More than a biography, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs is a cultural phenomenon. It was the best-selling book on Amazon in 2011 and it has continued to sell. A movie will follow. It is a well-written and well-researched work. Steve Jobs has entered our collective consciousness, just like its founder and Apple. Understanding how that happened is a obvious pull. Who isn’t intrigued? Referencing the book, as I have learned, is a reliable way to generate conversation. Everyone has an opinion about Steve Jobs.
Unfortunately, for me and most of those that I have talked with, reading Steve Jobs was far from a pleasant experience. It can be downright grim. There is little joy amid Jobs’ many accomplishments. Granting Jobs his business genius, we are left with a thorough study of a manipulative, sometimes cruel, and driven man whose primary passion outside of his company was Bob Dylan and Zen philosophy. Jobs made an unlikely Buddhist.
Many biographies turn out to be studies of morality and character. Others biographies are windows into a life and lifestyle. Celebrity biographies often follow this format – we are curious about those that we idolize. Isaacson’s book satisfies on neither front. Jobs was not a particularly good or moral person. Further, his lifestyle was not that interesting. While he met many fascinating people, it is to tell if he had any significant interactions outside of business. In many ways, the primary legacy of his Zen pursuits was an indifference to how he lived. The result is a striking absence of vicarious happiness in reading about Jobs’ accomplishments.
What remains – and here is the value of Isaacson’s book – is a powerful examination of the intersection of information technology, consumerism, and popular culture. The business genius of Jobs was the integration of these powerful arenas. It is a history that we are living every day. Isaacson offers a human but privileged perspective from which to make some sense of it all.
Technological used to take time to reach the public. Decades elapsed before Bell’s telephone or Edison’s light bulb was in American homes. The marketing, communication, and distribution networks were not robust. During periods of discovery and development, technology could evolve along with public reaction and understanding of it. The speed of innovation, distribution, and adaptation today is tremendously shorter. It is extraordinary how quickly we discover, adapt, saturate, and discard. The closing of Blockbuster stands as a great example – from thousands of stores a few years ago to none in 2014.
Jobs’ successful products made technological innovation attractive to many. He had a talent for designing, packaging, branding, and rendering. Jobs’ ability was not something that he could explain in words. Isaacson, too, struggles to capture what it was about Apple designs that made them so special. It was Jobs’ good fortune to be in a location and at a time when that talent could take the engineering and computer science skills of others and marry them to popular consumption. It is a strange talent that has left a powerful – and problematic – legacy.