Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Too much of Jobs the genius, too little of Jobs the man

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You'd think he was the Second Coming.

When charismatic California inventor and businessman Steve Jobs died earlier this month at age 56, the worldwide mourning that followed took on religious proportions, with faithful acolytes lighting candles at shrines outside stores and commentators describing his legacy in hushed and prophetic murmurs.

The Apple co-founder had changed the world. He created not just innovative ideas, but brought them to life in products consumers did not even know they needed until they couldn't live without them.

But American journalist Walter Isaacson's new biography illustrates that while Jobs was, indeed, a genius, he was less a god than, perhaps, a superhero.

Jobs' superpower? His "reality distortion field," an ability, referenced by nearly every one of the 200-odd people interviewed in the book, to convince people to accomplish impossible feats of engineering and design.

Isaacson -- former boss of Time and CNN and biographer of scientific geniuses Einstein and Benjamin Franklin -- draws on conversations with Jobs' family members, friends, colleagues and business rivals and more than 40 interviews with Jobs over the last two years of his life to bring together this detailed tome.

The book describes the meteoric rise of the adopted hippie son of a mechanic and his bookkeeper wife who started a personal computer shop in his parents' garage and rocketed to billionaire status. Along the way, Isaacson writes, Jobs "revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computers and digital publishing," and the biography is a detailed account of that business course.

Jobs' "reality distortion field" played a key role in his success at Apple and the animation company Pixar. Isaacson recounts countless examples of engineers and designers who felt Jobs' ideas were simply not possible -- yet his forceful and magnetic personality managed to convince them they could accomplish it -- and they did.

Jobs reversed the usual path of tech construction, which involves starting with engineering, then designing a box to fit the parts. Instead, he often started with a clever and innovative box, forcing engineers to make the technology fit. His attention to design and detail was legendary.

"[Jobs] even cared about the look of parts you couldn't see," Isaacson writes.

For example, on an iPad, text in a book momentarily appears faint and reversed on the back of the page being turned -- a detail that serves no purpose but design excellence. Noticing it is like glimpsing Jobs' ghostly hand at work.

But Isaacson also paints a vivid picture of Jobs as a mercurial megalomaniac with a "searingly intense personality," like that of Rasputin and Nietzche's Uberman. Jobs had a harsh, binary world view. A person was either enlightened or an ass, a hero or bozo, an "A player" or dead weight -- and he wouldn't hesitate to give people brutally negative opinions of their work, their ideas, their attitudes or personalities.

Isaacson goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Jobs was not thick-skinned or unaware of the devastating effect he had on people. He is described as a sensitive man, often crying when things don't go his way; in fact much more weeping takes place at Apple's headquarters than one might expect. This sensitivity gave him a shrewd understanding of the most tender areas of someone he was attacking.

However, even with these insights, Steve Jobs tells more about Jobs' business ventures than any but the keenest industry maven or Apple fanboy needs -- and it's not quite satisfying in its description of Jobs the man.

Take, for example, Jobs' curious relationships with the women in his life. Isaacson lays out fascinating anecdotes about Jobs' dealings with his mother, wife, daughters and female colleagues, but leaves the reader hanging with no explanation of the actions.

Of reconnecting with his first daughter Lisa, whom Jobs rejected when she was born out of wedlock and essentially abandoned for the first decade of her life, Isaacson merely explains that the girl eventually "became interesting enough that [Jobs] would take walks with her."

He develops a strong relationship with his son, Reed, but is "more distant" with his daughters Erin and Eve -- though this, too, is never examined.

Jobs has an adopted sister, Patty, with whom he was raised, but he says of his biological sister, found as an adult, "I can't imagine a better sister." Patty is referenced only in passing and is never quoted; her absence in the book is not broached.

This lack of examination extends also to perhaps the most puzzling part of Jobs' life: its early end.

Diagnosed with treatable pancreatic cancer in 2003, Jobs shunned surgery and instead applied veganism, acupuncture, herbal remedies, and "the expression of all negative feelings" (not that it seems that could have been a problem). For nine months -- to the dismay of family, friends and colleagues -- he put off medical treatment.

Isaacson describes the course of Jobs' illness and eventual treatment, but only one line suggests he probes Jobs' near year of denial about his illness: "I really didn't want them to open up my body," Isaacson quotes Jobs as saying, "so I tried to see if a few other things would work."

Other family and friends chalk up the delay to the "dark side" of Jobs' reality distortion field -- that he felt he could will the world to be a certain way.

In this case it didn't work: When Jobs finally went for surgery the cancer had spread, and he began a long and recurring battle with cancer than ended with his death at the age of 56.

Despite Isaacson's assertion that Jobs sought no influence over what was written (asking only to help revise the cover design), Jobs' controlling nature seems palpable in this regard. Isaacson succeeds in providing a detailed account of the life of Steve Jobs -- while leaving much of the man inscrutable.

Wendy Sawatzky is online content manager at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 J10


Updated on Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 8:14 AM CDT: formats text, adds link, adds factbox

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