Archive for October, 2011

the man, the myth, the machines

8 October 2011

The death of Steve Jobs was more shocking than I expected, considering all the false cadences that preceded it. The wire service I work for published his obituary by mistake in 2008 and broke news about his liver transplant in 2009. Reporters including me, ten time zones from Cupertino, spent all day interviewing people about him when he resigned six weeks ago, which I now realize served a dress rehearsal. And now it is real.

In my world this is big and historical. Jobs overturned old orders or accelerated change in every field I have worked in – business computing, consumer electronics, education, psychology of the everyday, mobile telephony, publishing, news. I was 11 and Wang Laboratories over in Lowell was about to be the big word processor company when he co-founded Apple. He produced the machines (original Mac, G4 Powerbook) on which I did the best work of my life because they were attractive while you were getting into the flow of the writing and almost transparent when you were deep in it. He was a master toolmaker who didn’t use the tools to create anything himself. The tools were his end.

It’s unsettling on a generational level. Jobs was one of those Baby Boomers ten years ahead of my early-X cohort, who’d gotten to the right place at the right time and done everything first and weren’t going anywhere. What was left for us to do? He was always there. He was the know-it-all, badass geek’s geek, the one manager who had cred because he had, at one point, actually hacked and hadn’t forgotten his roots, and he also got the girls and the venture capitalists. He broke through the age hierarchy and then he reestablished it. Now he is dead and that means we are old. He didn’t die in a plane crash but slowly and in public, by the same visible degrees as a hundred year-old war veteran. He is a memento mori and not just in his Stanford speech.

After the first wave of memorial outpourings (word bingo with “visionary,” “genius,” “taste,” “Edison,” “changed the world”) and cautious references to his irascibility (these were absent in the pre-obituaries published six weeks ago while he could still read them, although I doubt he was using his last energies for that), there was a wave of personal regret. “I’m sorry I was an asshole to Steve Jobs.” The biggest apologist is John Sculley, who has been publicly regretting for a year that he drove Steve out and they never spoke again and Steve ignored him and if only he could go back. Or get Steve’s attention now. Steve! He’s doing his penance again in this week’s BusinessWeek. He will never get closure. There was also the techblogger who wrote about the phone left in a bar, who regrets pushing his luck with that after Jobs turned out to be fairly reasonable about it. And others shading into, “I’m sorry I contradicted Steve Jobs,” “I’m sorry I spoke ill of Steve Jobs,” “I’m sorry I was wrong. You were right. You’re always right. Steve!”

I met him a few times. He was out of Apple, demoing the $6,500 NeXT machine and after the first time I went up to him and told him it was ridiculous to be selling something that expensive as a college student purchase. College students couldn’t afford it, out of pocket or through their fees. (It was particularly hypocritical for a tuition inflation college dropout to be doing this, though I didn’t say that part.) He squinted down at me – he seemed to be a bit on his own trip, I didn’t feel the full reality distortion field the way one was supposed to – and said the price would come down and then it would be the right machine – which, if we take the long view, it did, in the iBook and Powerbook. He was right, globally, though I was right locally. It took me five rewrites to arrive at that “I was right” and I still regret never having sent him a fan letter in italics for the Powerbook. Such is the power of the Steve Jobs persona right now.