Book Reviews: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs by Walter Issaacson
(Simon & Schuster, 2011)

My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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