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Is Steve Jobs God?
Chris Smith, Illustration by Hellovon | March 21, 2008
Who is this guy, really? Brilliant businessman, total jerk, secular deity? After reading all the books of Jobs, including a new biography, we think we’ve come up with the clearest picture yet.
Begin with a snapshot. In the foreground is Apple CEO Steve Jobs, onstage at the Moscone Center at this year’s Macworld conference, the annual gathering of the Apple faithful. Many in the audience camped out on the sidewalk overnight to ensure they’d get in, a modern-day cargo cult awaiting news from above. And now, as Jobs begins describing this year’s trove of bright, shiny objects, a hush falls over the crowd.
Naturally, he is wearing his trademark Silicon Valley–boho outfit: black mock turtleneck and jeans, granny glasses on his nose, stubble on his cheeks, as if he’d spent all night in front of the LCD’s hypnotic glow. Jobs is in his element here, conjuring the market power of the iPhone and the iPod and dropping hints of what’s to come. Even though Apple’s recent offerings fall well short of revolutionary (see that gorgeous but flawed ultrathin laptop), it hardly matters. An hour and a half later, Jobs says goodbye, hands clasped in a modified namaste, and the audience cheers.
This is the Steve Jobs we know: the visionary college dropout who, with Steve Wozniak and $1,000 in seed money, cofounded Apple in 1976; the hippie entrepreneur who sold the idea of personal computing to the masses. He helped bring the original Mac to market almost a quarter-century ago and bankrolled a struggling Pixar through its early years. More recently, he has presided over Apple’s transformation from has-been computer maker to digital-lifestyle trendsetter, orchestrating the rollout of the iMac, iPod, and iPhone, which have changed life as we know it.
Snapshots, though, aren’t three-dimensional. As those who’ve followed his career know, there is another Jobs. This is the volcano-tempered boss who evaluates work with a tossed-off “This is shit” and fires employees on a whim, the young multimillionaire who once refused to pay child support, the Zen adherent who laps the globe in his $40 million Gulfstream jet. Despite his genius, Jobs has earned a spot alongside Henry Ford and Donald Trump in the pantheon of tycoons whose accomplishments are matched only by the size of their egos.
All of which raises a question or two. Why does such a manifestly brilliant guy have to be such a jerk? And why do so many of us love him anyway?
In recent years, several biographers have gamely tried to chart the depths of Jobs’ psyche, with little help from the man himself. He rarely speaks to the press, save for tightly scripted sound bites, so all these accounts are based on talks with old colleagues and Apple Deep Throats, supplemented by occasional in-depth interviews he’s granted to a few lucky reporters over the years. (This magazine has tried a number of times to coax Jobs into a sit-down. No dice.)
Each biographer makes much of the Great Man/Awful Man paradox. A seeker from the get-go, 19-year-old Jobs traveled to India in search of enlightenment, but he bargained with the locals so aggressively, according to Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon’s exhaustive iCon (2005), that he was almost run out of town. And in the decades since Jobs and Woz created Apple, claims Alan Deutschman in his engaging and gossipy, if now slightly dated, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs (2000), the “Good Steve” who inspires employees has become inextricably tied to the “Bad Steve” who terrorizes them.
So Jobs is a bundle of contradictions, everyone agrees. In his just-published biography, Leander Kahney, managing editor of Wired News and author of The Cult of Mac and The Cult of iPod, argues more precisely that it is Jobs’ proprietary brand of bad behavior that makes him great. Jobs’ unpleasant ways are actually adaptive traits, the business-world equivalent of an opposable thumb. “Where some see control freakery,” Kahney writes in Inside Steve’s Brain, “others see a desire to craft a seamless, end-to-end user experience. Instead of perfectionism, there’s the pursuit of excellence. And instead of screaming abuse, there’s the passion to make a dent in the universe.”
A convenient apologia, to be sure, but it rings true. Jobs has always had more of the “vision thing” than other CEOs, more of a proselytizer’s worldview, and his career can be read as the sustained pursuit of the goal he laid out at Apple’s birth: to put new technologies into the hands of ordinary users. Jobs’ force of will and hustler’s ruthlessness have carried the day again and again, from his bare-knuckled bargaining with former Disney chief Michael Eisner in the mid-1990s over the fate of Pixar to the 99-cents-a-song sweetheart deal he negotiated with major record labels in 2003 for his fledgling iTunes store. Occasionally, his pride got the better of him, as when he left Apple in the 1980s to form NeXT, a forward-thinking computer maker that flopped. But in 1997, Jobs engineered a triumphant return to Apple—and, soon after, the ouster of the Apple executive who invited him back. Where other biographers chase after ghosts, though, trying to persuade us that Jobs has become kinder and gentler over the years (he has been happily married, with kids, for decades), the new book makes clear that the King of Cupertino’s core traits—which Kahney defines as “obsessiveness, narcissism, perfectionism”—haven’t changed one bit.
Though Kahney clearly understands Jobs’ desire to change the world, as well as the Mac and iPod “cults,” he never tries to explain the devotion Jobs inspires. (After all, nobody sleeps on the sidewalk waiting to hear Bill Gates speak.) The truth is, there’s always been something messianic and extra-mortal about Jobs. It was present when he was just a precocious Valley kid tearing the guts out of transistors to see how they worked. Young and Simon report that Jobs hated his middle school so much, he forced his parents to move so he could go to another school. How many preteens wield that kind of power?
As any psychiatrist will tell you, extreme narcissists—the smart ones, anyway—are often able to achieve the impossible because, on some level, they truly believe they’re on loan from Olympus. Recall the tagline for Apple’s “Think different” ads from the late 1990s, which enlisted a quote from Jack Kerouac and the likenesses of Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. to sell computers: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
And Jobs certainly believes—no, he knows—that he’s right. His is the way and the truth and the light, the kingdom and the power and the glory. There is a celestial glow behind those granny glasses, an ability to see past the horizon, inspire (or force) others to shoot for his standards, and position himself in the perfect spot. To cite just one example: Plenty of MP3 players were on the market when the iPod was released, but Jobs’ ingenious fusion of form and function allowed Apple to cash in on the shift to digital music. His mantra of better living through good design—he insists the iPod’s innards look as attractive as its case—drives the company, the industry, and, increasingly, the culture. How many pairs of white earbuds do you see on the street these days?
Oddly enough, the book that comes closest to the heart of our love affair with Jobs is a satire, the pseudo tell-all penned by “Fake Steve Jobs,” aka Forbes editor Daniel Lyons. Last year, Lyons translated his viciously funny blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, into oPtion$, a loosely plotted but equally funny book centered on the real-life stock-option backdating scandal that has swirled around Jobs and other tech CEOs in recent years. Lyons’ Fake Steve is a combustible mix of unrestrained id, baby-boomer pretension, and genuine idealism, a CEO who thinks he should earn a Nobel Peace Prize for the iPod, but worries about the health of the Chinese kids who assemble his computers. Much like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, whose phantasmagoric, not strictly factual probing of the rot at the core of the American dream told us more about the shifting cultural winds of ’60s-era America than any number of straight histories could, oPtion$ digs deep into the zeitgeist and comes up with a foundation myth that resonates.
When Jobs made his youthful pilgrimage to India, he came back unenlightened. Fake Steve, though, does have an epiphany. After an arduous trek up the Ganges, he reaches the guru Krishna Neeb Baba’s home, high in the Himalayas. The guru, it turns out, is a straight-up fraud, a lapsed Harvard professor who got into Eastern thought for the young girls and the chance to wear pajamas all day. But he has wisdom all the same, letting Fake Steve in on the key to his later success—and, perhaps, to our cultural moment. Observing that “people are hungry for meaning” and that “America is all about commerce,” the guru predicts, “Someone is going to figure out a way to create material things and imbue them with a sense of religious significance…. Whoever weaves these together will become more powerful than you can imagine.”
This, of course, is exactly what Jobs has done. The gods don’t have to play by our rules, and Jobs, bless his sometimes Grinchlike heart, is a god for our times, a secular deity who for years has offered us a better tomorrow courtesy of technology and design. Now he has his finger on the pulse of three major industries—computers, music, and movies—and is busily threading them together. In the process, he’s forging a whole new world. Such is the power of his vision that we cheer his victories as if they were our own and forgive his occasional missteps (remember the underpowered and overpriced Cube?), because, well, God created both the peacock and the mosquito, and his ways are sometimes inscrutable.
Even if you spend your Sunday mornings with the Times instead of the Bible, you’re probably still looking for the meaning of it all. I know I am. (I am also, by way of confession, a lifelong Apple user.) Jobs, the computer geek who elevated design to high art—and who once dressed up as Jesus for a Halloween party—has provided that spiritual heft for many of us. There’s a reason Apple fans used to make Kool-Aid jokes. Forget the legions of politicians, prognosticators, and fire-and-brimstone preachers: When Jobs talks of a new day rising, we can’t wait for dawn to break.
Chris Smith is a San Francisco contributing writer.