Walter Isaacson's authorised biography was the start of a profitable line in books on Jobs and Apple, but these three recent offerings are poor follow-ons
Within hours of his death, the Apple Inc co-founder Steve Jobs was mourned even more emphatically than Michael Jackson, John Lennon and Martin Luther King. Flowers, candles and deckloads of messages were to be seen at every Apple store across the world turning each one into a shrine. The social media websites were unable to handle such a huge torrent of grief. What was it that turned the most unconventional geek in the technology world into a deity? A few clues can be found in a couple of books fresh from the galleys on Jobs, one a compilation of his famous quotes and another an unauthorised biography.
Steve Jobs: The man who thought different is a biography by financial journalist Karen Blumenthal on Jobs and is quite an exquisite yarn of technology, human foibles and Zen philosophy. In a simple narrative Blumenthal builds her story organically, from a childhood spent with his adopted parents, followed by his hippie streak that ends up dictating the rest of his life and how he came to found Apple along with Steve Wozniak. Blumenthal collates a lot of material from sources beyond even a Google search. The most important source being Walter Isaacson’s authorised (read sanitised) biography of Steve Jobs.
Let’s agree that, ultimately, the world is broadly divided into two kinds of people: the serious and non-serious. Isaacson’s book caters to the former and Blumenthal’s to the latter. In 300 pages she produces a perfect airport bestseller. If anthropological interest is all you have towards Jobs, you could do far worse than picking up Blumenthal’s book. The writer delineates Jobs’ curtailed life into three parts: his early years, his creative years and his constant struggle with death. Blumenthal goes about her job with journalistic precision and a decent flair for writing that might otherwise have reduced the material to Wikipedia-worthy only.
The best part about the book is that she provides some dope on the not-so-likable side of Jobs. He allegedly never shared the spoils of creating a game software with Wozniak, the original brain behind it. He never acknowledged his love child until late into her adolescence. He inhabited a world of “reality distortion field”— he thought rules did not apply to him, and the truth was his to create.
All said, Blumenthal’s book is still an elaborate trailer for Isaacson’s rigorous and poignant book. What Blumenthal shrugs away in a couple of sentences, Isaacson contextualises and gives a coherent narrative. Isaacson had uninhibited access to Jobs and that is Blumenthal’s undoing. Isaacson talks at length about Jobs’ penchant to cry whenever he doesn’t get his way. Where Blumenthal scores brownie points is that she has the freedom to call a spade a spade. It’s a part of tech lore that the Mac’s GUI interface was heavily inspired from Xerox’s PARC. Blumenthal doesn’t try to add any glitter while Isaacson mentions it and immediately segues into an encomium on how visionary Jobs is. If someone’s explanation for copying a blueprint from another company is “good artists copy, great artists steal”, he/she deserves a good rap on the knuckles.
What Blumenthal captures really well is the early days of Jobs and how he led a bohemian life and managed to repel everyone around with his body odour (one of his many hippie fetishes).
The section in the book about Jobs re-entry into Apple after super successful gigs as owner of Pixar makes for the greatest fairy tale in the no-longer-nascent industry of computer technology. However, there’s an air of hurriedness to the book. The iconic products of Apple, iPod, iPhone and iPad have been given wishy-washy treatment, as if they were afterthoughts. Moreover, not unlike Isaacson, she also falters on Jobs’ legacy. Marrying calligraphy with borrowed technology doesn’t make Job an “artistic genius”. As Sue Halpern wrote in The New York Review of Books, “There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.”
In a cursory one-liner Blumenthal talks about Jobs’ disdain for charity, his explanation being that creating jobs is the ultimate form of charity. This rings of hypocrisy as New York Times recently reported that Apple employs at least 700,000 people overseas. This when America is bleeding with an almost 9 per cent unemployment rate. Nor is the oppressive work regimen at the iProducts factory in China discussed. At the height of demand, workers at Foxconn in Shenzhen were made to slog for 12 hours straight. So mind-numbing and taxing was the work that at least a dozen killed themselves.
An addendum to this biography is I, Steve: Steve Jobs in his own words, a collection of quotes gathered from sources as varied as his famous 2005 Stanford speech and an interview with Playboy magazine in 1985. By combining a melange of exotic philosophies and decent understanding of where technology is headed, Jobs is nothing less than a Pope for tech aficionados and nerds. “I get asked a lot why Apple’s customers are so loyal. It’s not because they belong to the Church of Mac! That’s ridiculous. It’s because when you buy our products, and three months you get stuck on something, you quickly figure out [how to get past it], and you think, ‘Wow, someone over there at Apple actually thought of this’!”... there’s almost no product in the world that you have that experience with, but you have it with a Mac. And you have it with an iPod,” Jobs told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2004.
This quote exemplifies what Jobs actually is, an astute salesman who can effortlessly sell truckloads of beverages during a rainstorm. Even before you could make up your mind if you really need the product Jobs’ giant machine of PR and marketing ensures you have the product in your hand. Hardly any irony was expressed when the Occupy Wall Street protesters were using iPhone’s Instagram app and other features to chronicle their “rage against the machine”. US corporations are evil except the company created by the man seen forever in black turtleneck and blue jeans. It would be a cruel joke on Africans if Steve Jobs were to tell them to “stay hungry, stay foolish” but not for people who are iProducts obsessed.
I, Steve can hardly be recommended because it doesn’t have anything that Blumenthal’s book doesn’t mention. However, the book, which is designed aesthetically, keeping in mind the minimalist design of the iProducts, is worth a dekko.
STEVE JOBS: THE MAN WHO THOUGHT DIFFERENT
Author: Karen Blumenthal
Price: Rs 399
I, STEVE: STEVE JOBS IN HIS OWN WORDS
Edited by: George Beahm
Publisher: Collins Business
Price: Rs 199
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