We’re Getting Concerned Mr. Smith
3 October 2017
"Reality distortion field", "Think Different", apple, Apple Inc., biography, Book Review, Dead Poet's Society, history, iMac, iPad, iPhone, ipod, John Keating, MacBook Pro, Mackintosh, mortality, Perception, Personal Computer Industry, Personal Computer Movement, Personal Computers, reflection, Science, Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs was an Asshole...Let's be Real here, Steve Wozniak, technology, Walter Isaacson
Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?—John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society
This essay was written on a MacBook Pro, and that should hopefully speak to the quality of the book. Product endorsement really isn’t my strong suit, and so I suppose starting this essay off by noting my shift to Apple products might not be the best way to begin writing about Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, and in fact if it were not for my grandfather I doubt I would have made the actual switch.
My grandfather, as long as I can remember of the man, was the sort of person who could not tolerate small talk. The annual birthday meetings between him and my parents were not the casual get togethers where people would talk about television shows and try to treat desperately about the weather. I never remember small talk because my grandfather couldn’t do small talk. Rather the conversations would be about the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the politics of the day, my grandfather’s thoughts about the history of the Catholic Church, his success with certain carpentry tools, and sometimes his early fascination with computers. I tend to recall more his conversations about Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic philosophers, which is somewhat amusing given the fact that the man was married three times putting him into something charmingly referred to as a lapsed Catholic. But I do remember on the few occasions he spoke about his preference of personal computers, a term I really wouldn’t appreciate until reading Steve Jobs, and I remember him talking in great esteem of something called a Macintosh.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the computer my grandfather was gushing about positively were the exact same computers I was using in my computer classes at school to paint pictures and play educational games. Apple products were apparently always around when I was young, but I couldn’t see the fruit for the trees. That’s a play on words you see because Apple’s logo is an actual apple. On an entirely separate not I’ve also ordered a white mug with the multicolored logo that bears the inscription “Think Different,” and since buying my MacBook Pro, I’ve looked into getting an iPad
and eventually a desktop iMac. My little sister has charmingly decided to call me an “Apple Whore” after she saw the Apple logo keychain I had printed up using the library’s 3-D Printer.
I suppose I am one now, and observing this metamorphosis I realize that, even after death, Jobs has managed to continue to inspire individual people using his awe and charisma that, some would argue, tended to overshadow the man’s faults.
Before I finally sat down to read Steve Jobs (listen is the more appropriate word since I’m slowly chugging through the audiobook) I was aware of the book because my grandfather had a copy. The book came out and became a sensation, and it seemed for a while that the proliferation of the book was akin to actual Apple Products, you just couldn’t get away from it. Somehow or another I avoided having to actually sit down and read it, largely because I discovered Christopher Hitchens about the time the book came out. It was thankfully then through Hitch that I determined the quality of Walter Isaacson as a biographer. I read his Benjamin Franklin , and I intend to sit down and read his Henry Kissinger and Einstein as soon as I get the chance. It was because of these connections that I knew enough about the book to know it was worth my time, and I borrowed it from my grandfather intending to read it.
It’s been within the last year or so that his dementia started, and so I’ve lost the grandfather who was such a powerful intellect. But I still had his copy of Steve Jobs, so I started it and have now become an Apple Whore.
Isaacson deserves every bit of credit he gets for Steve Jobs, because even during the most pedantic periods of the man’s life feels vital and important to understanding the qualities of Jobs as an individual man. Passages that describe board-room meetings and phone calls become part of the great drama that became Steve Jobs’s life, and even when discussing the jargon ladened aspects of computer design Isaacson’s books never loses its sense of pace or direction. The reader is constantly observing the man of Steve Jobs. They see his highs his lows, his individual strengths, and his faults that at time have left me both shocked and repulsed. Isaacson deserves credit for this previous point as well given the fact that the temptation of biography is at times to write about the idea of someone rather than the real actual meat and bone of a human being.
And the first impression from Isaacson’s book that really hits me is how much I relate to Jobs in a sense of impending doom. In one passage he cites Jobs’s notion of his own mortality:
Jobs confided in Sculley that he believed he would die young, and therefore he needed to accomplish things quickly so that he would make his mark on Silicon Valley history. “We all have a short period of time on this earth,” he told the Sculley’s as they sat around the table that morning. “We probably only have the opportunity to do a few things really great and do them well. None of us has any idea how long we’re going to be here, nor do I, but my feeling is I’ve got to accomplish a lot of these things while I’m young. (155).
Recognition is one of the most powerful feelings someone can experience. It was “recognizing” Bruce Bechdel on the cover of Fun Home that helped me realize that I was queer, and it was “recognizing” Brian’s confession to Stewie in Family Guy that I really saw my suicidal thoughts for what they were. Reading Steve Jobs, I recognized someone again, because I’ve recognized a similar trait in myself. It might just be my soul-crushing morbidity that I write off as it’s own form of practicality, but I’m always aware of some kind of feeling that my life is not going to be terribly long. Part of this is rational understanding of genetics, my family doesn’t have a great track record (unless you’re a woman on my mother’s side) of a long life. The other half of this is just some kind of irrational premonition.
A person’s perception of their own life and world can be a powerful thing, and not just because it can drive you to success overall. What is consistently remarkable about the man Steve Jobs is how much I find myself remarking that the man was an unconscionable prick. There are numerous passages in the book of Jobs being either purposefully spiteful to friends, employees, competitors, or even people he simply didn’t know. It’s a common occurrence in the book to hear the man speak of a person’s work as “shit” to their face, and this became part of the man’s personality to his friends and workers. This dramatic honesty could work in both ways and the reader is quick to learn of something called “the reality distortion field.”
If the reader has never watched Star Trek (don’t feel alone I’ve never watched it either) Isaacson explains it in chapter eleven.
Tribble said that Jobs would not accept any contrary facts. “The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek,” Tribble explained. “Steve has a reality distortion field.” When Hertzfeld looked puzzled, Tribble Elaborated. “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules. (117-8).
Isaacson continues this character trait on the following page offering a more detailed analysis:
At the root of the reality distortion was Job’s belief that the rules didn’t apply to him. He had some evidence for this; in his childhood, he had often been able to bend reality to his desires. Rebelliousness and willfulness were ingrained into his character. He had the sense that he was special, a chosen one, an enlightened one. “He thinks there are a few people who are special—people like Einstein and Gandhi, and the gurus he met in India—and he’s one of them,” says Hertzfeld. “He hold Chrisann this. Once he even hinted to me that he was enlightened. It’s almost like Nietzsche.” Jobs never studied Nietzsche, but the Philosopher’s concept of the will to power and the special nature of the Überman came naturally to him. […]. If reality did not comport with his will, he would ignore it, as he had done with the birth of his daughter and would do years later, when first diagnosed with cancer. Even in small everyday rebellions, such as not putting a license plate on his car and parking it in handicapped spaces, he acted as if he were not subject to the strictures around him. (119).
The reader can surely find their own examples of Jobs’s prickishness, and I should address that before the reader raises concerns. Isaacson’s biography never sugar-coats Jobs’s behavior, and when they arrive at the conception and rejection of his first child during the early days of Apple they’re sure to consider putting the book down wondering why they would ever want to learn more about a man who accused his lover with sleeping half the population of the world. I don’t have any defenses for this behavior, nor do I offer any.
Jobs was a man who, obviously, lived life by his own rules and that at times created unnecessary conflict and behavior that is, to quote my little sister, “slap-worthy.” What then is the relevance of reading about the man’s life?
Jobs could be, to borrow one of Isaacson’s favorite adjectives, “Cold” and this behavior isn’t always excusable. But to neglect understanding of Jobs simply because he was an asshole is to ignore the man’s contribution. As I’m want to do in these circumstances I tend to return to the examples of two of my influences: John Wayne and Christopher Hitchens. In the case of Wayne the man was an asshole who said some truly heinous things concerning the issue of race equality and anyone who wants a more specific details can simply Google Search his May 1971 Playboy interview. I will never defend those positions and arguments, and I will always be the first person to remind people about his bullshit attitudes towards race. At the same time, John Wayne helped establish the idea of the “movie star” and in his time, he produced a wide bodies of films that, in my mind, are still some of the finest movies ever made. Likewise with Christopher Hitchens the man was an unfortunate chauvinist going so far as to write an article titled Women Aren’t Funny and then a subsequent article Why Women (Still) Don’t Get It to defend his original position. Hitchens was a brilliant man, but in this instance, he was still talking out of his ass. In spite of this the man wrote some of the most important works of Nonfiction on the twentieth century and contributed more to the form of the essay than any writer of his time.
I could go on and provide a list of authors and geniuses who were contemptible assholes, but hopefully these two personal ones provide enough of my point, which is, just because somebody was an asshole doesn’t mean they couldn’t change the world.
Reality really is one’s perception of the world. What is possible and what is impossible, and the stories of science fiction are enough to prove this. As long as people could imagine changing the world, there were people who could figure out how to.
One passage clearly demonstrates this, as Jobs explained a vision he had for the future of computers. He was addressing his MacIntosh division in 1982 about an idea he had, while also expressing his contempt for market research:
At the end of the presentation someone asked whether he thought they should do some market research to see what customers wanted. “No,” he replied, “Because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” Then he pulled out a device that was about the size of a desk diary. “Do you want to see something neat?” When he flipped it open, it turned out to be a mock-up of a computer that could fit on your lap, with a keyboard and screen hinged together like a notebook. “This is my dream of what we will be making in the mid- to late eighties,” he said. They were building a company that would invent the future. (143).
Now technically the very first “laptop” was not an Apple computer, but in fact something called an Osbourne 1. Just looking at a picture of it is enough to throw out the reader’s back, and the design concurs up images of the giant insect monster movies from the 50s. Even the first apple “laptop” was nowhere near the magnificent flat machines that help achieve Twitter greatness while checking out Instagram accounts and drafted infinite Pinterest pages. What’s important about this passage was, when I read I actually received a little moment of chills. This is not because of the content of the biography itself, but again because Isaacson manages constantly to write Jobs’s life into something meaningful and profoundly important for the future of human civilization.
Jobs imagined the laptop computer as something useful, but also important to people’s lives. He foresaw the opportunity to make the personal computer something that wasn’t just utilitarian for the individual consumer, but a way of enhancing and changing the market and lives of individual people. And the strength of the previous passage reveals that, even if Jobs suffered from his “reality distortion complex,” it worked. It’s impossible to picture a world without Apple or Apple products, whether it’s their software or else their actual physical products.
And Isaacson offers a key insight into one of the lasting legacies of Jobs:
Jobs was able to encourage people to define themselves as anticorporate, creative, innovative rebels simply by the computer they used. “Steve created the only lifestyle brand in the tech industry,” Larry Ellison said. “There are cars people are proud to have—Porsche, Ferrari, Prius—because what I drive says something about me. People feel the same way about an Apple product.” (332).
I typically roll my eyes at the idea that one can express individuality through corporate products, largely because so many of the products being sold are ultimately the same. Drinking Coke or Pepsi, eating a Reese’s or a Snickers, or buying McDonalds or Burger King can never in my mind craft a rhetoric about the way I choose to live my life. These
products are designed to be consumed and then shit out, and at the end of the day shit is just shit. Yet all of these companies, in fact almost every company tries to generate advertisements that sell their products as means to express yourself. And all of this can be traced back to Apple because they succeeded.
I give Apple, and other computer companies to be fair, a pass on this rhetoric because the personal computer really can say something about the way you live your life. That’s largely because the personal computer is no longer a black screen requiring long complex code entries that are encased on monstrous floppy discs. The point-click interface altered the way computer users actually worked on computers, and from there innovation has steadily helped shape the lives of entire industries. The way an individual person approaches computers, or really, the way they use computers does shape their lives.
And again, as I noted at the start of this essay, this review was written on a MacBook Pro.
I try to wait until I have finished a book before I take the time to write a review of it. I need time to digest a book, figure out it’s place and space in my world, and then try to impart the significance of it to the reader. Steve Jobs was different because though I still have around 200 pages left, I recognize how important this work is.
Reading through my grandfather’s copy I regret terribly that it took me so long to read this book and discuss with him the life of Jobs and the history of the personal computer industry. It would have been an interesting conversation with a man who influenced me tremendously intellectually, and I might have invested earlier than I did in an Apple computer. But the cards fell where they did, and even though I’ve missed the chance to have that conversation, in his own way my grandfather succeeded. I own and will continue to own Apple products now, almost certainly till the day I die.
It’s a platitude, but it’s one that remains true. The people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world tend to do so. It’s because they are people driven by their passion and conviction that life can be changed, and that reality is exactly what we make it to be. Sometimes this can manifest in manic and even wretched behavior, but there are positive stories. It’s because of Jobs that I learned as a child how to type and learn the basics of point-click interface. It’s because of Jobs that my mother is able to write up her reviews and musings on her own website. It’s because of Jobs that the smart-phone revolution started and the idea of what a computer actually is was changed forever.
Jobs’s reality was one where the computer wasn’t just a tool, it was part of your life. And that “distorted” reality eventually became the real thing.
All quotes taken from Steve Jobs were derived from the Simon & Schuster Hardback first edition copy.
If the reader is at all interested in Apple as a company, I’ve provided some links to articles about Apple and Apple Products and businesses. Some are positive, others negative, but it’s important to get a wide variety of outlooks.
I’ve also included an great article by Wired about the influence Jobs has had on tech company founders and employees aspiring to the emulate the man and his method of management. It feels not only important, but vital for any and all people who work for, or plan of founding computer companies:
I didn’t get a chance to include it in the essay, but if the reader is at all curious about the first laptop, the Osborne 1, they can follow a link to an article on Business Insider which describes it and it’s history. Enjoy:
On one final note, I probably am, most assuredly am, an Apple Whore as my little sister says, and my wife has begun to call me that as well. I asked her briefly when she knew I was one and she responded simply, “when you bought that mug.”
This is fair, though at the same time, I mean, look at the design. Simplicity really is the ultimate sophistication.
*****Writer’s FINAL NOTE*****
Because I have to, please enjoy this Robot Chicken sketch featuring a PRETTY ACCURATE presentation of Steve Jobs, as well as a fair, completely fair, critique of both CDs and the Zune.