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The Myth of the Eccentric Genius

Bro Bibles: ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson

Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.

Reading Walter Isaacson’s chunky biography of Steve Jobs, released just after the Apple mogul’s death in 2011, would be a chore at any stage of history. Reading it in the age of Trump is nothing less than a mindfuck. If you read it thoroughly, it’s hard to shake the impression that Isaacson didn’t much like the guy. In dialogues, debates and especially showdowns, Jobs never sounds like the clever one, let alone a genius. The introduction mentions that previous work on a biography of Henry Kissinger was “good preparation for this project.” Kissinger comes up again, much later, when Isaacson applies a famous quip about the living war criminal to Jobs: “He lies not because it’s in his interest, he lies because it’s in his nature.” Every mention of Jobs’ “reality distortion field” — his tendency to ignore the truth more than subvert it — is chilling.

That Jobs was unlikable is no secret. The man who “parked his Mercedes in handicapped spots, sometimes filling two spaces at a time,” and “invented an alternate reality” in which he was not responsible for a daughter he fathered at 23 was long held up as a figure whose contributions to computing outweighed his toxic eccentricity, a balance that complemented Jobs’ self-anointment as an artist. But again, I’m telling you, in 2018? The shades of Hippie Trump are everywhere. The obsession with loyalty. The naked polarity without nuance — everything and everyone are either “shit” or “amazing.” The habit of trashing an idea while stealing it, or becoming best friends with the guy he’s about to betray. The deranged diet (just replace McDonald’s with fruit), which Jobs used as an excuse not to regularly shower (he often reeked as a young man) and to ignore his initial cancer diagnosis for months (he thought he could cure his tumor with vegan food and juices, which turned out not to be the case).

Isaacson says he was surprised, and I suppose we are meant to be as well, that Jobs wanted a less-than-sympathetic accounting of his life, this exhausting portrait of a bratty, cold, vindictive, difficult billionaire with a fetish for tech products. The book was his proposal, and he gave Isaacson “unprecedented access” in the form of 40 personal interviews. If you regard this as a humble act of bravery, you’ve only been snookered by the last of Jobs’ brilliant branding moves: authorizing a narrative about himself as transparent as the glass cube atop Apple’s Fifth Avenue flagship store. Not only did this preclude any chance of a biography he had no hand in, where he didn’t get to offer his side of events, but it offered the notion that he owned his flaws rather than vice versa. You can only get through so many anecdotes about him bursting into tears when an office colleague pushed back on his nonsense before that spin falls apart. But it is, of course, the horror of his romantic and familial relationships that really makes you despise him.

Take the five-page stretch that opens Chapter Twenty: It begins with Jobs finagling an introduction to Joan Baez, who impressed him although he “wasn’t expecting a lot” from the folk singer. The two became intimate because, in one friend’s estimation, Jobs wanted to be eskimo brothers with his hero, Bob Dylan: “Steve loved that connection to Dylan.” Baez recalls a time when Jobs, fabulously wealthy at that point, became fixated on a red dress at a Ralph Lauren Polo Shop “that would be perfect” for her — then drove her to the mall, shopped for himself, and instead of giving her the dress as a gift, told her she should buy it, not responding after she confessed she couldn’t afford it. Another friend of Jobs said, “He would belittle her as being an ‘issues’ singer and not a true ‘political’ singer like Dylan.”

From here we move into a passage on Jobs’ adoptive mom’s death: As she lies bedridden, he appallingly asks, “When you and Dad got married, were you a virgin?” (More than once he would ask a flustered interviewee or audience of college students if they were virgins or had ever done LSD.) Her passing leads him to search out the biological mother who gave him up, “to thank her, because I’m glad I didn’t end up as an abortion.” He finds out that he has a full sister, the writer Mona Simpson, whom he soon critiques “for not wearing clothes that were ‘fetching enough.’” Are you cringing, or are you screaming? I can’t decide either. Such is the awesome complexity of the great Steve Jobs.

The hardcore geeks may skim this to ride the roller coaster of Jobs’ career, yet those endless machinations and reversals get stale well in advance of the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, etc. — the string of third-act triumphs that cemented his cult of personality. Nevertheless, spare a moment to reflect on how ghastly some of his corporate masterstrokes were. Jobs wept remembering the pitch for Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” ads, praising its “purity of spirit and love.” This was the campaign that literally amounted to printing photos of everyone from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to Picasso and Amelia Earhart, slapping a logo and catchphrase on it, and more or less insulting the customer’s intelligence: “Hey, this long-dead visionary definitely would have used a Mac, right?”

There’s no better rebuke to the book’s throughline of Jobs as a creative powerhouse — I mean, aside from the detail that he used to soak his feet in the toilet at work to “relieve stress” — and not a shameless parasite. I think we have to mull whether the only thing Jobs did exceptionally well, despite his avowed anti-materialism, was make lots of money. Too bad he believed, as revealed in comments about Bill Gates, that philanthropy is for losers.

But, okay, fuck me. I’m writing this on a MacBook Air, occasionally checking my iPhone 7, devices borne from a rich tradition of Jobs yelling at underlings to manifest whatever concept he had rattling around in his head. However you see Jobs, you come around to the fact that he won. Isaacson’s biography isn’t a dangerous fable for the entrepreneurial bros who read it because it flatters Jobs — far from it — but because it declares: Here Lies An Asshole Who Got Results And Changed The World.

A reader has to remind themselves that many other cruel and arrogant CEOs have gone down in flames, and even then, you may be convinced that a big enough control freak can pull off anything, up to and including the publication of his own “suspiciously fair” biography, as the New York Review of Books blurb has it. “He knew that he was not going down in history as the epitome of politeness,” Isaacson writes in the epilogue, “and it was better for him, he said, if the book didn’t read like an officially sanctioned account.” Well, it is, goddammit! Why else is he allowed to say, unchallenged, that he green-lit the book because “I wanted my kids to know me” — as if he weren’t then alive and able to talk to them?

No, the book is a monument, a last effort to install his name in our imaginations and make it synonymous with the future. He needn’t have fretted about that: the fanboys wept when he died, mourning their saint of sterile-but-playful design. As far as the future goes, he ushered in the elegant tools of total surveillance, a narc among narcs whose company will surely go on to collaborate with state power.

Most curious, however, and more telling, was how his death gave us a meme beloved among Obama-hating conservatives: “Ten years ago we had Steve Jobs, Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. Now we have no jobs, no hope, and no cash.” Beyond the puns, you have the men: Cash being the flinty voice of outlaw country, Hope the walking incarnation of country club humor and Jobs the ruthless marketer — together, they form a Voltron of (white) American ideals, immune to the rules of society that marginalized groups have never been permitted to break in pursuit of greatness. Amazing, too, that Jobs would be missed by those who like to beat a single bad joke into the dirt, always avoiding the hard work of invention.