Oct 24, 2012

Binary: Thoughts on Steve Jobs & Me

When Steve Jobs died, I remember thinking that I knew he was important, but questioned just how much of a role he had in Apple's game-changing, world-changing innovations.  After reading Walter Isaacson's 600+ page biography, I can at least answer this question:  ALMOST EVERYTHING.

Thing is, though, the book brings up almost more questions than it answers.  They all boil down- in my mind at least- to two:


  • Was Apple being benevolent by integrating everything into a closed, integrated system?

  • Why was Steve Jobs so freaking MEAN?

Jobs was adopted.  His biological parents chose to give him up even before he was born.  The world may never know how much this choice would affect the larger culture of Earth.  Grandiose statement?  Sure.  But Jobs' drive seemed to many of his closest friends to come from some feeling of abandonment.  His need for control seems to have come from this one major event out of his control.

That urge brought on his relentless quest for perfection.  This would result in just about every Pixar movie you know of, the shape of the iPhone, and... Oh, one more thing:  GUI.  That's pronounced "Gooey" and it's an acronym.  Stands for:

Graphic(al)
User
Interface

That means the fact that we don't still type into computers with C:/ blinking in front of us.

Kinda major.

But, see, the outer surface of all this perfectionism seems so friendly:  the smiling Macintosh, the iMac with pretty translucent colors, the perfect shape of the iPhone.  But all of these things came about because Jobs was a maniac interpersonally.  One could hypothesize that it's because no matter what he did he never felt good enough (in a quote from his beloved Bob Dylan:  "They never did like Mama's home-made dress, Papa's bankbook wasn't big enough").  Whatever the reason, he had a hard time dealing with people.  Even friends.  Even family.

It's not just that he was grumpy.  Or shy.  He had a talent for being incredibly binary:  you were either the best or the worst.  And if he thought you were the worst, he had a talent for not just being mean, but being extraordinarily cruel.

Isaacson questions whether this was something he could not control- as he claimed- or whether he simply didn't care to rein it in.  He finally decides that Jobs could've done better.  Even his battles with cancer- which eventually claimed him- didn't humble him or round off his sharp edges (which is ironically what he spent his life obsessed with doing for his technology).


All of which would be interesting but detached, were it not for the fact that so many of us could learn from Jobs' life.  I personally identified a lot with the question.  When under stress or duress, I also often resort to attacking those around me.  Ask any friend of mine.  So what can I learn from the story of Jobs?  Repeatedly as I read, I would say to myself 'Why doesn't he chill out?  Doesn't he see how much better the people around him would work if they weren't so stressed by him freaking out on them?'  Maybe they achieved extraordinary things out of fear of his criticism.  Or maybe they could have done so much more if he'd been nicer.  We'll never know, really.  Yes, Apple continues on.  Yes, they have new leadership.  But they aren't precisely the same people as all those years ago.

Which returns to the first question, and to ourselves.  The question is:  should the consumer be trusted?  On the Apple II, Wozniak wanted extra slots so hobbyist computer builders could tinker and change things as they wished.  When Jobs took control of the first Macintosh project, he purposefully had designers put special screws on the case so that only Apple could get inside.  It not only highlights the difference between those two men, it brings to light a whole way of viewing the world.

Jobs would often say how he didn't want the user to "screw up" the system.  He had one of his on/off relations with the end user:  he cared about them IF they did it his way.  Often, his way was better.  Seamless.  I don't have to explain the appeal of Apple products.  But better, or not, it was psychologically unhealthy.

Two personal thoughts.
  • In today's world, do we need to feel empowered, or disempowered?
  • How do you and I learn from this?
How do you feel about your car?  Your computer?  Your toaster?  Could you open them up and fix them?  Any part of them?  And how does that make you feel?  Too many of us now feel like we're more owned by our possessions than we own them.  And what do you suppose that does to us, psychologically?  It makes us feel small, that's what.  Rather like the ants in Pixar's (thus Jobs') A Bug's Life.  We are just here on earth to feed the grasshoppers, right?  Or should what you own make you love yourself?  Should you feel empowered by your possessions?

Think of your own projects.  Do you trust others to collaborate with you?  Or will they just "screw up" what you've done?  I let my daughter help me design the new look for this blog- and then I went back and changed it to the way I wanted.  If that tells you which side of that question I come down on.  

But that's not to defend that kind of thinking.  I'm being honest, but that doesn't mean I can't see the truth.  You see, this all comes down to questions at the heart of community.  And as someone who's seen firsthand a bunch of high-school students walking the halls with iPods in their ears (even sitting in classrooms with them on), I can assure you, it is the perfect device to start this discussion.  

Are we better together, or alone?  Should we log in, download, plug in, and tune out?  Each of us in our own musical and thought world?  Is the world better that way?

I won't answer that for you.

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