The Reality-Distortion Field
Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Steve Jobs appears comfortably large and long. In between its covers lies an incredible life fully lived and thoroughly examined. But even at over 580 pages (plus notes and bibliography), it can also feel slight. That is not for any lack of research, as Isaacson appears to have been given the keys to the kingdom when it came to access. Somehow, one of history’s most horrifically Type-A personalities decided to allow this biographer into his life with next to no limitations.
Of course, that could well have had something to do with the fact that Isaacson’s previous biographical subjects had included Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, people whom the hardly modest Jobs would likely have been just fine being included with. (Isaacson himself speculates on the first page “whether he saw himself as the natural successor in that sequence.”) It is however possible, that for all of Jobs’s incredible successes – for which he was certainly lauded in his lifetime as much as Franklin and Einstein, if not more – he just does not belong in their company. Yet.
Jobs, in fact, was the one who proposed this biography to Isaacson. This was not the act of a man who was not sure of his place in history. And why should he have been? A brash young upstart who practically invented the template for brash young Silicon Valley upstarts, he revolutionized the consumer entertainment and technology worlds at least five times in his life (Macintosh, iMac, Pixar, iPod and iTunes, iPad). Given the burning rate of his idea churns, if his life hadn’t been cut short by pancreatic cancer, Jobs likely had at least one or two paradigm-demolishers left in him. (In fact, Isaacson refers to Jobs’s statements near the end of his life this year that he had finally “cracked” the problem of an easy, all-inclusive TV interface.)
The man who would create so much of the American technological template over the last couple decades was a prototypical high-functioning baby-boomer. Born in 1955, Jobs would embrace spirituality, philosophy, esoteric fads (particularly dietary), and classic ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll, before leaping into the world of cutthroat capitalism and turning all those seemingly countercultural values into a nearly unstoppable branding machine.
Jobs’ birth parents were a Wisconsin woman of German background and a Syrian man who met in college but had to give him up for adoption. (Although Jobs said that the discovery that he was adopted gave him abandonment issues later in life, he seemed to repeat history by practically abandoning his first daughter.) Jobs’s adoptive parents gave him a near-idyllic childhood in suburban Mountain View, California – which just so happened to be located right near Palo Alto, ground zero for the computing revolution of the ‘70s.
The traits that first showed themselves as precocious intelligence and would later manifest as borderline narcissistic personality disorder crop up like weeds in the opening chapters of Isaacson’s narrative. There’s the moment when a very young Jobs discovers that he had proved his father wrong in a technical disagreement over a carbon microphone (the two were big-time garage tinkerers). This began, according to Jobs, “a very jarring process of realizing that he was in fact more clever and quick than his parents… This discovery, he later told friends, along with the fact that he was adopted, made him feel apart—detached and separate—from both his family and the world.” Not to mention the moment when Jobs literally demanded that his parents move to another district so that he could go to a school that was more to his liking.
Although he never quite got around to becoming a fully-dedicated student there, Jobs’s personality was further refined at Oregon’s Reed College, which even now retains a reputation for patchouli-scented, free-spirited academic pursuits. It was there that he feel under the influence of Robert Friedland, a particularly persuasive older student who followed a mélange of Eastern philosophical practices and ultimately ran a commune. Isaacson writes that Jobs learned from Friedland the technique that would later be termed the “reality-distortion field”. This quasi-cultish quirk of Jobs’s was one that he would later turn like a laser on those whom he wanted to convince they could do the impossible, whether it was the first team that built the Macintosh or the engineers at Corning whom he wanted to create a tough new glass for the iPod.
After a stint wandering through India and developing his life-long interest in Buddhism (the favored belief system for highly driven Californians with little interest in sparing the feelings of others), Jobs returned to California, where he and an old friend, Steve Wozniak, started hacking out some ideas. First they came up with a gizmo that, by mimicking certain high-pitched noises used by phone company switching stations, would allow users to call long-distance for free. It was only after that that Wozniak and Jobs would cobble together the idea for Apple, at the time just one of many outfits that was trying to be first into the personal computing game. The difference was that, with Wozniak’s computing genius and Jobs’s insight and maniacal drive, they would create machines like no other.
In his march through Jobs’s life, there are times when Isaacson could stand to dig a little deeper as he might if writing about a historical as opposed to modern-day figure. The book does a good job of describing the strange brew that percolated south of San Francisco in the ‘70s, where acid-dropping hippies could also be crack engineers whose mix of brazen adventurousness and technological know-how would revolutionize the computing world. (That same seemingly contradictory mix of counter-cultural rebelliousness and status-seeking consumerism would define Jobs later in life.)
This colorful background fades away in the book’s later sections. While it’s true that the ‘80s are not exactly ancient history, a greater emphasis on context would have given this too-smooth some sorely-needed grit. This tendency towards the well-reported and breezy isn’t surprising, Isaacson has spent much of his career working for places like Time and CNN, but it does leave the book lacking a certain amount of gravity.
One thing the book doesn’t lack is an appreciation of its protagonist as a fully-rounded human being. There are no rose-colored glasses for Isaacson when it comes to viewing his subject, even as he marches from one success to the next. In fact, there are instances on just about every third or fourth page of this lengthy book that make Jobs sound like a jerk in the first degree. If there is one tale of Jobs melting down into a bellowing infantile fury at an underling who did nothing to deserve it, there are dozens. Everything he sees is either brilliant or “shit”. His relationship with Bill Gates comes off as particularly over-the-top, with Jobs literally screaming at Gates and accusing him of stealing Apple’s point-and-click interface for Microsoft Windows (even though Jobs himself got the idea from the Xerox PARC research laboratory years earlier). As happens a few times in the book, Gates wins:
…Gates just say there cooly, looking Steve in the eye, before hurling back in his squeaky voice, what became a classic zinger: “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”
Isaacson’s success here (one that surprisingly few biographers are able to emulate) is not to separate Jobs the man from Jobs the businessman, since the failings of the former seem to in many ways to be the successes of the latter, but to present them as two side of the same flawed coin. On the one hand, there is the short-tempered, whiney, ungracious and outright control freak who was so opposed to users messing with his product that he redesigned devices so that consumers would need special tools to open them up.
On the other hand is a man whose mix of unrelenting perfectionism and persuasive gab made the impossible wholly possible. With this even-handed approach, Isaacson present a believable and credulous narrative of the visionary whose short-sightedness got him drummed out of his own company, and would only achieve the status of a true legend after coming back from the failures of his NeXT company (with which Jobs tried in the late-‘80s to sell personal computers for $6’500 a pop).
When Jobs first approached Isaacson about writing his biography, Isaacson writes that he initially demurred, assuming that Jobs still had many good years left in him and a lot of dramatic ups and downs. “Not now, I said,” he writes, “Maybe in a decade or two, when you retire.” Maybe one day he will be seen like Franklin and Einstein, quoted and memorialized and misquoted by people with very little idea of what he truly thought or did (the latter being the real mark of the truly historical figure). But now it’s hard to say. He may well have just been an exceptionally sharp-minded businessman with a gift for persuasion and frequently toxic personality; the Gordon Ramsay of Silicon Valley. Not necessarily a genius but maybe a surpassingly great project manager. Time will tell.