An open letter to Walter Isaacson, the Steve Jobs biographer and channeller-in-chief

'Me as my iPhone', a reveller in Luzern dressed for Fasnacht, the Swiss winter carnival (photographs by Walter Wieland)

[ part II of an assessment: part I is here ]

Reading about Steve Jobs’s estimation of his talents in the biography of the moment reminded me of a descendant of generations of Iranian painters sketched in a 1937 travelogue, The Road to Oxiana. Muzaffar launched his career ‘decorating pen-boxes,’ but has graduated to portraits in both the Persian and European manner. He shows the traveller, Robert Byron, his poster of two peacocks painted for a cigarette advertisement:  ‘”There!” he announced proudly. “I can do miniatures and I can do this. Rubens couldn’t have done both.”’ Byron, speechless, asks himself, ‘Why Rubens? Why Rubens particularly?’ … And that is the perfect frame for a conversation I would like to have with Steve’s biographer.

Dear Walter Isaacson,

Why didn’t you fight harder to resist Steve Jobs’s infamous ‘reality-distortion field’? You mention it repeatedly in your book, which reads like a ghost-written autobiography in the third person – if not outright channelling. It was authorised, but could never be seen as authoritative. I tried making excuses for you as I read the first half of your text. Acting as imperial scribe to a man as you watched him die must have been excruciating. But why did you submit to his publishing timetable, obviously set to capitalise on the impact of his demise, when your years at Time – a good incubation tank for journalists – should have told you that Steve’s way with the facts meant that you could not afford to cut a single corner in your research?

I am sure you are laughing as you read this. Only a minute fraction of your readers know enough to spot the effects of the two main smoke-and-mirrors wiles that he used on you – and in the second half of this post, I will explain why this matters too much to be dismissed with a shrug:

(1) Taking off all his clothes. He turned disarming candour of such elephantine proportions on you that it has worked, in its transmission to the minds of book reviewers, like the venerable military shock tactic known as a diversionary skirmish. Steve’s confessions about thieving, outlandish eating habits, hard drug use, paternity denial, child abandonment – and miscellaneous mistreatment of almost everyone he knew – were outrageous enough for the genial Guardian columnist Alexander Chancellor to nominate him for an effigy for Guy Fawkes Day. They have created such a swirling chaos of impressions that your text has duped intelligent people who have no idea of the dimensions of all they do not know about technology into calling him an ‘inventor’.

Even the usually hawk-eyed Maureen Dowd, who opinionates fizzingly for a large New York newspaper, arrived at precisely the summing-up of his life that Steve intended: that his behaviour (about which he was unashamed) was the price for what he cared about most, which was to be seen as having attained ‘the brightest heaven of invention’ in his time on earth. Your conclusion carefully states that ‘he didn’t invent many things outright,’ – I cannot name even one – and yet you used the Bard’s words for the title of your closing chapter.

Tricky.

You grant him the conceit of ‘inventing the future.’ What he actually did was to manage, by dint of super-human focus and force of personality, the execution of visions other people had long ago. You predict that ‘history will place him in the pantheon right next to Edison and Ford.’ But not once do you pause for the task of comparing what he did with either man’s accomplishments to justify such hyperbole. 

(2) Sticking his head into picture frames where he did not belong. Glamour by association, if done skilfully enough, can create an impression of achievement with very little or nothing behind it. You say that you were mystified when he approached you at a Palo Alto signing session for your Einstein biography to suggest that you make him your next subject. That seems disingenuous. Anyone who met Steve’s formidable instincts for PR would have understood in a flash that he was already plotting for the all-capitals banner near your e-book’s opening, trumpeting: FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE BESTSELLING BIOGRAPHIES OF … and hey presto! there he is, linked to the most sacred name in Western science, after Newton. You and your career have been used just like subliminal images of cowboys on horseback in cigarette advertisements commissioned to foster new generations of nicotine addicts.

Walter Isaacson, I would like to see you rise to the standard set by your excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin – a copy of which I own – with a drastically revised second edition of your book about Steve. I have never aspired to be a book critic because I am too keenly aware of my own defects as a scribbler to enjoy dissecting other people’s work. But a new, reflective version of this book is essential because of the scale of his impact on thinking about success and failure. I would like to offer these suggestions:

Use your own head to write the book you owe us, without fear or favour. Reviewers have complained that your biography offers practically no insight into his character or actions. That was because you wrote the book he wanted you to. He was a man of action, like most successful businessmen, never mind all he said about Zen and the art of vegetarianism. No entrepreneur I have ever met has struck me as capable of serious, unflattering introspection. Unless your book contract bound you to duties as a medium after Steve left us, you should eventually find the distance and perspective missing in your first version of his life. I noticed in a review of the cluster of new works about Charles Dickens – who died at 58, just two years older than Steve, at his end – how infinitely more perceptive he was about his flaws, in spite of childhood deprivation that makes your subject’s unhappiness about being put up for adoption inconsequential. Dostoyevsky said that Dickens told him:

All the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity toward those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote.

Oh, for the faintest glimmer of such comprehension in Steve’s opinion of himself.

● Give us the social context for the life and work and, especially, address the sacrifices and suffering of hundreds of thousands of others who have made Silicon Valley famous. You owe it to the families of the many dazzling scientists and technologists Steve robbed of credit for their work. ‘We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas,’ as he glibly told you, throwing in a remark of Picasso’s for justification. But uncountable other gifted men and women in the Valley go home grey-faced with exhaustion, night after night, for years on end. Yes, the illness that killed Steve was horrific. How many others have endured fates far worse than his, as well as divorce and estrangement – even madness, and clinical depression — through chronic overwork?

You wrote as if only he was dealt a cruel fate, falling in with the delusions of the narcissist’s dream life he led from start to finish.

Deal with the ‘Criticism of Apple Inc.’. That is a whole entry in the Wikipedia, listing a range of topics you have barely skimmed, and one that you have ignored altogether – the sweatshop conditions in which workers in China made Apple products, an environment so inhuman that it is blamed for more than one suicide.

Amazingly, you avoided the subject even when the Chinese factory made a back door entrance into your text. You described a 45-minute meeting with Barack Obama earlier this year:

‘You’re headed for a one term presidency,’ Jobs told Obama at the outset. To prevent that, he said, the administration needed to be more business-friendly. He described how easy it was to build a factory in China, and said that it was almost impossible to do so these days in America, largely because of regulation and unnecessary costs.

No mention of the implications of any of that in your report. Take that, you ‘Occupy’ movements around the world raging about corporate greed! Let us copy what is worst, not best, in modern China!

● Give a lot more thought to the question of who in business history Steve most resembles. Henry Ford was obsessed by the welfare of his workers, just as Jamshetji Tata — India’s most revered industrialist — was about his labourers in steel-making. Clearly, Steve does not belong in their slot. You might well find that his closest equivalent was Ray Kroc, who made McDonald’s the multinational burger bagger nonpareil. Like Steve’s, the secret of his success lay in his ability to profit from his talent as an instinctive mass psychologist. They believed in the same take-no-prisoners ethic. This passage of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser will, like Steve’s  rage about the iPhone competitor called the Android, seem strangely familiar to readers of your biography:

He was a highly competitive man who liked, whenever possible, to settle the score. “If they were drowning to death,” Kroc once said about his business rivals, “I would put a hose in their mouth.”

Please drop the nonsense about placing Steve’s accomplishments at ‘the intersection of the humanities and science’ – mimicking his deployment, on his own behalf, of the marketing ploy known as ‘product positioning’. In no conversation I ever had with him, or have seen recorded by anyone else, did he give any sign of knowing more than a moderately curious teenager would about history, literature, political science, or indeed any branch of the arts unconnected with design.

Steve had no education whatsoever in the science behind the products for which he was famous, which were the fruit of research in solid state physics, electronics, classical numerical analysis, mathematical logic and computer science. These are hardly disciplines that can be mastered by intuition.

Have you noticed the deafening silence from computer scientists in the hullabaloo about his death?

His exceptional achievements were at the intersection of commerce and industrial design (and about the latter, I see that some industrial designers have a bone to pick with you.)

I have written this letter mostly because of one aim of this web site, which is to test the speed at, and degree to which, internet communication – and the advent of the 5th Estate — can correct distortions of the truth. I mean, banish the unfortunate side-effects of limiting the authority to disseminate facts to the club you and I grew up in, the 4th Estate, when that is no longer necessary or desirable.

Best wishes,

Cheryll Barron

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One thought on “An open letter to Walter Isaacson, the Steve Jobs biographer and channeller-in-chief

  1. Pingback: How competition for advertising in print media let Steve Jobs warp history and steal the credit for the computer revolution « post-Gutenberg

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