Reading the Steve Jobs Biography

When Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs came out during the fall, I scarfed up a copy to give to Sam for the holidays. Almost immediately I regretted that because then I had to wait for the holidays to read it myself! In any event, I finally got to sit down with it this weekend at Stinson Beach and am loving it.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Isaacson does a great job of showing both Jobs’ genius and his (many) flaws. He is a terrific storyteller, and Jobs’ life is perfect fodder for stories — both because of his own intensity and oddities, and the way his life paralleled and influenced the zeitgeist. From being a Bob Dylan fan in the 60s, to living briefly on a commune and traveling to India for spiritual enlightenment in the 70s, to… well, you know what Jobs did from the 80s on. I’d also like to give Isaacson big strokes for telling vivid stories that are entirely reported — not imagined or reconstructed or whatever it is that Bob Woodward calls the narrative scenes in his books.

I just switched from owning PCs to a Mac in 2011, so had never followed the world of Apple closely and a lot of Jobs’ story is new to me. As a business reporter, I’d covered a little bit of tech and an occasional Apple story — but very occasional, so I’m not someone with any real connection to the company. I’m as much of an outsider as anyone else, except with the frisson of living in the Bay Area and knowing that all these events happened a stone’s throw from me.

But because of that stone’s-throw element of geography, and the fact that we are pretty much the same generation, reading about Jobs is sparking constant comparisons with my own life.

  • In high school on the East Coast in the early 70s, I heard of friends-of-friends who had some kind of box that allowed them to make long-distance phone calls for free. It sounded weird, a little unlikely, and more illicit than anything good-girl-me would do. And why would you want to make long-distance phone calls for free, anyway? But this was one of young Jobs’ early forays into technology.
  • In 1980, I finished college and moved to San Francisco. With no clear career direction, I applied for a couple of social-change type jobs including one with a group called the Electronics Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health. It was located someplace called “Silicon Valley,” which I’d never heard of but apparently could reach on a commuter train. I didn’t get an interview. If I’d gotten that job, would I have spent the past 30 years in the Valley? Haranguing folks like Steve Jobs over their labor practices? Maybe crossing over and working with those folks at some point?
  • In 1981 Xerox introduced the Star, a farsighted desktop computer with a Macintosh-like graphic interface that pre-dated the Mac. It failed and became a minor footnote in tech history.  I was working as a temp in 1981 at the San Francisco offices of Bechtel (after none of those social change jobs materialized). Selectric typewriters were state-of-the-art. But I remember being tantalized and excited to get to work on a newfangled Xerox office machine with a screen and black and white images — in retrospect, a Star.
  • Almost everyone who was around in 1984 remembers the Super Bowl “1984” commercial that introduced the Mac. I never saw it or even heard of it until years later. I was living in Jerusalem in 1984-5. There is a whole chunk of American experience that I was oblivious to — the 1984 political conventions and presidential race, the 1984 Olympics, the 1984 introduction of the Mac. Those eighteen months are like a black hole in my life when it comes to American culture and history.

I guess that, over all, reading about Job’s early life gives me a kind of “so near, and yet so far” kind of feeling. With a couple of minor circumstantial changes, I could have been someone in the orbit of the Apples and Steve Jobses of the Bay Area — maybe someone working in marketing or communications at a place like Apple.

Or maybe not. I might not have had clear ideas about a career in 1981, but I had very strong political views and values. In the early 80s, while Jobs was aiming to revolutionize the world with a human-scale computer, I was spending my volunteer time trying to reverse Reagan’s wrongheaded support for Central American dictatorships. My car had a bumper sticker that read “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.” I was interested in political change, not technological change. I had zero interest in phone-hacking boxes or “personal computers.” And I would have died rather than go “into business.”

Now, thirty years later, I am typing this blog post on a Mac. I learned my Torah portions on an iPod. My husband and daughter have iPhones. All my old Windows PCs were influenced for the better by Apple.

Thank you, Steve!

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