Amazing or Shit

Mattathias Schwartz

  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
    Little, Brown, 630 pp, £25.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 1 4087 0374 8

If you want to be loved in America, get rich and make it seem that you got rich doing exactly what you wanted to do and being exactly who you wanted to be. Invent a machine – or better, a series of machines – useful, affordable and attractive enough to be received as a fetish object by your customers. Happy customers will yield happy shareholders, jobs (in retail, if not manufacturing) and economic growth, and your life will be held up as proof that business can be spiritual. This is something America would very much like to believe.

Steve Jobs was born in 1955, on the cusp of the wealthiest years of the wealthiest nation in history. For many years Stanford University and the US military had been pouring financial and intellectual resources into the industrial corridor south of San Francisco Bay, where Jobs grew up, the area that would become Silicon Valley. He was brought up by a car mechanic and a bookkeeper – neither had a college degree – who adopted him shortly after birth. ‘Does that mean your real parents didn’t want you?’ a young neighbour asked him when he was about six. ‘Lightning bolts’ went off in his head, and he nursed a grudge against his unknown birth parents for giving him up.

His anger produced an explosive hypomania evident in his insistence that his parents send him to the extremely expensive Reed College in Portland. He refused to say goodbye to them, or thank you, or to allow them to go with him to the campus they had scrimped to send him to. ‘I wanted to be like an orphan … just arrived out of nowhere,’ he told his biographer. After one term, he realised that he could attend classes and hang out on campus without paying tuition fees, so he dropped out. Two terms later, he moved back to his parents’ house in California. The region’s economy was booming, and despite his long hair and general unwashedness he soon found a job as a $5-an-hour technician at Atari.

Jobs’s rudeness to his parents set a pattern. For the rest of his life he would make extreme and often arbitrary demands of everyone around him, and most would quickly yield to his will. One of the few who did not is his authorised biographer, Walter Isaacson, a former managing editor of Time. Isaacson’s book is packaged as a eulogy, with lots of family photos and a plain white cover whose Helvetican simplicity is characteristic of Apple’s own designers in Cupertino. The black and white photo on the cover is the one posted on Apple’s global website a few hours after Jobs’s death. But there is little sycophancy in the text. Isaacson ruthlessly catalogues the shortcomings of a monomaniac whose success allowed him to get away with all kinds of more or less sociopathic behaviour. Jobs had so much capital and technological firepower at his disposal that it sometimes seemed reality too bent to his will. Isaacson calls this phenomenon Jobs’s ‘reality distortion field’, an inability to accept or even acknowledge facts contrary to those he wanted to see.

He belonged to a postwar generation that sought enlightenment and revolution – hoping, in his words, to ‘put a dent in the universe’ – and satisfied both ambitions within the bounds of capitalism. Isaacson credits him with having ‘revolutionised’ six or seven industries: ‘personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing’, along with digital publishing and perhaps retail stores as well. The company that Jobs and a classmate started in his garage 35 years ago is now worth more than $350 billion. You can’t walk into a café or subway carriage or airport lounge in the developed world without seeing Jobs’s impact, in the form of hundreds of hours of human attention flowing through tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of devices bearing the Apple logo. This techno-liberation comes at a price: £1500 for an average MacBook with five or six years of useful life; roughly £1000 for two years of iPhone service. One measure of Jobs’s achievement is the money Apple earns from millions of individual consumers, revenue that has continued to increase while the global economy stagnates. Isaacson lists some of the ways in which our lives are shaped by minor design decisions Jobs made two or three decades ago: rectangles with rounded corners, draggable windows, folders within folders, files that open with a double click.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in