers’ choices. Both worked to Apple’s benefit.
At this point Jobs and Apple appeared to have become too successful. An initiative of Jobs previously had been the Apple Stores, computer outlets which showcased the Macintosh as well as sold it. This had proved another astute move by Jobs, hugely profitable for Apple. With the iTunes Store, however, Apple moved into the questionable, and illegal, realm of private cartels. This may have reflected the fact that the so-called ‘Big Four’ music distribution companies had been in a private cartel for years, forcing the consumer price of music up while pushing the royalty rate for performers down, and had become among the richest companies in the world as a result. Although Anti Trust legislation in the USA empowers government to prosecute companies forming cartels, governments can rarely afford to so protect consumers. The US Government succeeded in the case against Microsoft only because the company had been careless enough to leave proof lying around of its illegal activities.
In a sense a compulsive control freak like Jobs was bound to gravitate into a cartel style business. The Apple computer, for Jobs, had to be as perfect as he could make it. The user experience, likewise, as perfect as he could make it. Every detail of the experience was controlled by Jobs. Design on the inside of the case; packaging; software; deletion of unnecessary parts such as on/off switches and floppy disk drives; and now, the music you selected, how and where you played it, and how much you paid for it. This was done via software called DRM (Digital Rights Management).
Just imagine DRM as applied to an ordinary purchase, say a printed book. You go to a bookstore and purchase a book. First you have to sign a legal declaration that you won’t lend it to any of your friends, nor scan it to your computer, recite and record it, or make a movie of it. You take it home. You forget the declaration, and lend the book. Then you discover the book has an electronic tag that can report it has been taken off the licensed premises. You get a visit from the CVP (Copyright Violation Police). The result, a $10,000 fine. A routine check of your computer HD reveals an unauthorised ebook or mp3 file. Result, imprisonment for six months and confiscation of your computer. You now have a record, and it becomes virtually impossible for you to buy a book in the future. All who listen, read or view media are under surveillance. They might think for themselves, might (shudder) think different, in real life, not in an advertisement.
DRM protects you from police harassment. It just stops your book or music file from working except on approved software or devices at approved locations. How helpful is that? Big Brother is looking after you. Why? Not because he’s evil. Because he wants you to give him more of your money. And you do. Along the way your choice of music, and its cost, is controlled by someone else, not you. You no longer have access to an open market.
This is what happens when a compulsive control freak focuses on lifestyle, not product. More than anything Jobs wanted a pleasurable and rewarding experience for consumers who bought his company’s products. But he could only guarantee that positive experience by controlling the entire production line from concept to consumption. Jobs was struggling with cancer for the last two or three years of his life. Perhaps that was why he focused on users’ experience. He wanted customers to say “wow!” (which were Jobs’ reported last words).
But if you were going to say “wow!” you had to say it Jobs’ way. The remaining Apple product launches under Jobs’ direction were almost all Jony Ive’s work, superbly designed implementations of devices already well established in the marketplace: the iPhone, the iPad, and iCloud. Hidden behind the funky big touch screen of the iPhone was an ordinary mobile telephone: and the App Store, an extension of the iTunes Store which made the telephone a game centre, a business tool and a means of continuing to buy software from Apple. Just where the iPad was meant to fit into people’s digital lifestyle is a bit of a mystery, as Jobs didn’t live long enough to tell us. A replacement for the laptop or desktop computer? Or were we meant to have all four devices: desktop, laptop, iPad and iPhone? That’s quite a handful.
While people remain obsessed with gadgets they are extremely malleable. Retailers all know the advantages of the online shop. No premises to rent, and purchases an impulsive click away. But I wonder how much further that could go, how easily people could be dominated by advertisements served up by a personal digital device. How suggestible they might become.
The obvious parallel is between Steve Jobs and Adolf Hitler. Before I start I need to emphasise that I am not calling Jobs a Hitler, suggesting he was a monster or an evil man. I have in mind a Hitler most have forgotten. Before he became a psychopath in the late 1930s Hitler was a master politician. He dominated every company he was in. He used a compelling stare from his large brown eyes, without blinking, to put others under a spell. So did Jobs. Hitler would discompose others by sudden rages, furies of personal abuse not at all expected by the subject of them. So did Jobs. Hitler was famous for his charm and charisma, and friends and family, as well as visiting diplomats and politicians, were full of admiration for him. So were those Jobs exercised his considerable charm on. Hitler knew little of military matters yet as Chief Commander of the German Army he intervened in military planning, making ignorant and impossible demands, even after the start of war. Army Commanders did as required: Hitler was always proved right. The same with Jobs and Apple computer staff. Hitler used the new technology of radio and film to project a compelling image of himself and his aims to the people of Germany, finding and utilising experts in every applicable field. Jobs did the equivalent with computer technology. Hitler had a muddled aim, a purpose that many agreed was worthwhile, to purify the racial stock of the German people, and used questionable means to implement his aims. Jobs wanted to implement a digital lifestyle that most would find extremely pleasant, and utilised cartel trading and DRM technology to implement his aims. Hitler suffered the dispossessed childhood, had the need to control, was emotionally unstable yet unable to form relationships, that characterised Jobs. I see two very similar types, one working in politics, the other in sales and marketing.
But that’s not the point of my comparison. Hitler founded the Third Reich not because he was evil, manipulative, or utilised a private army to terrorise the people of Germany. He became Fuhrer because those people wanted him to assume that role. Look at the Nuremberg rallies, look at the faces. There is a kind of exaltation there. Everything’s all right now. Daddy’s come back, all’s right with the world. Hitler succeeded because the people wanted him to. They needed the Fuhrer just as much as he needed to assume the role.
It is this relationship between leader and people I’m talking about here, and, as far as Jobs is concerned, the need consumers have for novelty, and a supplier they can trust to give it to them. People want to be controlled. It’s a lot harder making your own decisions. Democracy is always the messy option, the inefficient one, the one that doesn’t work. Yet unfortunately it’s the adult one. The responsible one. Consumer politics all have the same trend, the growth of monopolies. In the world of technology which you understand less and less you need one supplier, one device, one stamp of quality. Jobs told us all in a compelling way he had the answer and it was called Apple. And Apple became the most valuable public company in the world. Simply because, under Jobs, once you started with Apple, you had to finish with Apple.
Back in 1895 HG Wells gave his opinion about the eventual development of humanity in a story called The Time Machine. It is 800,000 AD, humankind have devolved into two branch species, the Gollum like Morlocks who live underground and maintain once useful machines, and the Eloi who live delightful but ineffectual lives like children in a playground and have become the main source of food for the Morlocks. The middlemen who set up the situation for their own profit have not survived, and the system goes on automatically. I wonder about those Eloi. Did they surrender their self determination for the price of an iPad?
Isaacson’s book gives the material which I have used to make assessments about Jobs. Because of the contradictory value judgments with which the book is filled, containing as it does statements from Jobs’ friends and from his foes, others can delve in the book and find a different Jobs. I myself am a Steve Jobs fan, and an Apple Macintosh user since 1986. The Mac had changed my life, and enabled me to think different. But the uncomfortable truth remains: all through his career Isaacson’s book reports on the fundamental ambiguity of Jobs’ achievement.
Did Jobs fraudulently appropriate others’ inventions when he formed Apple Computers and marketed the Apple II? Others provided the intellectual property, the money and did the actual marketing, Jobs simply told everyone what to do. He ended up with the personal fortune that made the rest of his career possible, and the reputation as an innovator that really belonged to Bill Atkinson and Steve Wozniak. Did he steal these men’s credit, or did he make their inventions viable? Inventions don’t happen in isolation, and Steve Jobs started in business at the beginning of an industry. Innovations were, and are, being made every day. As Isaac Newton remarked on his own career at the start of the Industrial Revolution, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants” (then he abandoned astronomy and physics for astrology and biblical scholarship). Was that Jobs’ real achievement, that he was able to stand on the shoulders of giants?
Was Jobs an inventor? He licensed many patents of inventions, but these tended to be design enhancements, such as the contour of the glass stairways in Apple Stores. Other innovations of Jobs were self fulfilling prognostications, such as the death of the floppy drive or the dominance of the world wide web. He stood at the centre of an industry making decisions, but were they the right decisions, or ones motivated by the need to control and dominate? And at the end of the day, everything Jobs did had to be justified by him bringing out the latest product at Macworld and making the audience gasp. Was he just another PT Barnum, an impresario who exploited others for personal gain, as Barnum did Jenny Lind? Was he a true evangelist or an Elmer Gantry?
Did Jobs steal the credit for Jony Ive’s inventions, the iPod, iPhone and iPad? How closely did they work together? Did Jobs contribute design ideas or simply appropriate the product and launch it? If so, why was Jobs always at the centre of technological innovation? Was it because he had a good eye for whom to exploit, or did he foster innovation? Was his achievement just to inject a little bit of Mick Jagger showmanship into the staid, nerdish world of computing?
After all, Jobs’ greatest achievement was making money. He did it twice for Apple, for himself, for business partners, for Pixar, for the music and telephony industries. Is that why he is admired, for the simple fact of being financially successful? A disturbed man of vision, or a hoaxer laughing all the way to the bank?
I wonder about Steve Jobs. Was his favourite bit of hyperbole really a description of himself?
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.