Steve Jobs, the Inhumane Humanist

The founder of Apple may have been a narcissistic jerk, but his humanity was revealed by the liberating objects he made.

(Page 2 of 2)

In this respect, Steve Jobs was perhaps in touch with his fundamental humanity more than most people. It is our tools that make us different, that for better or worse define us, and Jobs’ greatest insight was that a properly designed tool can unleash something new within us. (In early 1981, Jobs was enamored of the notion that personal computers were “bicycles for the mind.”)

This greatest of Jobs’ gifts—seeing how tools could unlock people’s lives, making those lives richer—is what Isaacson captures best. Steve Jobs provides a litany of its subject’s bad behavior, but there are also many touching tributes. After all, Jobs was loved and admired as much as he was hated and feared. This quote from his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, provides a complete, if perhaps too neat, encapsulation of Jobs as a complicated genius: “Like many great men whose gifts are extraordinary, he’s not extraordinary in every realm.…He doesn’t have social graces, such as putting himself in other people’s shoes, but he cares deeply about empowering humankind.” 

Steve Jobs’ presence informs and pervades all of my work, but this article more than most. After all, I received my copy of Isaacson’s Steve Jobs wirelessly, the day before it was available in bookstores. It appeared in the Kindle app on my iPad, unannounced. Over the next few days I could read the book on my iPad, my iPod Touch, my laptops—every device knew automatically where I’d last left off reading. I’m writing this piece on a MacBook now, and when my eyes get tired, I just expand the font size with a gesture. When I’m done I’ll drop the text into the cloud, where my editor will pick it up at her leisure.

So far as I know, not one of these devices or functions was created by Steve Jobs. Yet the sheer integration of them, their ease of use, their intuitiveness, come directly from the guy whose perfectionism informed his every day at work (and perhaps too many days when he wasn’t working). The world I live in now, filled with these tools, is unimaginable without them.

And yet he was so unpleasant—such a failure at the basic things we want any healthy human being to be. Here is one of Jobs’ daughters, Erin, volunteering to defend her father’s parenting: “Sometimes I wish I had more of his attention, but I know the work he’s doing is very important and I think it’s really cool, so I’m fine. I don’t really need more attention.” I cannot read that passage without hurting for both Jobs and Erin—and thinking about my own role as a father.

Jobs had a pervasive effect on all of us, but it seems wrong to characterize that effect as a world of things. There’s a reason that Jobs was mourned all over the world when it was announced he had died; I believe it is because the people who allowed themselves to appreciate the tools, devices, functions, and activities Jobs provided for them sensed an underlying human-centered philosophy in what he was trying to do. While many other people fill the empty spaces in their lives with religion or philosophy or philanthropic works, Jobs emphatically eschewed such diversions. His philosophy (and his philanthropy, if you will) was in his work, and he was unashamed to let his work stand for him. We understood that philanthropy when we saw it, felt it, touched it, and used it for our own ends. 

Mike Godwin is a contributing editor at reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Brandon Micheal Magoon||

    Am I first? I've never been first.

  • ||

    First is awkward, and painful. Better to be first in line.

  • iBorg lockdown-computing||

    Funny shit at reason, every day, whoring the capitalist slaver crack. Oh, yeah, baby, we're improving their lives so much they want to kill themselves.

    If an Apple computer slave jumps out the window and falls on the nets, do they put him back to work right away? Or just dock his pay for using the nets?

  • ||

    Without disputing that working conditions at Foxconn are worse than those of any U.S. manufacturing facility, it seems worthwhile to point out that when NPR fact-checked the excerpt of Daisey's "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" aired by This American Life, NPR found that the suicide rate at Foxconn was actually lower than the average suicde rate for workers in the People's Republic of China. This is not a defense of Foxconn or Apple: it's just aimed at putting the suicide issue in context.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    "capitalist slaver crack"

    You pine for an absolutist system wherein people are considered the property of the government, yet lash out at capitalism for being slavery. how adorable.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Writing a biography of a modern public figure is harder than writing a novel.

    You know who else wrote a book?

  • ||

    You tryin' to Godwin a Godwin thread?

    Dirty tricks man.

    Godwin should write a book about his struggle to keep rats like you from ruining his articles.

  • invisible furry hand||

    You know who else accused people of dirty tricks?

  • I am not an iCrook||

  • Brett L||

    Whoa, meta... or something.

  • anon||

    I'm actually pretty impressed "A declaration of Independents" didn't squeeze its way somewhere in there.

  • invisible furry hand||

    In this respect, Steve Jobs was perhaps in touch with his fundamental humanity more than most people. It is our tools that make us different, that for better or worse define us

    Taking reductiveness to new heights. Or depths.

  • Lord Humungus||

    Back in the days when I used to run PA and help local musicians do sound, I found that the more successful (and long lasting) bands were usually run by a single person who had a 'vision'. The rest were just gears in the machine.

  • ||

    You know who else had a "vision" ?

  • Radioactive||

    this is all so neat, cool and wicked awesome...if you're an Apple user

  • ||

    Or if you are a Windows user, or an Android user, or even a Linux user... all of which have been heavily influenced by Apple. E.g.: Macs were the first laptops to push the keyboard toward the screen.

  • ||

    All this technology would have come about, and in fact did, without him, but his chance to do something truly unique - to connect with and love those real people that appeared around him - is lost forever. I call that failure.

  • Neal||

    But don't you understand? It was the machines he built for us that showed his love and connection with us! =P

  • Muad' Dib||

    "Jobs had a pervasive effect on all of us, but it seems wrong to characterize that effect as a world of things."
    I could care less if he ever existed. He reminded me of the P.T. Barnum of the tech business world. A fool and his money are soon parted and it turns out there are LOTS of fools. Of course, Mr. Jobs knew this well.

  • Untermensch||

    You know, that makes the entire tech world fools then, because they put their money into trying to be Apple. Even if you don’t use Apple products, whatever device you’re writing your comment on—unless you’ve got some sort of Internet-connected Vic-20—is inspired and ultimately derived from (at least at the conceptual level of the UI) from an Apple product. Even the Internet you’re writing on was inspired by HyperCard, an Apple product.

    So to state that you don’t care if he ever existed may be true, but only if you have no historic sense of how we arrived at the present. The present you live in, unless you live in a cave, has been shaped to a large extent by Mr. Jobs. And that isn’t some sort of fanboy statement. Even Bill Gates or Sergei Brin would have to admit as much.

  • mooncalf||

    And most everything that Apple did is based on the work of Dennis Ritchie, but I doubt you know who he is. So if you want to talk about who has shaped the present you should be talking about Ritchie not Jobs.

  • Untermensch||

    That's actually debatable. Ritchie’s contributions were immense, but they were not what made computers usable to everyone from my grandfather to my kid. It's a bit like debating whether the guy who designed the Golden Gate Bridge or the engineers who made the theories that allowed it to be designed are responsible. But nobody credits the Mac UI or any of Apple’s other distinct contributions that have become pervasive to Ritchie. If you supposed (wrongly) that I wouldn't have heard of Ritchie, there is a reason for that.

  • mooncalf||

    Apple's OS is Unix based. Unix was co-created by Ritchie. 80% of all software is written in a C based language (including Apple's software). C was co-created by Ritchie. Why have most not heard of Ritchie? Because he didn't have the marketing department of Apple. Apple makes a good user interface (original idea stolen from Xerox) but has great marketing.

  • Untermensch||

    Apple's OS only became *nix-based years after it debuted. Many of the concepts un the UI originally did come from Xerox but that story is only half of it. Take the mouse, for instance. When Xerox had it it was a specialist tool that took training to use for precise input. Job's genius here was in seeing that the idea behind this cumbersome, unintuitive thing was actually useful in an intuitive way and stripping it down to what was actually useful.

    Leaving aside preference in cars, it's like the shift from an early manual transmission that required double-clutching to an automatic transmission. Both are transmissions, but one is usable by the masses. (I say that as someone who prefers manual transmissions.)

    Even for those areas where Apple took ideas, their early implementation was often better. Xerox had tremendous problems with screen redraw when dealing with cursors. Apple's solution fixed that, a major technical hurdle at the time (and done in assembler, not C)

    I think of all this as something like seeing a piece of fine furniture. The tools that went into it (like the programming language) are incredibly important—without them you couldn’t make it—but what makes it functional as a piece of furniture is not the tools but the end that they are put to.

  • ||

    (and done in assembler, not C)

    And done in assembly (language), not in C.

    Assembler is a program which translates (assembles) assembly language mnemonics (and symbols) into machine code.

  • ||

    Anyone repeating the old trope that the Mac UI was "stolen from Xerox" needs an education. First of all, they licensed it fair and square. Second, if you've actually seen the old Xerox Star interface, it's very different: no menu bar, no drag-and-drop, no overlapping windows, no self-repairing windows, no double-clicking, no multiple views of the file system, etc.

  • Moogle||

    Mac OS X is BSD Unix based. Before that it was, well, its own thing. Worked well enough for its time, but the move to a Unix foundation was quite nice. I use Unix a lot at work, so it was pretty neat to suddenly be able to open a terminal on a Mac and run scripts.

    Most Apple software, especially the iOS apps, is written in Objective C now, a very strict superset of C. Interesting language, but its unusual syntax makes it tricky to learn if you're coming from C++ or C# or some other OO version of C.

  • ||

    You can be knowledgeable about Kernighan and Ritchie, as I am, and still recognize that Jobs's contribution was significantly different from, and more pervasive than, Ritchie's.

  • Moogle||

    Look out. All the smelly, filthy geeks will be here soon with their Asperger rants to bash Apple and anyone who wants to have a life not dominated by tinkering with gadgets and computers and just wants them to work as advertised. For the geeks, computer knowledge is the One True Path to intelligence and perfection.

    The nerds never actually took over the world, and only a handful became rich. Their time is passing as computing devices become simpler and easier to use, and they are bitter, bitter little creatures. People are finding that an iPad or other tablet fits their email/web needs as well as that crappy Windows boxen they always had to have the nerd down the streets fix all the time.

  • Rich Nerd||

    I may stink to high heaven but I can still smell bullshit. Nice rant.

  • Moogle||

    It was a good rant. :-)

    Seriously, have you ever spent time with *real* geeks? I worked with a bunch of IT guys for years. They are unbelievably narcissistic for no justifiable reason, act as if their broken social skills are something to be proud of (sort of like epilepsy was once thought to be a mark of the divine), think the only reason anyone would not be into tinkering endlessly with computers is that they are stupid, even if that person is a doctor or a scientist.

    They repeat the same Star Trek, Star Wars and Monty Python quotes forever. They will belittle the viewing habits of everyone else (American Idol viewers? MORONS! What? They just like music? Unpossible! Dance With The Stars viewers just like dancing? NO! THEY ARE RETARDED IDIOTS!) and then watch endless zombie bullshit and B grade crap late into the night.

    And on and on and on. I could literally fill a book.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    How much time do they spend on the internet making bitter generalizations and typing overlong diatribes lashing out at people who upset them over the course of the day?

  • ||

    Muad-Dib, I think you mean to say "I *couldn't* care less."


  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    If you're a Apple products addict - or anyone else, for that matter - particularly if you have any concern about trade issues between U.S. and China - set aside about 50 minutes and have a listen to this.

  • anon||

    tl;dl. Also, not an apple addict. Not because their products aren't good, just because other products are better by virtue of being cheaper.

  • Neal||

    Steve Jobs is the Thomas Edison of our times.

  • Neal||

    By the way...that is not a compliment.

  • invisible furry hand||

    Can you elaborate? Surely Edison was great at making the technological breakthrough, unlike Jobs. Or are you thinking more of their business practices?

  • Jews 'n Things||

    He's saying that Steve Jobs once electrocuted an elephant in his pajamas.

  • invisible furry hand||

    How did the elephant get into his pajamas?

  • Radioactive||


  • Radioactive||

    I almost went with "one leg at a time". but that wouldn't make any sense at all

  • Arf?||

    I would also have accepted "any way he wanted."

  • Moogle||

    Any way it wanted to? No, that's the 600 pound gorilla. NM.

  • Mitt Romney||

    I think you mean 800 pounds. And it was definitely an elephant.

  • Moogle||

    It's 600 now. Bad economy and all.

  • anon||

    example: edison did not invent the lightbulb, he just improved it to the level of commercial viability. he did this by trying every freaking possible permutation of gases/elements/etc till he found one that worked (rather than deduce it from knowledge he possessed). likewise his love of showmanship definitely is close to jobs'

  • ||

    He invented the first practical light bulb. That counts, along with his many other inventions: motion pictures, sound recording, the mimeograph, etc.

  • Plus||

    He wasn't a vampire. He had that going for him.

  • Gus||

    "narcissistic jerk"

    But enough about Dave Weigel.

  • Miles Prower||

    « seeing how tools could unlock people’s lives, making those lives richer »

    You're talking about Richard Stallman. He's the real humanist around here.

  • Transfinite||

    Oh, please. Stallman has become a bitter little self parody and a massive ass clown. He's another one of these Asperger mutants that the nerds like to masturbate over. He admonishes people on email lists for having children, saying their work on open source projects is more important than their families. Fuck Stallman and fuck his socially broken sycophants like you.

  • anon||

    The underlying criticism of this article ("Jobs was a terrible person!!11) I find appalling. Jobs did what good business leaders do; connect innovations with the market. Furthermore, he did so in a way that made everyone buttloads of money.

    I don't give a shit about his personal life. Hell, I own an ipod and that's about it. He's still done more to benefit the entire world than any politician in modern history.

  • ||

    Yes, but he stank you see.

  • Radioactive||

    stink, stank, stunk

  • ||

    That dude does indeed raise some really good points. WOw.

  • ||

    He may have been a narcissistic. . . whatever, but he wasn't POTUS. His self importance left a positive mark on society and culture - maybe not individuals rather thn vice versa.

  • ||

    I don't understand the need to somehow apologize for Jobs' business success. Ok, he was a jerk. Who cares? Lots of people are jerks. Most of them don't end up running successful international corporations with highly marketable products.

    I'm not sure why I should care about Jobs' personality flaws, family relations, odd belief systems, etc. Was he a well-rounded individual with a happy home life and a deep spiritual connection to the universe? Damned if I know. I don't presume to judge the importance of such things to my fellowmen.

  • ||

    Yeah, I think this is interesting, too. If I were to make up a story, and obviously I have, the need to apologize for his enriching himself and his stockholders by being a jerk likely stems from the desire to believe that he was something other than a businessman.

    This, if true, would suggest something about the people doing the apologizing -- again, if I were making things up, and obviously I am, I'd say that they had cultivated some sort of identity-related stake in regards to Jobs and his company.

    Connecting the dots, if you identify yourself in some small sense in terms of your relationship to Apple / Jobs, and if all Apple is is a company and all Jobs is is a businessman, well, that's sort of awkward -- "Ken Chenault ruuuuuules!!!!" would be a pretty pathetic thing for an otherwise cool person to think. So in this hypothetical case, it's easy to see how a person would want to determine other, more interesting things for Jobs (retroactively) to have been.

    (For the record, Ken Chenault actually rules.)

  • ||

    Sorta like how we shouldn't care about Ty Cobb. I agree. You're job is to succeed within the prescribed lines. Beyond that is just life.

  • ||

    Abandonment is not necessarily a glib excuse. And just because Jobs himself didn't recognize the possible effects of his own abandonment doesn't mean they weren't manifest in his life.

    It's less the actual act of being given up for adoption and more the potential for inheriting traits from his biological roots that may produce abandonment issues for someone like Jobs.

    Also curious is his wife's description of him having no social graces. Was he truly narcisstic or did he have Asperger's? Men of his generation would likely go undiagnosed. Asperger's left untreated - and combined with abandonment issues - can look an awful lot like an inhumane narcissist.

  • ||

    It seems to me that one of the most important and overlooked aspects of Jobs' success was his remarkable willingness to fail. His personality quirks didn't interest me. His taste and technosavy did.

  • James Smith||

    Few truly innovative people are without major flaws. Jobs was no exception. But his contributions went far beyond the "over-hyped shiny box" accusations of the uninformed.

    Mostly, Apple computers and other products have been rather plain. It's the functionality of them and the insane quality, inside and out, that makes them valued products. Then the reliability and resale value easily underlines the difference between price and value. Even though that's an Econ 101 lesson, few people or companies seem to understand it. Steve Jobs might have invented it.

  • Bioconservative||

    Steve Jobs was a DICTATOR inside Apple. He ran his company in a totalitarian, non-libertarian fashion, because he understood deep inside that libertardianism is BUNK.

    It takes one creative individual with dictator powers to make a country or a company very rich, very profitable (Lee Kuan Yew, Cowperthwaite, Jobs).

    The problem is that the smart philosopher-kings in Jobs' mold are only a minority of all ambitious, power-hungry persons, but the feuds of the few ones who are are markedly better than the countries employing "collective dumbness" (i.e. democracy) as their main political process.

    Contrary to common 'tardian belief, collective creativity/wisdom does not exist. A market is only as good as the person(s) making the rules under which that market operates in, and only as good as the average intelligence of the agents in it.

    The US is the product of society of average IQ 98 (the average White American IQ is around 100). Somalia is the product of an IQ 70 society. Singapore and Hong Kong, the most free-market territories in the world, are the products of IQ 120-140 individual PERSONS with creativity and vision.

  • Tristan||

    He sought to empower people, but also to disempower and control them.
    Trying to lock people into a controlled ecosystem and denying people control over their own computers...
    True, this is a general trend, but Jobs pioneered it...

  • ||

    I think the genius of Jobs was to create a cult following around consumer products. No matter what crap the company fed its loyal base, they always came back for more.

    Also, and this is no joke, his other bit of genius was to make ordinary people feel like technological geniuses. This girl next to me got an iPad and from that moment on she knew everything about computers. You can't beat that.

  • ||

    If you must have saints Jobs makes more sense than a pope. Guess he was more like Maid of Orleans, heard voices and lead fanatic armies. The patron saint of computers? How cool is that.

  • TWylite||

    The Steve Jobs Corollary To Godwin's Law: The longer an online argument about the merits of Apple and/or Steve Jobs, the more likely a reference to the "1984" commercial. So here goes: Steve Jobs created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology — where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths.

  • ||

    He put Algore on his board of directors. Blah!

  • Richard M Stallman||

    Jobs was an evil genius who made the world a worse place. he figured
    out how to build a digital prison and make it chic, so that millions
    would pay to be shackled. It will take years to undo this harm. See if you want to help.

  • Mukesh||

    Missing badly the man..

  • ||

    That rms -- always such a conversational charmer.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.