How competition for advertising in print media let Steve Jobs warp history and steal the credit for the computer revolution
[ part I of an assessment: part II is here ]
I stayed up all night vetting for accuracy Walter Isaacson’s super-sized, authorised biography of Steve Jobs, the i-entrepreneur’s posthumous message to the planet. In Apple’s first decade, I worked as The Economist’s computer correspondent – probably as punishment for unspeakable behaviour in earlier incarnations – and made a case for putting him into the magazine for the first time. It was in a piece about the birth of an industry — a business so incomprehensible that mentioning it at dinner parties was asking to be treated as a conversational leper.
I plan to extend this post in fits and starts over the next few days, as I find time to read all the way through the tome’s 630 pages. My verdict, so far: the narrative is generous with intimate details, especially about his childhood. These either supply (a) all the evidence the Vatican needs to canonise Steve’s adoptive parents, Paul and Clara Jobs, whether or not they were Catholic; or, (b) ample justification for their posthumous arrest – if this were possible – for creating, through staggering over-indulgence, a mini-god that Walter Isaacson reveals to have been infinitely more insufferable and tyrannical than any journalist who resisted his manipulations knew or could have imagined. Small wonder that the one living family member who seems to have evaded the biographer’s tape-recorder is Patty Jobs, adopted by the same parents two years after Steve.
But this biography is profoundly misleading about the history of the computer age, not through errors of statement but of omission.
The key word search I did as soon as I downloaded the e-book confirmed my guess. Not once does it mention Steve thanking or explicitly acknowledging the visionaries and inventors whose revolutionary technology he refined and popularised, striking gold when he packaged it as the Macintosh and its successors.
We are reliably informed that in the months when he knew he was dying, Steve arranged valedictory meetings with friends and old rivals, including Bill Gates. He certainly had enough energy to follow a true genius, Isaac Newton, in his famously modest allusion to ‘dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants’ — referring to a 12th-century scholar’s reflection on intellectual indebtedness for foresight.
But, no. When I typed in ‘Robert W. Taylor’ or ‘Bob Taylor,’ my e-reader said: Search Result: Showing All 0. I was looking for any record in the book of the man hardly anyone knows, to whom Bill Clinton gave a National Medal of Technology and Innovation for ‘visionary leadership in the development of modern computing technology, including computer networks, the personal computer and the graphical user interface.’
That was the work Steve appropriated for his own innovation mill. While it is true that the commercial specialists at Xerox — the company for which Bob Taylor and his computer scientists developed personal computer technology – did not grasp its significance, or market all but a fraction of it successfully, that hardly exempts the Apple entrepreneur from finding the grace to insist on including the researchers in his story and saying, simply, thank-you. (I am putting proof of the technology’s origins into a footnote** quoting The New Yorker, whose fact-checking is legendary; also appropriate because Bob is a friend of mine.)
What about Doug Engelbart, the gentle, dreamy inventor of the computer mouse, crucial to the transformation of the personal computer from a Heath-Robinsonian (or Rube Goldbergian) contraption into a cousin – for ease of use and simplicity – of a kitchen appliance? The same answer: Search Result: Showing All 0.
What and who are responsible for this monstrous distortion of the historical record, plain to see in the many obituaries and encomiums, including some from heads of state, referring to Steve as an inventor – rather than a businessman and aesthetic editor — of genius?
Media lust for advertising revenue. Or, you might say, the ‘business model’ used to run mass media today — whose lifeblood is advertising.
By the mid-1980s, if you — as a writer charged with informing readers about the computer industry — did not have your wits about you, you failed to use the most reliable ruse for being awarded more precious column inches in your print magazine or newspaper. That was to announce that you had winkled out a story on Steve Jobs or Apple. Personal computers themselves could not dispatch the glaze of boredom from the eyes of your editors. Even though some of them had reluctantly begun to give up their typewriters for computerised word-processing, the word ‘computer’ would have been perfectly interchangeable with ‘tractor’ or ‘fork-lift truck’ for most of them.
But if you had an offering about the gorgeous, absurdly young — and yes, charismatic — multi-millionaire who looked so good on a cover or under a masthead that streams of articles about him sent advertising revenue screeching upwards – well, your editors loved you. As the Isaacson biography notes, Steve and his chief advisor on press relations understood all this perfectly, and manipulated the media accordingly.
By contrast, if you wanted to write about a Taylor or an Englebart, your first obstacles were these men themselves. They were – are – living to see their visions realised, and thought of journalists as irritating distractions. Steve treated us as pieces in the chess game he was playing with Apple’s competitors.
If your media mouthpiece gave any of Steve’s competitors credit or attention that made him jealous, your publication could be shunned by Apple, which would suddenly overlook you in feeding your rivals choice tidbits of news and hints about marvellous gadgets to come. No matter how seriously your publication took the media’s version of the separation of church and state, knowing about the magical streams of advertising revenue he attracted was operating more or less unconsciously in editorial minds. If you, the reporter, displeased Steve, he unhesitatingly picked up the phone and rang your editor to complain – and the Isaacson book supplies a fine example of an incident exactly like that at Time.
On Monday, George Monbiot wrote a too-rare jeremiad against advertising for The Guardian. He called it ‘poisonous’ — ‘a drug destroying society’ — for tricking people into craving and buying things they do not need and too often, cannot afford.
But surely its most insidious effect is distorting truth, warping history – and anointing too many of the wrong people, who serve its purposes, as models for future generations?
Monbiot concludes pessimistically that we are stuck with media financed by advertising. But are we, really? And why will no senior editor or media chief publicly discuss alternatives to it, like this suggestion: The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing?
** from a discussion on the Guardian site:
21 October 2011 11:32PM
Sorry, but you are wrong.
Jobs provided platforms to do great things. I don’t blame him for how people use the device. Gutenberg changed the world when he developed movable type. I don’t at the same time think less of him because he created a device that led to the printing of Mein Kompf.
Though you don’t actually use the word ‘invent’ or ‘create’ here, your paragraph puts Steve Jobs in Gutenberg’s bracket. That isn’t true because Jobs had nothing to do with the creation of the platform — only with its refinement and popularisation. He was a shrewd and canny entrepreneur with a good eye for design.
The real inventors of the platform did not on the whole look like film stars, as Jobs did — some of the computer scientists worked for the Pentagon and others as researchers for Xerox PARC. Here is The New Yorker on the subject, andthe meticulousness of its fact-checkers is legendary:
Apple was already one of the hottest tech firms in the country. Everyone in the Valley wanted a piece of it. So Jobs proposed a deal: he would allow Xerox to buy a hundred thousand shares of his company for a million dollars—its highly anticipated I.P.O. was just a year away—if parc would “open its kimono.” A lot of haggling ensued. Jobs was the fox, after all, and parc was the henhouse. What would he be allowed to see? What wouldn’t he be allowed to see? Some at parc thought that the whole idea was lunacy, but, in the end, Xerox went ahead with it. One parc scientist recalls Jobs as “rambunctious”—a fresh-cheeked, caffeinated version of today’s austere digital emperor. He was given a couple of tours, and he ended up standing in front of a Xerox Alto, parc’s prized personal computer.
An engineer named Larry Tesler conducted the demonstration. He moved the cursor across the screen with the aid of a “mouse.” Directing a conventional computer, in those days, meant typing in a command on the keyboard. Tesler just clicked on one of the icons on the screen. He opened and closed “windows,” deftly moving from one task to another. He wrote on an elegant word-processing program, and exchanged e-mails with other people at parc, on the world’s first Ethernet network. Jobs had come with one of his software engineers, Bill Atkinson, and Atkinson moved in as close as he could, his nose almost touching the screen. “Jobs was pacing around the room, acting up the whole time,” Tesler recalled. “He was very excited. Then, when he began seeing the things I could do onscreen, he watched for about a minute and started jumping around the room, shouting, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!’ ”