Sue Halpern eloquently reviews Isaacson's Steve Jobs bio
I said it at the time of the shallow Janet Maslin NY Times review that we await the NY Review of Books to publish a review on the Issacson bio of Steve Jobs.
Here it is.
After a too long introduction about how Isaacson came to write the book, Sue Halpern eloquently explains the rise of Apple, what Jobs is rightly famous for and what he did not invent. She also deftly tells us Jobs was pretty detestable, which is why I started but put down the biography, and she precisely describes, with just the right sense of moral outrage, the factories in China which Jobs promoted and frankly lied about in terms of safety for or treatment of the manufacturing and assembly workers in China.
Key paragraphs in this review are:
The other reason nominating Jobs to genius status is complicated has to do with the collaborative nature of corporate invention and the muddiness of technological authorship. Jobs did not invent the personal computer—personal computers predate the Apple I, which he did not in any case design. He didn’t invent the graphical interface—the icons we click on when we’re using our computers, for example—that came from engineers at Xerox. He didn’t invent computer animation—he bought into a company that, almost as an afterthought, housed the most creative digital animation pioneers in the world. He didn’t invent the cell phone, or even the smart phone; the first ones in circulation came from IBM and then Nokia. He didn’t invent tablet computers; Alan Kay designed the Dynabook in the 1960s. He didn’t invent the portable MP3 music device; the Listen Up Player won the innovations award at the 1997 Consumer Electronics Show, four years before Jobs introduced the iPod.
The coolness factor set Apple apart from the start. Jobs’s Zen aesthetic (he was a longtime student of Buddhism), his passion for design, his good fortune to hire Jony Ive, who must be the finest industrial designer working today, and his other guiding philosophy—that function should not dictate form but, rather, form and function are integral and symbiotic—resulted in unique-looking products that, almost without exception, worked more smoothly than anyone else’s. And just in case that was not enough incentive for consumers to part with their money, Jobs transformed the product launch into a theatrical production, building suspense in the months and weeks beforehand with leaks and rumors about “revolutionary” and “magical” features, and then renting out large auditoriums, orchestrating the event down to its smallest detail, and, on launch day, holding forth, typically on an empty stage, in his blue jeans and black turtleneck, using the words “revolutionary” and “magical” some more.
And so, in many ways, have most of us, and not just by buying what Steve Jobs was selling—the products and the feeling of being a better (smarter, hipper, more creative) person because of them. Through his enchanting theatrics, exquisite marketing, and seductive packaging, Jobs was able to convince millions of people all over the world that the provenance of Apple devices was magical, too. Machina ex deus. How else to explain their popularity despite the fact that they actually come from places that do not make us better people for owning them, the factories in China where more than a dozen young workers have committed suicide, some by jumping; where workers must now sign a pledge stating that they will not try to kill themselves but if they do, their families will not seek damages; where three people died and fifteen were injured when dust exploded; where 137 people exposed to a toxic chemical suffered nerve damage; where Apple offers injured workers no recompense; where workers, some as young as thirteen, according to an article in The New York Times, typically put in seventy-two-hour weeks, sometimes more, with minimal compensation, few breaks, and little food, to satisfy the overwhelming demand generated by the theatrics, the marketing, the packaging, the consummate engineering, and the herd instinct; and where, it goes without saying, the people who make all this cannot afford to buy it?
And throughout she neatly nails Jobs horrible personality, his ruthlessness, megalomania, meanness and rudeness--and even his poor personal hygiene in his days at Atari.
Sue Halpern is my new book reviewer hero. She read the book. She recognized the significant issues raised in Jobs' life story and how it matters to us as a society.
I knew there was a reason my son agreed with me that he should apply to Middlebury College in Vermont. Sue Halpern teaches there!