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In Walter Isaacson's eponymous biography of Steve Jobs, the multibillion dollar man who is credited with single handedly changing the face of computing and the digital media industry, we face the dilemma of a biographer: how do you make sense of a history that is so new, it is still unfolding? Nishant Shah's detailed review of Steve Jobs' biography is now out in the Biblio and is is available online (after a free registration) as a PDF.

And how do you stitch it together around a person so iconic that he was always larger than life? Steve Jobs, the authorised story, that Steve Jobs never got to read because of his death to cancer on 5th October 2011, captures the tension between being a biographer and a historian that marks Isaacson's ambitious project. As a biographer, he hasn't yet achieved enough critical distance with the subject at hand, and hence, instead of engaging with Jobs to give us  inroads into his mind, we get a history that dons the mantle of objectivity and accuracy, to create a eulogy that would fit Steve Jobs' journey from Apple II to Apps.

Written lucidly in a fairly conversational style reminiscent of Isaacson’s time spent with the Time Magazine, Steve Jobs is a story stitched together with love, care, rigour and honesty, to look at the times, people, places and circumstances that created the megalith icon Steve Jobs. Isaacson, whose earlier works include biographical histories of Benjamin Franklin (Simon & Schuster, 2003) and Albert Einstein (Simon & Schuster, 2008), confesses to his love of  exploring the intersections of technology and humanity. He establishes Steve Jobs as a worthy successor in the series, using Jobs’ own description of himself – “I always thought of myself as a Humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics” – as the springboard for writing this ambitious history.

Like a good historian, Isaacson refuses to take Jobs at face value, well aware of his ‘Reality Distortion Field’ that sucks you in even if you are aware of it, making reality appear in morphed forms. With a rigour that befits the project, he sets out in search of the historical truth using over a hundred interview sources comprised of influential people in Jobs’ life, an exhaustive riffling through the public discourse around Apple and its poster boy, a shrewd hand on the economic and technological pulse of the late 20th century and an uncanny ability to read between the lines. The result is a biography filled with tales that we know, stories that we speculated about, anecdotes about what we suspected.

In one of the most memorable interviews in the book, Isaacson interviews Debi Coleman, one of the early managers at Apple, who says, “He would shout at a meeting, ‘You ---hole, you never do anything right.’ ... Yet I consider myself the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked with him.” Isaacson traces
this peculiar power that Jobs had over people in his life, to make them feel special and worthless at the same time, to Jobs’ own early knowledge of his adoption and of his oscillations between feeling “Abandoned. Special”. Isaacson shows how Jobs’ own life constantly referenced these two positions – from his dysfunctional relationships with women (the short story of how he got his girlfriend pregnant at 23 and then abandoned her, even denying paternity), to his long travels to India in search of spiritual belonging, and the lessons he learned from his adoptive father, who he hero-worshipped only to later realise that he was “smarter than him” — the adoption and its effects on his young mind, come up repeatedly. It serves as a way of understanding his abrasive attitude to authority, his rude and insensitive behaviour with colleagues and friends, and his strange fads at self improvement that ranged from fruitarian diets to extreme purging and fasting.

Steve Jobs offers a wide range of examples of his awful behaviour – the bullying, the belittling, the lying – till you are numbed by them. At the same time, there is a fanboy who takes us gleefully through the history that preceded the world of iPod, iPhone and iPad, with backstories of the known, the presumed and the plausible. The book quenches the thirst for information about one of the most private public figures and confirms the polarity, not only of Jobs’ dealings with the world, but also his own life and how he saw it. There is an explosion of facts – unknown facts – that entice you into reading the book, but facts alone do not a good biography make.

What is missing from the book, is insight. Throughout the book, while Jobs’ own dramatic life choices sustain your attention and interest, the author does not  work too hard at either creating his own impressions of Jobs or at giving insight in more than the surface. There is no doubt that Isaacson is an expert  historian— the most enjoyable parts of the book are when he looks at the histories that came together to create Jobs. Using his rich knowledge of the ’70s and the ’80s in the USA he portrays an enchanted universe of the hippy lifestyle, rebellious attitudes to authority, reforming education system, the transition from the analogue to digital technologies, and the heyday of creative experimentation enjoyed by a plush economy.

The layers of enchantment start fading when Isaacson lets go of the mantle of history and starts talking about the person he is studying. It is almost as if after having done his research on Jobs and then failing to invest in him as an author, he sought respite in writing history rather than giving us more of the person involved. Which is why, after reading the first half of the book, going through a series of strategic beginnings, looking at a wide range of people like Steve Wozniak, Nolan Bushnell, Andrea Cunningham, Daniel Kotke and Mike Markkula, one gets a feeling that you know more about these people than you know about Jobs. While each one of these characters, even in their cameo appearances, bring flavour, variety, complexity and emotionality to the tale, Jobs  remains the “enlightened but cruel” person who, even as he grows and transforms, remains tied to that description. Jobs becomes an organising principal for making sense of the jumbled influences behind the making of Apple rather than a person we can know more about. He is often named as an enigma but there is very little effort put into actually exploring his mystery. The historian wins over the biographer in getting you more interested in the time-space  continuum rather than in the person.

I don’t want you to go away with the idea that there is not much substance to Isaacson’s writing. With a fine pen (which could have done with a little reflexive editing — and I am sure this would have happened had the book been released as planned in January of next year instead of being brought forward to fill  the void created by Jobs’ death), Isaacson does lead us into Jobs’ universe (if not into his head) in interesting ways. He paints little sketches of the past — like Jobs’ run-in with Bill Gates, like Apple’s rivalry with IBM, like Apple’s ‘stealing’ of the GUI (Graphic User Interface) ideas and technology from Xerox PARC, like the first Mac advertisement that posited Apple as the rebel against the ‘thought police’ in George Orwell’s dystopian epic 1984, or even in the parting of ways between the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak). Isaacson knows how to tell even an oft-told story well and takes you through a simple but intricate narrative of  how Jobs became the poster-boy of the company he founded and his eventual ousting from it as a result of his obnoxious behaviour and the obsessive  compulsive personality that was affecting the productivity and business of Apple.

However, the second half of the book, separated with some poignant and memorable pictures from Jobs’ life, makes it clearer than ever that Isaacson’s  interest in Jobs is not as a biographer but as a historian. It deals with Jobs’ ousting from Apple, his near bankrupt status as both Next and Pixar fell to bad  days, and the eventual return of Jobs to the Apple empire not as the prodigal son but the ascendant angel. In pithy prose, Isaacson captures the turmoil,  frustration and chaos that emerged when the brightest star of the computing industry almost collapsed in his own overambition. We get a sense of the  ruthlessness, the hard heartedness and the short memory of a technology industry that is simultaneously unforgiving, forgetful and hinged on a business ethic of capital and market expansion. If Isaacson notices the irony of Jobs’ own firing of “B grade players” from his Macintosh project and the abrasive dismissal of “shitheads” that Jobs regularly engaged in, to feed his own sense of power and control, he doesn’t dwell on it.

The most dramatic rags-to-riches fairy tale of Jobs’ rise to power and his subsequent emergence as a tech superstar who changed the world as we know it with the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad, in a quest to make his mark in history, is a lacklustre effort. The narrative is slow and sluggish, often making you want to skim through the page and move on. There is also a repeated emphasis on how Jobs was a visionary, was brilliant, was a man who, as he grew, was getting to deal with his life better, instead of an analysis of the different events that have marked Jobs’ public and personal life. The historian, when faced with the present just rushes through it to complete the book. Yet, the last interviews with Jobs, where he refers to himself as a machine, “one click, and it is all gone” are rich in emotions and texture. Isaascon does justice to Jobs’ belief in his being good “at making people talk”. There is a sense of closure that comes with angst, grief, pain and the feeling of loss that Jobs’ death must incite.

The discontent I am left with is that in what is being read as a homily to the man, there is very little of the man in it. I knew Steve Jobs, through the legends  and stories that surround him, as an abrasive and arrogant whizkid who manipulated everybody around him ruthlessly to execute his own visions and dreams.  I knew Steve Jobs, through the public discourse and rumours, as a flawed man who could be at once the best and the worst thing that could happen to you, using people as gods when he needed them and shattering them when he no longer needed them in his new visions. I knew Steve Jobs, through the grapevine and the gossip as a man who was obsessed with control and as one who sought spirituality in design and salvation in a good sale. I knew Steve Jobs as a bundle of contradictions and contrariness and while this book explains in fascinating ways the confluences that created this legend, it gives me very little in terms of understanding the man behind the mask.

The interwebz are already abuzz with the debates for or against Steve Jobs. There is surprise at how Isaacson waters down some of the personal and  professional scuffles, often bordering on the unrelenting and the unethical, in his rendering of Jobs’ life. Speculation is rife about some of the more  controversial decisions that Jobs took and whose side Isaacson is on. The book captures, comprehensively, so much of Jobs’ life that it is bound to lead to  infinite discussion and critique. However, I would recommend that you read the book not as a biography but as a history. If you read it as a history where   Steve Jobs features prominently, because, after all, histories are written by those who win, you will be rewarded richly. It is a history that offers innovative   ways of looking at technology, one that maps one of the most crucial transitions of the 20th century from the analogue to the digital and shows how a handful of people have shaped the information age we live in. However, if you approach Steve Jobs as a way of understanding Steve Jobs, chances are you will feel short changed.

Read the original published in the Biblio VOL. XV  NOS. 11 & 12, NOVEMBER- DECEMBER 2011

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