Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Sonoma Medicine

The magazine of the Sonoma County Medical Association

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A Tale of Two Steves

Rick Flinders, MD

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 656 pages.

Perhaps the first clue to how much Steve Jobs thought of himself is his choice of biographer: Walter Isaacson, the same man who wrote biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Did Jobs consider himself in the same league, innovatively and historically, as these two? Yes, he almost certainly did. Perhaps the ultimate measure of his grandiose audacity is that he was probably right.

Few individuals have altered and shaped the fabric of our daily lives more than Steve Jobs. We’re talking here of an impact on the scale of people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Look around and you’ll see, within arm’s reach, products of his creation that literally touch everything we do. The laptop. The cell phone. How we listen to music. How we communicate.

Jobs didn’t do this alone. But as he stood at the convergence of information technology and the creative arts, during an historic moment as transformative as the industrial revolution, he more than any other gave expression to the products of information technology that have become embedded into our daily lives.

How did he do this? And who was the man who did it? The answers, as revealed in Abramson’s biography through hundreds of hours of interviews with the people who knew him, are predictably complicated.

Jobs had a ferocious, even obsessive, will that could drive him to the exclusion of everything else, including reality. Those who worked with him all speak familiarly of what came to be called “Steve’s reality distortion field.” Often if a fact or situation interfered with his vision, he simply wouldn’t acknowledge its existence. This became a double-edged sword. On the one hand it led him to achievements others in the industry considered “impossible,” such as wresting control of recorded music from Sony and repackaging it as iTunes. On the other, it allowed him to deny and virtually abandon his daughter born in 1978, curious behavior for a father who resented his own biological parents for putting him up for adoption at birth.

As with most genius, there comes idiosyncrasy. Jobs’ creations all bore the same signature characteristics. They were elegant, durable and extraordinarily functional. But he went beyond that. They had to be aesthetically pleasing inside the locked compartments that were never visible to consumers. Even the machinery with which they were manufactured had to be of a certain color and decor.

Every Apple product is packaged and shipped in a way that controls the experience of the customer who opens it. This control may enhance market value or brand loyalty, but Job’s obstinacy could drive up costs and notoriously delay critical release of products. He once defended his disdain of focus groups by saying they were irrelevant: “People don’t really know what they want until I show them.”

The mark of Jobs’ personality persists in all his creations. Every Apple product is a “closed system.” No hardware may be added. No screwdriver can take it apart. Certainly we’ve all experienced the paranoid possessiveness with which Apple guards its products, copyrights and use agreements. To market an e-book on Amazon Kindle, for example, recently took me a couple of days. To post the same work on Apple’s iBooks took weeks.

To work for Jobs was a mixed blessing. At meetings he could rant, cry, berate and belittle employees publicly, sometimes all at once. His intensity was legendary. He would sometimes hold a person in an unnerving gaze, without blinking, for several minutes at a time. To employees he was often not merely rude or dismissive, but cruel. Curiously, he carried Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi with him most of the time, and he reread the book once a year. It is said, by those who knew Yogananda, that he could enter a room and fill it with calm. It is also said, by those who knew Jobs, that he could enter a room and fill it with ego.

And yet, those who did work for Jobs are in almost unanimous agreement: “Without Steve we could never have risen to our best work, and would have never accomplished what we did.” For me, a baby boomer, the book is not just the story of a fascinating contemporary, but a fascinating story of our contemporary history.

My favorite parts are of the early Steve Jobs. While seniors in high school, Jobs and his wonk friend Steve Wozniak posted computer-generated banners all over campus one afternoon saying, “Remember: Tomorrow is Bring-Your-Pet-to-School Day.” The following day such a menagerie of diverse and squabbling creatures descended on the unsuspecting campus that classes were cancelled, students sent home, and Jobs and Wozniak were suspended.

The two became inseparable. As Jobs recalls, Wozniak was “the first guy I ever met who knew more electronics than me.” Their first collaboration was the Blue Box, a device that replicated the tones that routed signals on the entire AT&T network, and allowed users to make long-distance calls anywhere in the world for free. The two friends once called the Vatican from a phone booth. Wozniak pretended to be Henry Kissinger and asked to speak to the pope. What began as pranks, however, became the template for an enduring partnership. Wozniak was the gentle wizard, coming up with inventions he was happy to give away. Jobs would figure out how to make them into a user-friendly package, market them, and make millions.

Jobs attended Reed College in Portland. He dropped out during the first semester, but he remained there for the next 18 months, auditing courses in Japanese calligraphy and Zen meditation. It was there that he acquired the aesthetic style that shaped all his future creations. The multiple fonts that were part of the graphic interface for the very first Apple computers, for example, Jobs attributes directly to his studies and experiences in Portland. The fonts became standard in the industry.

I find an inherent irony in Jobs’ life and legacy. He was a Zen Buddhist, dedicated to the philosophy and practice of being fully focused in the ever-present moment of here and now. The irony is that he created a technology that virtually guarantees nearly constant distraction in the hands and ears and lives of an entire generation. The average 20-year-old checks his or her handheld device for new messages every 27 seconds. Watch a group of high school students at a table in Starbucks “engaged” in conversation, for example, and see how often their eyes and attention are diverted from the one who is speaking to the palms of their hands.

How many young people are attuned to the sounds of their immediate environs or the world around them? Compare this group to the number sealed off from the world by earphones, and carried by sound to anywhere but the here and now. I was recently blind-sided by a young cyclist who turned, not in front of my car, but into my car. As he bounced off my passenger side door and sped away, I noticed the signature white earplugs that rendered him oblivious to surrounding traffic and the rest of the world.

Perhaps the ultimate key to the man who exploded the dawn of the personal computer is revealed in the interview Abramson has with Jobs near the final days of his life. They sat and chatted in Jobs’ living room for most of the day, and listened to music from Jobs’ own playlist. Other than Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto, the playlist was almost entirely Dylan, the Beatles, some early Rolling Stones. When Abramson noted this, Jobs smiled and said, “I grew up in the seventies, but my heart was in the sixties.”

Bono of U2 has said of Jobs: “The people who invented the 21st century were sandal-wearing hippies from the West Coast like Steve, because they saw differently. The sixties produced an anarchic mindset that is great for imagining a world not yet in existence.”

Here’s a guy who goes to Reed College, drops out, takes LSD, studies calligraphy, travels to India, practices Zen, and then returns to the Bay Area to found a company that revolutionizes the practical use of information technology and becomes the richest company in the world. Ultimate poster child of the sixties?

To Steve the genius, I say, “Kudos. You were a master at putting together ideas, art and technology in ways that invented the future. You were living proof of your own motto: The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

To Steve the jerk, I say, “Why’d you have to be so mean?”

Dr. Flinders, a hospitalist who teaches in the Santa Rosa Family Medicine Residency, serves on the SCMA Editorial Board.

Email: flinder@sutterhealth.org

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