Eight years after publication, Walter Isaacson’s “iBio” Steve Jobs remains massively influential. Danyl Mclauchlan examines how the deeply flawed genius the book revealed continues to manifest.
It’s the end of the decade, and my social media aggregators are filled with lists of the best, most influential books of the last 10 years. For most writers and critics the best books and the most influential books seems to be the same thing, and I always look at these lists and wonder: “Are there books out there making the world a worse place, inadvertently or not?”
Whenever I finish a book I take a photo of the front cover. Then I put the image in a folder, and at the end of the year I print them all out. But I’m only allowed to print out covers of books that I’ve read to the end. This ritual is designed to combat my chronic habit of starting a book then getting distracted by another book and never finishing anything.
It’s also a rudimentary reading diary, and scrolling through these folders at the end of the decade I see that most books I finish fall into a couple of categories. There’s a high proportion that I enjoyed but never thought about again (mostly contemporary literary fiction). There are books I’m obsessed with and keep rereading (mostly popular science writing, science fiction, essays, and memoirs: all of these genres are enjoying a prolonged golden age).
And then there’s the books I didn’t fall in love with, but which lots of other people did, and so turned out to be a lot more influential than the books I liked. Like Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s biography of “the greatest CEO of all time”. This was published back in 2011, shortly after Jobs’ death. I read it in 2016 and I enjoyed it but didn’t love it.
But I find myself thinking about it more and more. Partly because Steve Jobs is a very popular book. I see people reading it on the bus; usually the bus to university; usually a guy who is obviously studying engineering or compsci, maybe design. It’s still on the stands at airport bookstores: when I travel I usually spot a couple copies on the plane, being read by Accenture or PWC types. And when I visited Xero a few years ago I saw at least three different copies scattered around workspaces. In less than a decade, Steve Jobs has established itself as a central text in the tech nerd literary canon, up there with the Foundation books; 1979’s Godel, Escher, Bach; and Genius, the James Gleick biography of physicist Richard Feynman.
But the appeal is wider than that. Goodreads curates lists of books across different categories and ranks them according to user ratings. In “popular technology” Steve Jobs is first on the list with over 850,000 ratings. The second entry – The Shallows, by Nicolas Carr – has just over 20,000. Steve Jobs is the most popular biography, the most popular business biography, one of the most popular entries in the “books I want to read” category. It’s huge.
And Steve Jobs shows up in interesting places. Like Bad Blood, the 2018 book on the Theranos scandal by John Carreyrou, the reporter who broke the story. Theranos was a fraudulent multi-billion biotech company based in Silicon Valley, and the founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was briefly the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, but is now bankrupt and awaiting trial on multiple charges of criminal conspiracy. Holmes was obsessed with Jobs, and with Isaacson’s book. She dressed like Jobs. She listened to his favourite music (Dylan, the Beatles). She drank the same kale smoothies. She treated her staff with the same brutal, withering contempt. She hired former Apple staff in an attempt to appropriate her guru’s aura, and she tried to imitate Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field”, in which teams of brilliant experts told Jobs something couldn’t be done, and he’d declare they were wrong, and would (sometimes) be proved right. The staff at Theranos, Carreyrou writes, “were all reading the book too and could pinpoint which chapter she was on based on which period of Jobs’ career she was impersonating”.
A lot of modern tech CEOs worship at the altar of Jobs. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey describes him as “a mentor from afar”; Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel has a portrait of Jobs in his office; Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick – forced out by his board after a rolling series of scandals revealing that the company’s internal culture was toxic beyond belief – wore the black turtleneck and, after he was fired, announced that he was “Steve Jobsing it”, meaning he’d return to take over his old company once it self-destructed in his absence.
Jobs is also worshipped by people like Adam Neumann, the former CEO of WeWork, a cult-like property management start-up that wasn’t a tech company in any conceivable way, but managed to convince their investors that it was, thus inflating WeWork’s valuation by several orders of magnitude (at its height the company was valued at $47 billion USD, even though it was losing billions a year and had no IP, virtually no assets, and a business model indistinguishable from its profitable, established competitors). Just like Steve Jobs, Neumann announced that his company’s goal was to “elevate the world’s consciousness”. Although Neumann dabbled in Kabbalah rather than Zen, reportedly basing his company’s first bond offering on auspicious numerological combinations then adding on a couple more million. And from this Vanity Fair take on Neumann’s catastrophic leadership style and failed IPO:
After sitting with Neumann in his office, outfitted with a Peloton bike, infrared sauna, and cold water plunge, Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson told Fast Company that Neumann reminded him of the Apple cofounder. Neumann later told colleagues that Isaacson might write his biography. (Isaacson never considered writing such a book.)
Isaacson’s Jobs biography does four things very convincingly: he shows us that Steve Jobs was (a) a genius, (b) a hateful and poisonous human being, (c) prone to making stupid mistakes that no person of even average intelligence would ever make, and (d) a very eclectic, unique personality, at least until half the tech industry started imitating him.
Isaacson doesn’t really tie these things together. He’s mildly censorious of the fact that Jobs is such a monster (for example, on his deathbed he told his estranged daughter that she smelled like a toilet). The sustained awfulness of his personality detracted from his accomplishments, his biographer feels.
And the eclecticism is just part of the package. We forget how weird Jobs was because most of his behaviour – meditation, bare feet, bizarre fasts and extreme diets, taking LSD, press releases and product launches filled with mystical pronouncements about changing the world and saving the universe – are now standard tech culture affectations. But they were all unprecedentedly weird things for a business executive to do back when Jobs first did them, and they were a big part of him being fired by his own company in the mid-1980s. It feels like there’s a stronger link than Isaacson admits between Jobs being brilliant and visionary, Jobs making dumb decisions even though everyone begged him not to (NeXT computers, the iPhone 4 antennae, countless other product failures, trying to cure his operable cancer with juice fasts), Jobs being generally very weird, and Jobs behaving in ways that were unacceptable to most other humans.
Steve Jobs is very tolerant of the chaotic and disruptive nature of modern tech culture, but the most interesting apologia for tech contrarianism is Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Silicon Valley philosopher-king, sinister billionaire and honorary New Zealand citizen, Peter Thiel.
Thiel’s ideas are influenced by the conservative thinker René Girard, who argued that humans are a “memetic” species: most of our thoughts, beliefs, values and desires come from simply imitating one another’s behaviour, especially that of high ranking/high status members of our society or in-group. Girard was a literary philosopher but his disciples like to point to the recent neuroscience literature on mirror neurons – brain cells found in primate species that facilitate learning by firing when we mirror the behaviour of another animal – to validate his model.
The way memetic imitation plays out in a capitalist society, according to Thiel, is that most aspiring entrepreneurs copy people or businesses that already exist. But if you can do this then so can anyone else, and you’ll find yourself trapped in a zero sum state of competition: a race to the bottom on price or profit, cognate to the self-defeating vision of capitalism you find in Marx. Thiel thinks an obsession with competition and “disruption” is one of the main things that’s wrong with contemporary business culture (real capitalism, he declares, is the opposite of competition). All you accomplish by imitating existing success is increasing the availability of that product from one to n. What you need to do is build something that no one else is producing and establish a monopoly on it, i.e. to take a product “from zero to one”.
By monopoly Thiel means a new, previously unimagined product or service that’s so superior no one can realistically compete against you. Most successful companies accomplish this via a mixture of proprietary technology, scale and network effects. If you want to compete against Google you have to build a better search engine, a better planet-sized IT infrastructure, and a better advertising platform. If you want to compete against Amazon you have to build a global network of AI optimised and roboticised warehouses and be able to compete against Jeff Bezos on price as he undersells you for years until you go bankrupt. To compete against Facebook you need to offer people a social network that has more of their friends on it than Facebook does. Try to be at least 10 times better than any viable competitor, Thiel helpfully suggests.
Or you can use marketing to convince customers that your product is unique. Thiel’s example of this is Steve Jobs. Jobs invented new products, but he also understood branding in a really deep, contrarian way. He was the first titan of capitalism to commodify the anticonsumerist counterculture ethos of the 1960s and use it to sell luxury brand consumer products. Nobody else thought of that. And incredibly this still works. Apple is the world’s first trillion dollar company, but many of its most loyal customers still believe that to buy its products – even queuing up for them overnight – is to signify themselves as free thinking radicals.
Thiel believes that the best contrarian ideas emerge from start-ups, by which he means small, innovative, entrepreneurial organisations. The Royal Society. The US’ ‘Founding Fathers’. Fairchild Semiconductor. It’s hard to do anything in big bureaucratic organisations and even harder to get anything done by yourself. This aligns with a point that Isaacson makes in his less popular, non-Steve-Jobs related history of digital technology, The Innovators. Most of the breakthroughs in the digital revolution emerged from small collaborative teams or partnerships, usually involving a contrarian visionary who finds someone to put their impossible dreams into practice, a tradition he traces all the way back to Lovelace and Babbage. Turing in Hut 8. Bill Hewlett and David Packard, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
Forming collaborative partnerships is exactly what Steve Jobs did for the productive components of his career. But as a career path, being a contrarian visionary who grows up in Silicon Valley and is childhood friends with Wozniak at the dawn of the digital age is difficult to emulate. Which goes a long way towards explaining why contemporary tech executives read the Jobs biography then dress up in black turtlenecks, drink kale smoothies, babble about mysticism and scream at their staff. Those Steve-Jobs-like qualities are all really easy to imitate. And, true to Thiel’s memetic theory of human nature, there are venture capitalists handing out billions of dollars to these people because they’re being contrarian and unconventional in a way that is now deeply conventional and orthodox.
The world is full of people who think they’re radicals or contrarians or critical thinkers because they can regurgitate online conspiracy theories or ideologies they were indoctrinated with at university. But being an actual freethinker is rare. Thiel boils it down to one simple formula: you have to believe that there are secrets in the world that have not yet been discovered – and that you are a person who can unearth them and “bring them to market”. But he describes the proportion of people and companies that succeed at this as following a power law distribution: almost all of them fail – the key is that they fail fast – while the tiny proportion that succeed then enjoy monopolistic power over the new, uncontested sphere of the global economy that they’ve conjured up. “A great company,” Thiel writes, “is a conspiracy to change the world.” If they succeed, they become the Facebooks, Googles, Apples and Amazons; the Zuckerbergs, Musks, Thiels, Bezos and Jobs. They rule, serene and primal, while the rest of us scurry about thinking conventional thoughts and memetically cooperating with or competing against one another because that’s what everyone else does.
Jobs’ iconic “Think Different” campaign, launched in 1997, turned Bob Dylan, Picasso, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Albert Einstein into brand ambassadors for Apple Corporation and celebrated “the crazy ones”:
The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Thiel makes a convincing argument that in a technological global marketplace, the people best placed to beat the efficient market hypothesis and change the world are less like Einstein or Gandhi and a lot more like Steve Jobs and Peter Thiel: i.e. brilliant contrarians who are also ruthless capitalists with contempt for conventional values and institutions, and who specialise in maximising their wealth and power while avoiding any responsibility or accountability. (One of Jobs’ most profitable innovations at Apple was the company’s labyrinthine tax structure, artfully designed to ensure that the most valuable corporation in the world paid as little tax as possible. Yet another Jobs invention that the rest of tech vigorously imitates.) Thiel celebrates the empowerment of contrarian tech visionaries because he’s one of them; he thinks the process needs to be accelerated. Despite the superficial appearances of change we live in an age of technological stagnation, he warns. We’re not building the future fast enough.
It feels pretty fast though. Thiel invested in Facebook in 2004; Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in 2007. At the end of 2019 there are billions of smartphones, billions of Facebook users, ubiquitous new high speed wireless networks so that we can always be connected, all of the time. And we’re still discovering the fishhooks hidden inside these new products: that contrary to all the connectivity rhetoric they’re also isolating, antisocial technologies; that they’re designed to surveil, commodify and modify our behaviour. If you think you’re too smart to be influenced by modern advertising, Thiel warns his readers, you’re being fooled twice.
Steve Jobs died in October of 2011. Steve Jobs was published three weeks later. The important literary books of that year are almost entirely forgotten but people are still reading the Jobs biography. It allows for multiple interpretations: some readers conclude that if you imitate his extravagant personality – describe your business in spiritual terms; always park in mobility-parking spots; lie about almost everything; treat everyone around you with contempt – you’ll flourish in the tech industry. And some of those people (Holmes, Neumann, Kalanick) are correct at least for a while.
But there’s a deeper reading. An esoteric reading, as Thiel might say: that the deeper premise at the heart of Jobs’ life is true. If you really think differently you can use technology to change the world. You can bet against the conventions and assumptions and core values of your own society, and if you win you can build the future and no one can stop you. It’s an idea that sounded a lot better at the start of the decade than it does at the end of it. Because the deeper we get into the future designed and controlled by contrarian geniuses – who resist any accountability for their power because, like Jobs, they’re locked into a perception of themselves as anti-establishment radicals – the bleaker and more frightening it seems to the rest of us.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (Knopf, $25) is available from Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.