By Alexander Remington, Culture Writer, MPP ‘13
When I was growing up, I loved Apple and idolized Steve Jobs. To a large extent, loving Steve Jobs means accepting his reality and denying all evidence to the contrary. This is why journalists often spoke of the “reality distortion zone” that emanated from him. This is why he was able to change the world, eliminating extraneous wires, grey computer boxes, floppy drives, CD drives, and the mouse. This is why he was able to persuade other people to ignore reality and believe him.
“When I wasn’t sure what the word charisma meant, I met Steve Jobs and then I knew,” said computer scientist Larry Teslow, who worked both at Xerox PARC (the research center that invented the graphical user interface, the mouse, and ethernet) and at Apple.
Steve Jobs was one of the few true geniuses of our time, a futurist who changed the world about as often and left his mark on his century about as indelibly as Miles Davis. But because of his greatness, his eulogies often minimized the man by conveniently forgetting the truth about his personality: His stubbornness and self-involvement enabled him to change the world with righteous conviction, but it also enabled him to treat people horribly. Remembering the man in full requires remembering the good with the bad. Because so many others have offered paeans to his genius, I will not recite his accomplishments. Instead, here follow a few less-well-reported things.
When he and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak were both very young, Jobs worked at Atari and was asked to design a version of the game Breakout. Jobs was never an engineer, and so he brought it to Wozniak, his friend, who successfully did it. He then told Wozniak that he had received a $750 bonus and offered to split it with him. Only years later, as Wozniak wrote in his autobiography, iWoz, did Wozniak find out that Jobs had received a $5,000 bonus. Steve had lied to his best friend to avoid paying him.
In Silicon Valley, Jobs became so well-known as a holy terror to employees that the verb “Steve” was coined as a synonym for “fire”, as in, “I got Steved,” which generally meant that someone got laid off while being yelled at.
While he was still the head of Apple in the 1980s, the company began to develop a computer called the Lisa, which became a famous flop. Part of the reason it was a flop was that Jobs sided with the Macintosh development team, flying a pirate flag and freely raiding engineers from Lisa, effectively sabotaging his own company’s product before it was even released. By the time the Lisa emerged with an impossible $10,000 price tag, it was DOA, and thousands had to be trucked by Apple direct to a landfill.
It is hard to think of any other entrepreneur or artist whose affect on the world has been both as profound or obvious as that of Steve Jobs. He changed the world so frequently in the past decade that it almost seemed as if by accident. The iTunes music store literally changed the way that Americans consume music, obviating both the music publishing industry and the P2P networks that had plagued them. Apple didn’t create the MP3 player or the smartphone or the tablet computer, it just made them beautiful, expensive, necessary, cool, and ubiquitous. Jobs often talked about wanting to create electronic devices whose use was as obvious and transparent as a toaster. The overwhelming success of Apple’s devices is proof that he succeeded.
But he did not succeed without hurting many people along the way, intentionally or otherwise. We must remember him fully. Otherwise our history will become hagiography, and his memory will be betrayed.