Book Reviews: Steve Jobs and Race Against the Machine

(A couple old book reviews I want to publish before this post gets even older.)

Steve Jobs by Walter Issaacson

Book cover of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson with image of Steve Jobs

I’ve always been able to separate Apple – the company and its products – from its co-founder Steve Job because I only began to pay attention to the him well after he returned to Apple. As I wrote in my commentary about the unveiling of the 2002 iMac (you know, the first flat-panel one that looked like a lamp):

Steve Jobs both fascinates and annoys me.

but by then I was already beginning to appreciate the business and design sense Jobs and his team brought to the company and its products. As described in Walter Issaacson’s biography of him, Jobs allegedly combined many of the things I tend to dislike in people: spirituality, anger issues, lack of good personal hygiene, and a deplorable disregard for science and rationality. If Issaacson captured the reality of Jobs in this biography, then Jobs was a ridiculously emotional, tyrannical, petty, and dark tyrant.

Despite this, whatever technology may want is in many ways much more frightening than Jobs. Technology is a power so pervasive, so insidious, so integral to the human experience that even great writers like Issaacson scarcely recognize it, yet it is to be found there in his book. The book focuses on the human story – and this is great! – but the relationship between technology and humanity seems to ooze out between every word. Maybe Issaacson did in fact intend this to be the case. Either way, by the time I was racing through the tale of events following the introduction of iPod into the post-PC era, I was struck again and again by the technological backdrop looming above the story of this complicated man.

The biggest story here is not that Jobs changed the world through technology. It is that despite doing so, he rejected technology when he needed it the most. For a time after he was diagnosed with cancer, he wavered about the treatments proposed by his doctors, and instead sought pseudoscientific solutions. Just prior to his death, he seemed to know he had made a serious mistake, and that he would have survived if he had just listened to his doctors right away.

Issaacson’s book depicts this unlikable person and his sad end, and perhaps without knowing so, demonstrated better than anyone the conflicted relationship we humans have with technology. Issaacson’s biography of Jobs is a fantastic book, and it confirms my suspicion that the coming decades are going to be devastating, hopeful, terrifying, and haunting, all at once, simply because we humans have yet to fully comprehend what technology has unleashed.

Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Race Against the Machine is only 5 chapters long, but it provides perhaps the most cogent explanation yet for how technology can lead to both incredible productivity gains and an increasing divide between classes. This short book also includes a chapter devoted to solutions – something missing from most commentary about the impact of emerging technologies on human labor – and another chapter that gives reason for us to hope this will all turn out alright in the end.

The authors have found through their research that technological progress has indeed played a role in incredible productivity gains witnessed in the past few decades, and the process may stretch back over the past two centuries, but this effect has previously masked: new industries replaced old industries, new jobs replaced old jobs, and society for the most part saw quality-of-life improvements across demographics. We were able to adapt. Now, however, technology is accelerating rapidly with tools that no longer replace just physical labor but also thinking, pattern recognition, imagination and other useful capabilities previously  considered human. In some fields, one human worker can now do with technology what it used to take 500 human workers to complete. Elsewhere, humans simply are too expensive and technology is capable enough.

Technology is a force of nature, and the impact it has on humanity is increasingly extreme, including an apparent “end of work”, or at least an end of work for many classes of people. It is one thing to point this out, but quite another to begin to break this process down into understandable mechanisms, and show why this explanation is more likely than  two other views about why we experienced The Great Recession and this current jobless recovery: cyclicality and stagnation. The authors do a better job of this than I have seen in my other reading. I have long wanted a more “science of technology” approach to discussions about technology, and I found some of that in this book.

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