Steve Jobs, the Inhumane Humanist

The current print issue of Reason has a wonderful, thoughtful piece by Mike Godwin about the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. I know it's hard to imagine there's anything new to say about this hyper-covered book about a hyper-covered popular figure, but: Godwin shows that yes, there is.


  1. Nothing really new there: although perhaps new to the post-mortem set of books and articles.  I vividly remember an article about MicroSloth’s Zune pointing out that one reason it was gaining no traction against iPods was that Bill Gates was too nice a guy in comparison to Jobs.  The author quoted some hacked e-mail of Bill’s about an early Zune that he had been given.  It politely pointed out that making the user manually download and install dlls to get it to properly work was not the way to go in the general consumer market.  The same memo from Jobs would have been totally X-rated for extreme violence and profanity.

    You could tell when Jobs influence at  Apple waned due to his health problems.  It was about the same time that bad OS X releases started coming out: infinite loops in preference panels and daemons that they forgot to “nice” causing your keyboard to lock.

  2. Interesting read. The fact that Jobs was a design and marketing genius means you can’t write off his unpleasant behavior as any kind of Asperger’s type thing. He was obviously extremely intuitive and understood how others thought and felt much better than your average Joe. But he often (apparently) didn’t care, or deliberately pushed buttons for obscure reasons. Off the top of my head, this feels like partly a correlation with his fantastic drive, and partly relating to his (apparent) need to be a teacher or guru. I rate it as a lack of emotional control.

    ” Dietary obsessions and alternative health regimes were to remain a theme throughout Jobs’ life, and Isaacson is not too shy to hint that perhaps this long-term rejection of Western medicine hastened his death.”

    Not having ever owned anything by Apple and perhaps consequently not too interested in the whole story, I have heard hints of this but not looked into it. But it’s extremely sad when this happens. Again to me it’s an indicator of being driven by emotion.

    1. I think this is because he saw clearly the connections between things, in a way most people don’t see. But its not the same as empathy which is why he was at once “understood how others thought and felt much better than your average Joe” and insensitive to those thoughts and feelings at the same time. The connections were more important, whether it was for insight in creating a product, or pushing a button on a coworker.

      1. To my mind, intelligence just means seeing connections, or in other words patterns. Everyone has it, but in different areas, according to upbringing, culture, genetics, etc.

        If you don’t understand how others see the world, it’s no mystery if you don’t care about it.

        If you do understand it and still don’t care, that requires some kind of “blocking mechanism” I guess. You must be valuing something else above their wishes. E.g. you want to get the product out for the greater good, or e.g. you think that if you are harsh with them, you  can teach them something and they will thank you in the long run, or e.g. you actually think that their wishes are trivial because they are not “important people” as per Nietzsche perhaps. I don’t think Jobs was in the last category.

  3. A frankly more interesting article was posted three months ago on Roar Magazine, written from a cultural marxist viewpoint and essentially making the argument that Apple’s succes was possible precisely because the company was run by a man who embodied the culture of narcissism that has come in vogue since the seventies.

    “In an age of material delusions and false promises, Steve Jobs, it seems, was God. For right at the time when the “post-material” consciousness of the baby-boomer generation started to run headlong into its own internal contradictions, he was the man who offered the bourgeois intelligentsia of the West a way to keep consuming while still being able to hold on to the illusion of being a hippie. In the process, Jobs took our age-old commodity fetish to a whole new level.

    Stuck between our contradictory needs for immediate gratification, constant self-affirmation and superficial self-actualization, we embraced Jobs like the Holy Father: the invisible man who “made stuff”. He would satisfy all our desires while allowing us to repent for our sins at the same time. For wielding an iPhone was no longer just a matter of utility or an affirmation of status — it became an act of rebellion. Against what, nobody knew. But “thinking different” felt great.”

    Read the whole story at Roar Magazine

    1. “To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:

      Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism
      The Messiah = Marx
      The Elect = The Proletariat
      The Church = The Communist Party
      The Second Coming = The Revolution
      Hell = Punishment of the Capitalists
      The Millenium = The Communist Commonwealth”

      Oooh, burn!

      1. We’re not talking about Marx the historiographer, rather about Marx the material anthropologist. Anyway, the observations made in the article are still valid even if one does not believe in any marxism.

        1. Yeah, I just kind of meant the analogy with God seems lazy. Boomers using certain cultural markers to fool themselves about the actual consequences of their actions, I get more.

          1. I don’t think it’s really all that lazy. It’s certainly an easy analogy to make but it has some explanatory power. For people whose sense of self-worth is built around the cult of self-actualization, realized in part through a steady supply of Apple products, Jobs was in effect the Big Other who guaranteed the coherence and integrity of the entire project. When he falls away the people weep because he was human-like agency at the center of it all who obscures the impersonal and amoral workings of the system, be it the physical and biological processes of the natural world, the workings of a totalitarian dictatorship like North Korea or the former SU or an ever more totalitarian consumer electronics ecosystem like Apple. In the same way that people weeped for the genocidal Stalin but didn’t weep for largely anonymous bureaucrats like Andropov or Chernenko, complete strangers weep for Jobs but they would never weep for Balmer or Gates.

    2. The problem with cultural marxism (and much of modern anthropology in general) is the broad desire to spin a grand narrative, ideally with a villain or set of villains the author can be righteously outraged against. This often has the unfortunate effect of over-complicating things that are simple (the emergent forces that shape a situation) and over-simplifying things that are complex (individual motivations from which said forces emerge). Unless in very talented hands (e.g. David Graeber), it also frequently sounds whiny.

      Apple did not succeed because of “our contradictory needs for immediate gratification, constant self-affirmation and superficial self-actualization”, Apple succeeded because Jobs insisted on every Apple product being something he would personally enjoy, while simultaneously having enough introspective capacity to understand why he enjoyed what he enjoyed. None of this is so brilliant in the absolute sense, apart from the fact that the sociopaths who usually climb to the top of our business, political, and cultural leadership almost always lack these skills.

      In a world in which most businesses have been designed to genuflect while they fleece you, changing their orientation whichever way the breeze blows, Jobs-era Apple took the rare position of “if you agree with what we do, give us your money; if you do not agree with what we do, bugger off”. This was refreshing to many.

      Of course, there is always a mob of people who do not particularly care about a given field, and so jump on whatever happens to be popular, but their existence is really beside my point.

  4. I feel like this article gets too many things wrong and is too much from an outsider’s point of view who hasn’t performed enough research (or even read the biography throughly enough) and dealt with nerd wrangling.

    For example, Steve Jobs had far more technical expertise than this article implies and that’s something that actually set Steve apart from many other business leaders.

    Jobs had a focus (and knowledge) of tiny technical details and engineering concepts that drove Apple far beyond other companies that are led by clueless CEO’s who are steered around by a bunch of nerds (who errantly think they are smarter than everyone else).

    The article also goes with the approach that somehow nerds are these innocuous, innocent people who Steve trounced upon, sunk his teeth into and bleed to death to everyone’s horror and dismay.

    I’ve dealt with countless business leaders over the years that have been taken for expensive, humiliating rides by these “innocent” nerds who themselves have been told they are “computer geniuses” all their lives and it’s gone wildly to their heads.

    There’s no way in hell Jobs could have steered these type of people to where Apple went without having an understanding of the technical aspects behind the work and therefore see through their incessant bullshit and delusions of grandeur created by a society that calls anyone who knows how to write basic code a “computer genius”, yet calls someone else with perhaps far more technical expertise a “grease monkey”, etc.

    I’ve personally dealt with many IT people over the years that have told my clients things are “impossible” merely because it’s beyond their own limited skillset, training, creative mindset/imagination.  Countless times I’ve stepped in and was able to turn around a mess created by a bunch of wild nerds by using more practical common sense approaches to work (and life) to get things done more effectively.  The hostility from these IT people has been astounding compared to any other industry I’ve been involved with except maybe including banking.

    I agree with Jobs that far too many socially inept virgins are trying to tell the rest of us why a computer that’s impractical for our business and personal needs is what we should be using. If you don’t put your foot down and put some of these prima donnas in their place, they will run you into the ground and enslave you.

    There are beautiful exceptions to every rule, but when you let the (typical) programmer run the show, you end up with impractical products that confound, confuse and frustrate the general populace.  If Jobs had let the nerds push him around (like so many people do out of intimidation) there’s no way in hell Apple would have ever progressed in the technical and evolutionary ways it did.  And, there’s no way in hell Jobs could have wrangled these people without having the technical knowledge/skills he clearly had.

    1. Too true.  The average programmer hasn’t noticed that the history of the world didn’t actually begin when they entered the room. A typical response to a question about the business case for a multi-million dollar IT project is “What’s a business case?”

      To some degree this is a Western thing.  In the 90s I was shepherding a 3-million line FORTRAN system through semi-conductor plants in Taiwan.  The program made cargo containers full of money for those who used it.  Hence Taiwanese programs all wanted to learn FORTRAN and went on quests for ancient FORTRAN manuals written in Chinese.  In North America no computer nerd would have consented to have anything to do with it no matter how rich it made you: it wasn’t written in a fashionable language.

  5. “his humanity was revealed by the liberating objects he made”

    Liberating? Seriously? The king of lock-in made something “liberating”? What’s so liberating about restricted choice? Oh, wait, I see… we’ve been liberated from being able to do what we want, how we want to do it. Hurray.

    1. Jobs didn’t just help create iPhones, ya know.  Also, bringing complex devices to the masses by making them simple is a liberating enterprise.  The iPhone ushered in modern smartphones to the masses.  Without it, you wouldn’t be using your open source Android right now.

      Also, please show me something I can’t do with my Mac laptop because of some limitation Jobs enforced upon it?  And, despite the conspiracy theories, the reason Mac OS X doesn’t run on clones isn’t just about “control of consumers”, it’s mostly about performance gains you can get with software/hardware parity.

      And, iPhones, iPad, etc. are perfectly capable of running HTML5 web apps that are regulated by no one, including Apple.  On top of that, Jobs was one of the strongest proponents of HTML5 even while many others were still poo-pooing the idea.

      And bringing Desktop Publishing to the masses isn’t exactly an enterprise in totalitarianism, either.

      I have nits to pick with Apple/Jobs with the limitations of the iPhone, but demonizing them entirely isn’t very realistic.

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