Writing a biography of a modern public figure is harder than writing a novel. While an artist can create or abstract a narrative theme that ties all his facts together, real lives are full of distractions, narrative dead ends, inexplicable incidents, coincidences, and contradictions.
So it’s no surprise that Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Apple founder and serial business inventor Steve Jobs, rushed into print less than a month after Jobs’ death on October 5, is ultimately disappointing. Jobs is as much a mystery on the last page as he is on the first. Even those who loved or hated him the most can’t quite make up their minds about him; Isaacson makes sure to let us know that Jobs’ friends and family consistently acknowledged his flaws, while his opponents (Bill Gates leaps to mind) felt compelled to praise his consistent pattern of game-changing business invention.
I keep adding the word business before invention because Jobs was not, for the most part, a technically proficient man. Early in Isaacson’s book, we witness Jobs finishing assembly work on the motherboards of the first Apple computers. It is the last time we see him playing a hands-on role in making something electronic. He wasn’t an inventor, but he was no mere businessman either; we don’t exactly have a word for what Steve Jobs was, and Isaacson is as much at a loss as the rest of us. How do you describe a man who is responsible for the fact that the MacBook Air I am typing on right now is completely silent? There are no fans in Apple II computers or early Macs. Why? Because Jobs thought they were noisy, unpleasant distractions, even though without fans computers tend to overheat.
This isn’t to say that Walter Isaacson, a veteran journalist whose biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and others have been consistently praised for their care and scholarship, skimped on Steve Jobs. He gets a lot of things right, most notably the irrelevance of Jobs’ lack of technical chops. What did matter was the entrepreneur’s insistent drive to make better things—not just a computer “for the rest of us,” but also a music player, a phone, a personal digital all-purpose tool. Jobs didn’t invent any of these devices; he just shepherded the invention of the versions you might want to own. Henry Ford, after all, didn’t invent the automobile; what he did was put an affordable, usable car into millions of driveways and garages.
Jobs had something like Ford’s gift for seeing a consumer market where one never existed before. He looked at Steve Wozniak’s hobbyist computer circuit board design and saw something that everybody might want. Provided, of course, that it came prepackaged and looked elegant on your desk.
The story of a genius who sees the future when other people just see a hobby or (worse) a desk full of disassembled parts would be a good story to tell, but that’s not quite Jobs either. Isaacson, to his credit, doesn’t simplify him that way. For one thing, the super-genius story line does not account for the fact that, for much of his life, Jobs was an obsessive, narcissistic, frequently sociopathic nutcase. This observation must have been the hardest part of Steve Jobs for Isaacson to write; he confesses early on that Jobs had the gift of making you think you were the most important person in the room—until he turned and started calling you the stupidest.
The book is peppered—over-seasoned, really—with evidence of Jobs’ casual cruelty. This exchange from Apple’s early days is just one example. Mike Scott, then the company’s president, recalls taking a walk with Jobs and telling him to bathe more often. “He said that in exchange I had to read his fruitarian diet book,” Scott says, “and consider it as a way to lose weight.” Scott stayed fat and Jobs “made only minor modifications to his hygiene,” maintaining that bathing was unnecessary for fruitarians. Dietary obsessions and alternative health regimes were to remain a theme throughout Jobs’ life, and Isaacson is not too shy to hint that perhaps this long-term rejection of Western medicine hastened his death.
Born in 1955, Jobs arrived just slightly too late for the 1960s counterculture, but he scrambled to make up for it with primal scream therapy, a pilgrimage to India, unembarrassed Dylan and Beatles fanboyism, and countless LSD trips. He was an explorer, looking for meaning, and he chose ultimately to build tools that empowered his restless fellow man.
Yet nothing really explains, let alone justifies, the fact that Jobs was so often an unrelenting jerk. I’m about as big a Steve Jobs fan as anyone, but I cannot read about his almost total abandonment of his first child, Lisa—complete with a ridiculous denial of his indubitable paternity—without wanting to slap his corpse. (Jobs eventually took responsibility for Lisa. Without acknowledging a connection, he also named one of his iconic computers after her. But Isaacson edges toward the conclusion that Lisa remained profoundly hurt by that early rejection.)
Longtime friend and confidant Andy Hertzfeld is ready to forgive even this, due to the fact that Jobs was adopted: “That goes back to being abandoned at birth. The real underlying problem was the theme of abandonment in Steve’s life.” It’s a nicely glib explanation, but Jobs himself didn’t buy it. “Knowing I was adopted may have made me feel more independent,” he told Isaacson, “but I have never felt abandoned. I’ve always felt special. My parents made me feel special.”
Even if the adoption really was some kind of foundational trauma, what explains Jobs’ well-known, needless cruelty to perfect strangers? Consider his treatment of an early Apple job applicant. “How old were you when you lost your virginity?” Jobs asked. The candidate looked baffled. “Are you a virgin?” Jobs asked. Hertzfeld recalls “the poor guy was turning varying shades of red.”
If Jobs had left the pages of computing history right then, when Apple was a fraction the size of Hewlett-Packard or IBM, he wouldn’t have been much more than a footnote, or perhaps an object lesson in a chapter titled “What Not to Do.” But Jobs seemed determined to disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are no second acts in American lives.
Here is a short list of Jobs’ contributions to computing and consumer electronics: 1) the computer you could buy and didn’t have to assemble with a soldering iron, 2) the affordable personal computer with a graphic user interface, 3) personal computers that were fun to touch, 4) consumer electronics that looked and felt beautiful, 5) wireless networking, 6) the mouse, the track pad, and the touch screen, 7) a thousand songs in your pocket, 8) a tablet computer that you actually want to operate with your fingertip, and 9) a phone that is also a camera and a music player.
Once again, Jobs didn’t invent any of these innovations; he just produced the versions that you wanted to put your hands on, that you wanted to own. (Wait, did I forget Pixar? Right, the guy revolutionized film animation too. It feels oddly like an afterthought.)
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.