Friday, November 18, 2011

The tao of Steve

So now that he is gone, what do we make of Steve Jobs?

Give him this. When he knew death might be in the offing, he asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography. He gave full access and many interviews, and placed no restrictions on what Isaacson might say. It is a brilliant biography, which paints an honest portrait of the subject, warts and all. No, "warts" is not strong enough. Jobs -- in his own word and in Isaacson's -- could be an "asshole."

The reviewer of a book on Ernest Hemingway in last week's NYTBR, said "Hemingway was not an absolute swine to absolutely everyone absolutely all of the time, but it was a close thing…Also, he liked to fish." You might say the same thing about Jobs, but add "Also, he liked to give us gorgeous, easy-to-use products that we had no idea we wanted."

Everything -- and everyone -- was either "shit" or "insanely good." Intemperate and charismatic. Whatever his personality defects, he was able to inspire loyalty and affection.

He may not have been the smartest cookie in the jar, but he was indisputably a genius, a man who lived at the intersection of art and science and imagined a kind of technology that pushed the buttons of our esthetic centers even as it transformed our lives. And maybe "pushed the buttons" is the wrong metaphor. Jobs hated buttons, even on-off switches. He wanted his products to be so simple that buttons were redundant.

I confess to being an Apple junkie, ever since I bought one of the first Macintosh 128s in 1984. I'm writing this post on an iBook, probably my sixth or seventh Mac. I don't use a cell phone, but if I did it would be an iPhone. My next laptop will be a MacAir.

Isaacson smartly captures the whole roller-coaster ride of Apple Inc., from its inception in the Jobs family garage with Steve Wozniak to its place today as the most valuable company in the world. Apple was more than Jobs, of course. Jony Ive, the designer, and Tim Cook, the organizer, among others, were crucial to the company's success, but Jobs was responsible for hiring them and driving them to the edge of perfection. It will be interesting to see if one of Job's kids has the DNA -- the drive, the perfectionism, the imagination -- to step into his or her father's shoes, perhaps Eve, the youngest.

Having read Isaacson, I can say definitely that I wouldn't want to be stranded on a desert island with Steve Jobs. But I wouldn't want to be there without my Apple Mac.