Friday, December 23, 2011

Steve Jobs without the Hagiography

I was wondering whether or not The New York Review of Books would select Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs for consideration and, if so, whom would be assigned the task.  The answer can be found in the latest issue (January 12), in which Sue Halpern is the designated reviewer.  Anyone who takes the trouble to search for Halpern’s name on this site knows that I have a high opinion of her.  When she writes about the objective world of science and technology, she always seems to equip herself with enough background to make it clear that she is speaking from an informed position, rather than just relaying the canned assertions of others.  She then has a knack for projecting her “objective content” into both subjective and social worlds, meaning that she is better equipped to discuss implications and consequences than the usual crowd of evangelists, not to mention many of the more emotional nay-sayers.

By now most people know the basic backstory behind Isaacson’s biography.  Basically, he was hand-picked by Jobs to write the “authorized” account.  Given the single-minded focus Jobs could apply to just about anything he did, one wonders how this selection process occurred.  Did Jobs draw up a “short list,” which, after considerable deliberation, was finally whittled down to a single individual?  My own guess is that this is not likely, particularly since one of the prevailing themes of the book concerns his preference for gut-level decision-making.  That being the case, there is a good chance that Jobs’ gut was informed by browsing the biography section of a physical bookstore, where he would discover that there was this author with reputable credentials, who had already written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.  One can almost hear Jobs’ gut shouting out, “That’s the guy for me!”

(I suppose it is possible that this scenario could play out through Amazon recommendations;  but I am not sure it would have as much appeal to the gut, so to speak.)

Yes, I know that sounds irreverent;  but then I have never been particularly interested in writing biography.  I figure that an obituary for some individual who has received comparatively little attention is about as far as I can go, even when the subject is someone who had been involved with a considerable chunk of my personal life.  So I do not have to worry as much about showing the same respect for my subject matter as any good biographer would.  Thus, Halpern is dispassionate enough to recognize hagiography when she reads it.  To her credit, however, she has come up with a balanced account that gives all of the virtues their due without disregarding many of the vices that tend to get ignored in “authorized” accounts (or, in Isaacon’s case, relatively quarantined).  In other words any reader who would like a well-written overview of Jobs’ accomplishments would probably be better off reading the few pages of Halpern’s review, rather than taking total immersion baptism in all 630 of Isaacson’s pages.

Nevertheless, after one has read Halpern’s opening paragraph, one has a clear sense that she is holding herself in check.  She is doing everything that a responsible reviewer should do, but her choices of words reveal that she has bottled up some very strong personal opinions.  Thus, as one works through her essay, one begins to wonder if she will ever uncork that bottle.

Those who dislike spoilers should probably stop right here, because the cork finally pops out in the last three paragraphs of the review.  They have been so artfully constructed that I cannot resist reproducing them:

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man, cruel even to his best friend Steve Wozniak, derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. Friends and former friends speculate that his bad behavior was a consequence of being put up for adoption at birth. A former girlfriend, who went on to work in the mental health field, thought he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Sculley, who orchestrated Jobs’s expulsion from Apple, wondered if he was bipolar. Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior. Isaacson seems to think so, too, proving that it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.

The designation of someone as an artist, like the designation of someone as a genius, is elastic, and anyone can claim it for himself or herself and for each other. 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.

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

I agree with Halpern about the elastic nature of the “artist” concept (as well as the “genius” concept).  Since I spend the better part of every day working on what I write about the performing arts for, I find that I use both of those words with extreme caution;  and I am always suspicious when the term is self-applied.  At the same time I appreciate that the connotation of the word “artist” need not be strictly positive.  I seem to recall at least one of my reading sources referring to Adolf Eichmann as an “artist of extermination;”  but, even without such repugnant surface-level usage, history is filled with examples of dark perspectives.  There are any number of reasons (including the religion of my ancestors) why I cannot possibly imagine engaging in a conversation with Richard Wagner;  and I was certainly not surprised to read that Robert Schumann came away frustrated by his attempt to do so.

Still, the thing about Wagner is that we can judge him by what he did, rather than who he was.  Halpern has saved her strongest feelings about what Jobs did for her final paragraph.  The bottom line is that everything he accomplished was done in the service of the addictive powers of consumerism, which I continue to associate with both how we got into our current economic crisis and why our prospects for recovery are so bleak.  When we add to that the impact of Jobs’ activities on both the global environment and working conditions in some of the most destitute parts of the world, that Eichmann comparison seems a bit less absurd, even if it remains distasteful.  The idea that Apple may be guilty of crimes against humanity may be too extreme to stand up under rigorous argumentation;  but sometime it makes sense to follow Brian Eno’s “oblique strategy” of withdrawing from an extreme position, rather than being too weak to recognize that it is a position at all.

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