REVIEW: “Steve Jobs”, Walter Isaacson

BKSTVJBS.RVW 20111224

“Steve Jobs”, Walter Isaacson, 2011, 978-1-4104-4522-3
%A   Walter Isaacson pat.zindulka@aspeninstitute.org
%C   27500 Drake Road, Farmington Hills, MI   48331-3535
%D   2011
%G   978-1-4104-4522-3 1451648537
%I   Simon and Schuster/The Gale Group
%O   248-699-4253 800-877-4253 fax: 800-414-5043 galeord@gale.com
%O  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1451648537/robsladesinterne
http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1451648537/robsladesinte-21
%O   http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/1451648537/robsladesin03-20
%O   Audience n+ Tech 1 Writing 2 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
%P   853 p.
%T   “Steve Jobs”

I have read many fictional works that start off with a list of the cast of characters, but this is the first biography I’ve ever read that started in this way.

It is fairly obvious that Isaacson has done extensive research, talked to many people, and worked very hard in preparation for this book.  At the same time, it is clear that many areas have not been carefully analyzed.  Many Silicon Valley myths (such as the precise formulation of Moore’s Law, or John Draper’s status with regard to the Cap’n Crunch whistle) are retailed without ascertaining the true facts.  The information collected is extensive in many ways, but, in places (particularly in regard to Jobs’ earlier years) the writing is scattered and disjointed.  We have Jobs living with his girlfriend in a cabin in the hills, and then suddenly he is in college.

Material is duplicated and reiterated in many places.  Quotes are frequently repeated word-for-word in relation to different situations or circumstances, so the reader really cannot know the original reference.  There are also contradictions: we are told that Jobs could not stand a certain staffer, but 18 pages later we are informed that the same person often enthralled Jobs.  (Initially, this staffer is introduced as having been encountered in 1979, but it is later mentioned that he worked for Jobs and Apple as early as 1976.)  At one point we learn that an outside firm designed the Mac mouse: four pages further on we ascertain that it was created internally by Apple.  The author seems to have accepted any and all input, perspectives, and stories without analysis or assessment of where the truth might lie.

It is possible to do a biography along a timeline.  It is possible to do it on a thematic basis.  Isaacson follows a timeline, but generally only covers one subject during any “epoch.”  From the first time Jobs sees a personal computer until he is dismissed from Apple, this is less of a biography and more the story of the development of the company.  There is a short section covering the birth of Jobs’ daughter, we hear of the reality distortion field, and terse mentions of vegan diets, motorcycles, stark housing, and occasional girlfriends, but almost nothing of Jobs away from work.  (Even in covering Apple there are large gaps: the Lisa model is noted as an important development, but then is never really described.)

In fact, it is hard to see this book as a biography.  It reads more like a history of Apple, although with particular emphasis on Jobs.  There are sidetrips to his first girlfriend and daughter, NeXT, Pixar, miscellaneous girlfriends, his wife and kids, Pixar again, and then cancer, but by far the bulk of the book concentrates on Apple.

The “reality distortion field” is famous, and mentioned often.  Equally frequently we are told of a focused and unblinking stare, which Jobs learned from someone, and practiced as a means to intimidate and influence people.  Most people believe that the person who “doesn’t blink” is the dominant personality, and therefore the one in charge.  It is rather ironic that research actually refutes this.  Studies have shown that, when two people meet for the first time, it is actually the dominant personality that “blinks first” and looks away, almost as a signal that they are about to dominate the conversation or interaction.  Both “the field” and “the stare” seem to tell the same story: they are tricks of social engineering which can have a powerful influence, but which are based on an imperfect understanding of reality and people, don’t work with everyone, and can have very negative consequences.

(The chapters on Jobs’ fight with cancer are possibly the most telling.  For anyone who has the slightest background in medicine it will be apparent that Jobs didn’t know much in that field, and that he made very foolish and dangerous decisions, flying in the face of all advice and any understanding of nutrition and biology.)

Those seeking insight into the character that built a major corporation may be disappointed.  Like anybody else, Jobs is a study in contradictions: the seduction with charm and vision, then belittlement and screaming at people; the perfectionist who obsessed on details, but was supposedly a visionary at the intersection of the arts and technology who made major decisions based on intuitive gut feelings with little or no information or analysis; the amaterialistic ascetic who made a fortune selling consumer electronics and was willing to con people to make money; the Zen meditator who never seemed to achieve any calm or patience; the man who insisted that “honesty” compelled him to abuse friends and colleagues, but who was almost pathological in his secrecy about himself and the company; and the creative free-thinker who created the most closed and restricted systems extent.

There is no attempt to find the balance point for any of these dichotomies.  As a security architect I can readily agree with the need for high level design to drive all aspects of the construction of a system: a unified whole always works better and more reliably.  Unfortunately for that premise, there are endless examples of Jobs demanding, at very late points in the process, that radically new functions be included.  Then there is Jobs’ twin assertions that the item must be perfect, but that ship dates must be met.  One has to agree with Voltaire: the best is the enemy of the good, and anyone trying to be good, fast, *and* cheap may succeed a time or two, but is ultimately headed for failure.

Several times Isaacson repeats an assertion from Jobs that money is not important: it is merely recognition of achievements, or a resource that enables you to make great products.  The author does not seem to understand that an awful lot of money is also another resource, one that allows you to make mistakes.  He only vaguely admits that Jobs made some spectacular errors.

The book is not a hagiography.  Isaacson is at pains to point out that he notes Jobs’ weaknesses of character and action.  At the same time, Isaacson is obviously proud of being a personal friend, and, I suspect, does not realize that, while he may mention Jobs’ flaws, he also goes to great lengths to excuse them.

Was Steve Jobs a great man?  He was the driving force behind a company which had, for a time, the largest market capitalization of any publicly traded company.  He was also, by pretty much all accounts, an arrogant jerk.  He had a major influence on the design of personal electronics, although his contribution to personal computing was mostly derivative.  We are conventionally used to saying that people like Napoleon, Ford, and Edison are great, even thought they might have been better at social engineering than the softer people skills.  By this measure Jobs can be considered great, although not by the standards by which we might judge Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama (which is rather ironic, considering Jobs’ personal philosophy).

Those who hold Jobs, Apple, or both, in awe will probably be delighted to find a mass of stories and trivia all in one place.  Those who want to know the secrets of building a business empire may find some interesting philosophies, but will probably be disappointed: the book tends to take all positions at once.  For those who have paid much attention to Apple, and Jobs’ career, there isn’t much here that is novel.  As Jobs himself stated to a journalist, “So, you’ve uncovered the fact that I’m an *sshole.  Why is that news?”

Having all of the material in one book does help to clarify certain issues.  Personally, I have always fought with the Macs I used, struggling against the lock step conformity they enforced.  It was only in reviewing this work that it occurred to me that Apple relies upon a closed system that makes Microsoft appear open by comparison.  So, I guess, yes, there is at least one insight to be gained from this volume.

copyright, Robert M. Slade   2011     BKSTVJBS.RVW 20111224

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