Saturday, October 29, 2011

"...And say to all the world, This was a man!"

I finished Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs earlier this evening, and I wanted to take a few hours to ruminate on it before writing about it. There's so much in here, so many facets of Jobs' personality, that upon completing its almost 600 pages of text, I needed to take a little time to get my thoughts together.

First off, I have to say that it's a truly superlative biography, perhaps one of the most informed and informative I have ever read. Isaacson was given unparalleled access to Jobs for several years, almost to his final days; the result is a picture of a man in multiple phases of his life. We see Jobs as a confident, driven, proud genius; we see Jobs as a private, introspective self-analyst; and we ultimately see Jobs as a man aware that his accomplishments and his life are soon to come to an end. But we never see Jobs as a self-pitying, remorseful man--even in moments of unsureness, he is still proud of his life, and rightly so.

Isaacson began talking with Jobs long before his health took its precipitous decline. He also talked to many dozens of Jobs' friends, associates, colleagues, and rivals, and the result is a well-rounded picture of the life of a man who did more to reshape technology than any other person in the past three decades.

It's not wholly flattering; Jobs had many personal flaws, and Isaacson presents them starkly and without apology. But he never loses sight of the fact that Jobs was a genius, and even his personal failings become a part of the complexity of that genius.

The final segment of the book has one of the most moving and haunting statements from Jobs, regarding both Apple and human existence.

I remember sitting in his back yard in his garden one day, and he started talking about God. He said, "Sometimes I don't. It's 50-50. But ever since I've had cancer I've been thinking about it more, and I find myself believing a bit more. Maybe that's because I want to believe in an afterlife, that when you die it doesn't just all disappear. The wisdom you've accumulated, somehow it just lives on." But then he paused for a second and he said, "Yeah but sometimes I think it's like an on-off switch. Click, and you're gone," he said. Paused again and said, "And that's why I don't put on-off switches on Apple devices."

I've had similar thoughts in the past, and have written about them here. But only Steve Jobs managed to let those ruminations become a formative part of the whole Apple experience.

Anyone who knows me realizes that I have been a longtime fan of Apple's blend of technology and aesthetics; as I heard more about how driven Steve Jobs was to blend the two in perfect synergy, I realized now why I have always been drawn to the Apple experience. I have always maintained that the best technology is that which you use without conscious thought; Jobs was a man for whom that level of technology was the ultimate goal. I can't help but wonder how different the world would have been had Jobs' vision expanded into television (he claimed that, shortly before his cancer cut his life short, he "cracked" television technology--let's hope that we someday see what his new take on television would have been), or automobiles, or home appliances.

The book isn't perfect, mind you; I think that more attention could have been given to controversial decisions like the move from OS9 to OSX, with a totally different software architecture. There also could have been more said about the move from the rounded, tranformative, ebullient iMac and iBook of the late 90s to the precise, minimal, sleek visual designs that dominate the Mac line today. I would like to have known more about where Jobs wanted to take the company if had been given another five or ten years.

But the only criticisms I can make are minor criticism of omission; what is here is fascinating reading, and I found myself emotionally moved at several moments in the book. I think I appreciate some of those moments even more because I remember following Jobs' career--his highs and his lows--as those moments occurred, and even then I realized that important things were happening.

You don't have to be a fan of Jobs or Apple to appreciate this book, however; in fact, those who are unaware of Jobs' accomplishments or aloof to Apple's allure will probably find the book just as fascinating, because it will lead them to evaluate his life in new terms.

(And yes, this was composed on a Mac, as is everything I write...)

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