Sunday 15 September 2019

Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Little Brown, €25.99

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Who was Steve Jobs? Judging by the florid displays of grief after he died I thought he must have been some kind of cross between Ghandi, Einstein and Princess Diana.

They stopped the presses of Time magazine to put this latter-day saint on the cover. World leaders and rock stars publicly mourned him. Millions of people on Facebook posted his speech to Stanford University students as though it were the "I have a dream" for our time. Was I missing something? Had the iPod really filled that big a hole in our lives?

Over the course of 600-plus pages, Walter Isaacson, the only author with virtually unfettered access to the Apple co-founder, answers these questions and more. Quite simply he portrays Jobs as the greatest fusspot who ever lived, a man continually running his white glove over other people's surfaces and screaming blue murder when he finds a molecule of dust. There is a scene in the movie Mommie Dearest in which Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford (laden with furs) screams at some builders who have just told her that a wall, to which she objects, is "load bearing" and can't be tampered with or the roof may fall in. "Get rid of that bitch of a bearing wall," she hisses on a rising note. "and put a window where a window oughta be." It was this kind of force of personality that Jobs brought to the consumer electronics industry. Ghandi he wasn't.

Isaacson begins with Jobs' childhood, growing up in a modern little suburb of San Francisco, the adopted son of an engineer. Early notions of abandonment infused his young brain, we are told, but mainly by way of explanation for his subsequent gestation into the kind of man who belittled waitresses and was "too busy to flush toilets". In his teenage years he studied to become an engineer but was not going to let that nerdish calling stop him sampling the impulses of the era: LSD, free love, spirituality -- "flower power and processor power" as Isaacson puts it.

While still in his teens he befriended genius arch-geek, Steve Wozniak, who had invented a personal computer, the first of its kind. The charmingly unworldly Wozniak wanted to give the plans to the computer away for free or, failing that, to let his superiors at the firm where he worked first refusal on developing it. It was Jobs who saw the vast potential in the new technology and became the business and design force behind the fledgling company. Isaacson deftly sketches the contradictions in Jobs' character. He was: "An anti-materialistic hippie who wanted to capitalise on the inventions of a friend who wanted to give them away for free ... a Zen devotee who made a pilgrimage to India and then decided he wanted to run a business."

It was once said of Andy Warhol that he returned a roll of toilet paper to the shop when it turned out to be not quite the right shade. Jobs appears to have been motivated by a similarly fastidious aesthetic -- every aspect of his life, from his girlfriends (among whom he counted Joan Baez) to his sparely furnished living quarters. He didn't believe that computers should look "as though they were designed in Uzbekistan" and sought to create a consumer product that would be both enticing and unthreatening. As Apple grew into an electronics behemoth, Jobs saw himself as an artist-alchemist, transforming mundane, perfunctionary objects into glorious, life-improving ornaments. He understood better than any business leader that the consumer needed to be romanced and wooed and he didn't care whose ideas he pilfered to achieve this. His "charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will and a willingness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand" made him a billionaire before he was 30.

This breakneck rate of success was matched by a personal callousness that is mentioned in some form on almost every page of this book. Jobs constantly betrays old friends, alleges that the mother of his child may have been sleeping around, denies his only daughter and, most shockingly of all, expects poor Baez to pay for her own gifts. One of the women he fell in love with felt he was probably a narcissist and pitied him for it. Everyone else had to accept that it was merely a component in a personality that was also capable of inspiring cultish fervour in his employees and customers. He seemed one part electronics rock star, one part gloating Bond villain.

Given Isaacson's access to Jobs -- it was the cantankerous Apple founder who suggested the book, in fact -- I fully expected this to be a hagiographical swoon. But the book seems to be the one thing in Jobs' life that he did not attempt to micro-manage. And perhaps for this reason it is relentlessly interesting. Despite not feeling any great emotional attachments to Apple products (this review was written on a replacement computer after my Mac kicked it) and despite the exhaustive detail that Isaacson goes into, I had to tear myself away from it at times.

Via this lavishly illustrated tome, Isaacson has meticulously slain the popular myths of Jobs. If only grieving Apple fans could post the whole thing on Facebook.

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