It is tempting to look back on the life of Steve Jobs as emblematic of something larger. Certainly, there was a surprising bite to the grief that followed his death on October 5. It affected many who had no closer connection to the man than the screen of an iPhone or the keyboard of a Mac, hinting at a deep public need for heroes at a time of widespread economic uncertainty and disillusionment with America’s political and business establishment.
Those seeking clues to national revival in his success are likely to be disappointed, however. Apple’s messianic co-founder fits well into a long tradition of US business leaders. Riding the wave of a new technology and imbued with strong consumer product and marketing instincts, he stirred up new markets where few before even dreamed they might exist – much as entrepreneurs from Henry Ford to Polaroid’s Edwin Land had before him. But as this first authorised biography makes clear, he was, above all, one of a kind.
The young Jobs, who always cultivated a rebel persona, would undoubtedly have seen the irony in his immediate posthumous elevation to the status of national treasure – even if, with his not inconsiderable self-regard, he would undoubtedly have felt the honour was deserved. This was, after all, the man who turned up to an early Apple office party dressed as Jesus.
Jobs himself wasn’t the sort of person to dwell too much on the broader questions of politics or public policy. After being given the place of honour at the right hand of President Barack Obama at a dinner with other Silicon Valley leaders earlier this year, he was typically direct in his verdict: “The president is very smart, but he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t be done. It infuriates me.”
Nor does he come across as a role model for a new generation of leaders. Bullying, manipulative, not above stealing the ideas of subordinates – even Jonathan Ive, the head of design at Apple who became the closest Jobs came to a soulmate, felt aggrieved on that score – he was frequently a nightmare to work or live with.
Genius is invariably the product of a particular time and place but, equally, it transcends the particular: it is, in some sense, its own creation. So it was with the protagonist of Steve Jobs, a biography by the former managing editor of Time, Walter Isaacson, which was rushed into publication as it became apparent that its subject’s health had taken a serious, ultimately final turn for the worse.
The Jobs seen here is unmistakably the product of two forces that were sweeping through the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s and 1970s. One was the counterculture, the other the wave of technological innovation that spread through Silicon Valley with the advent of the microprocessor. Dropping acid and travelling to India to find his guru (who, it turns out, had already died) were almost a rite of passage – though Jobs undertook both with characteristic obsessive enthusiasm. By this point he was already a devotee of Zen Buddhism, which remained a constant throughout his life.
He also comes across as a product of the worst in American parenting. After being given up for adoption as a baby, his indulgent parents (he refused to refer to them as “adoptive”) fed a wilfulness that flowered during his teenage years, culminating in his dropping out of college after simply refusing to see why he should follow a normal course of study.
So how did he go on to become the leading businessman of his generation?
Therein lies the real allure of the Steve Jobs story. Even after all the obituaries and reminiscences of the past month, and despite the familiarity of much of the material in this book, which was written with Jobs’s extensive participation, Isaacson’s exhaustive account deserves the wide readership it will undoubtedly get.
Jobs was, as long-time rival Bill Gates is quoted here as saying, “fundamentally odd”. In his early years, this manifested itself in obsessive traits such as his frequent fasting, or the fruit-only diets that could last for weeks on end. It didn’t endear him to those around him when he cut back on bathing on the grounds that his diet made this less necessary – resulting in him being pushed on to the night shift at games maker Atari, an earlier employer, to reduce complaints from fellow workers about his body odour.
His personality traits both attracted and repelled the people closest to him. He was intensely manipulative and stopped at little to get his way – though he often passed off his own behaviour as a brutal honesty that was too direct to allow for social niceties. As Isaacson persuasively argues, Jobs had an acute empathy that belied his behaviour: it was not the case that Jobs simply lacked the emotional ability to respond in any other way, but that he chose not to.
He also deliberately cultivated the traits he later used to exert his will – such as, while a teenager, teaching himself to stare unblinkingly at people for long periods. As John Sculley, the former Pepsi marketing whiz who quickly fell out with Jobs after being brought in as Apple’s chief executive in the early 1980s, chillingly described the stare: “It’s unyielding, like an X-ray boring inside your bones, down to where you’re soft and destructibly mortal.”
The crowning achievement of this ability to project his will was the Jobs “reality distortion field” – a term coined by an Apple software engineer in the early 1980s, who said he took it from an episode of Star Trek in which the aliens “create their own new world through sheer mental force”.
Stopping just short of outright lies, Jobs used it to impose his ideas on employees and customers alike. Its power, according to Isaacson, came as much from Jobs’s ability to convince himself of the truthfulness of his vision as anyone else.
There were casualties of this approach. It may, for instance, have contributed to his eventual death from a slow-growing cancer that was first identified some eight years ago. For nine months Jobs refused to listen to entreaties to have the tumour removed, convincing himself he could fight it through diet, acupuncture and other non-invasive means – though Isaacson, who has considerable new detail here about the progress of Jobs’s illness, says there is no conclusive evidence that this delay was the reason that cancer eventually spread.
Yet the ability to project his ideas on others also lay behind his greatest achievements. The head of glass company Corning, who at first balked at the idea that his company could equip a factory and produce the screens needed in time for the launch of the iPhone, was shocked by the simple Jobsian admonition: “Don’t be afraid.” Like many others, starting with the Macintosh developers whom Jobs pushed relentlessly to pull off technical feats they at first thought were impossible, he was eventually inspired to make the deadline.
If there is a message from Isaacson’s book, it is that Jobs the dictator was saved by his bigger purpose. His tyranny was, ultimately, all in the service of “magical” products (a term used by both author and subject). Even profits took a back seat.
Had Jobs lived, it is interesting to speculate on how things might have turned out. Apple may never have had the power that Microsoft drew from its PC monopoly, but Jobs’s growing influence enabled him to shape the tastes of millions and determine the shape of emerging digital industries from publishing to music.
“Now Apple’s big, and people see it as arrogant,” former US vice-president and Apple director Al Gore told Isaacson while Jobs was at his peak. “He’s better at being the underdog than being the humble giant.”
To read this book is to feel the subtle influence of Jobs the master manipulator reaching out from beyond the grave. After learning of his cancer, he courted Isaacson assiduously to write the biography, no doubt attracted by the author’s earlier work on great figures such Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin.
The voice of Jobs in his final years, commenting on earlier events in his life, also suffuses the book. It is a presence that is both revealing and suspect. But Isaacson, a calm and balanced reporter, is generally up to the task of exposing the revisionism.
Recalling the impetus for developing the multi-touch screens used in the iPhone and iPad, for instance, Jobs told his biographer that he had been provoked into action after a dinner party where a Microsoft engineer had boasted about his own company’s technology: “I was so sick of it that I came home and said, ‘F*** this, let’s show him what a tablet can really be.’”
Isaacson also reports a different version told by Ive, who attributed the initiative to his own design team. The work had to be shielded from Jobs, according to Ive, since the Apple chief executive was often given to killing good ideas on impulse if they didn’t appeal to him immediately.
Yet by the end of the book, Isaacson is clearly falling under Jobs’s spell. The man who stamped his mark on 35 years of technology history, he writes, “was able to infuse into [Apple’s] DNA the design sensibilities, perfectionism, and imagination that make it likely to be, even decades from now, the company that thrives best at the intersection of artistry and technology.”
At this point, it feels as though the famous reality distortion field may have won the day. But given the pleasure that Jobs’s products have brought to so many, one could be forgiven for hoping that Isaacson is actually right.
Richard Waters is the FT’s US west coast editor
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, Little, Brown, RRP£25, 656 pages