Sunday, January 22, 2012
On STEVE JOBS by Walter Isaacson
I had no idea that Steve Jobs was such a big Bob Dylan fan. He owned a bunch of Dylan bootlegs—on cassette tapes—back in the ‘80s. He described meeting Dylan as the only time he’d ever been nervous meeting another person. And remember that digital box set available on iTunes a couple years ago, comprising all Dylan’s studio recordings and other official releases? That was Jobs’s doing. The CEO of Dylan’s record company didn’t want to do it, so Jobs went directly to Dylan with the idea and it eventually got done.
There were of course indications that he was a fan. During the presentation for the first iPhone, he scrolls through the music on the demo device, stops on Dylan, and says something complimentary. The thing is, this is something any CEO would say to curry favor with Dylan aficionados—it is easily construed as a spurious display of enthusiasm which all salespeople have to adopt to sell their products. But Isaacson’s book reveals that Jobs was rarely disingenuous about the products he endorsed, and his enthusiasm was always genuine.
A lot of people revered Steve Jobs for the Apple products he is credited for introducing to the world. He also had his fair share of detractors who labeled him a bullying jerk. As with any polarizing figure, you can probably dismiss the most negative things people say about him as calumny, the most positive as idolatry. Isaacson tends to describe everything in a plain, just-the-facts sort of way, which works in Jobs’s favor because the facts, for the most part, are on his side.
Yes, he was directly responsible for all the wonderful products that have given millions of people a whole lot of joy over the last decade+. As for all those things things that paint him in an unfavorable light, well, most of them have some sort of explanation. Like when he didn’t financially support the mother of his first child, letting them briefly go on welfare? Well, the woman was a little crazy, convincing her daughter to sign over the $700,000 house Jobs eventually bought for her, then selling it and going to Paris where she burned through all the money. And the time he didn’t respond to Bill Gates’s request to participate in philanthropic endeavors? Well, he just honestly felt his money could be used in better ways.
He never had any problem with putting his money into things he believed in, things he was passionate about. One of those things was Pixar, a company whose existence would be doubtful today without Jobs’s initial investment in the mid-‘80s. He put tens of millions of his own dollars into the company years before they made Toy Story. Pixar’s movies ended up defining a decade of cinema, just as the film school generation did in the ‘70s and the nouvelle vague did in the ‘60s. I think Jobs really felt that a venture like Pixar helped mankind more than a few one-time contributions to charities…and from a certain point of view, it’s hard to argue with him.
(Just as an aside, I want to mention that, for a guy worth eight billion or so dollars, the money is the least interesting aspect of his story.)
For me, the biggest revelation of the book was that Steve Jobs was a true artist. The endless tinkering with the products, the way he put a handle and slot CD drive on the iMac for purely aesthetic reasons, the 11th hour design change of the iPhone…these are all the actions of an uncompromising artist. Yes, he did openly berate people in his employ when he felt they weren’t giving him their all. He was a perfectionist in the body of a flawed individual, living in an imperfect world, working with imperfect people. He screamed and yelled and cried and generally blew up every two seconds. But the further along I got in the book, the more his assholeishness and hardassery seemed to be in service of an artistic temperament—always with an eye toward making something “insanely great”—and he ended up looking less like Kim Jong-il and more like Stanley Kubrick.