Steve Jobs and the quest for iPhone enlightenment

Walter Isaacson's biography of the Apple CEO doesn't go deep enough. Maybe some more LSD would have helped

By Andrew Leonard
Published October 27, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)
 A detail from the cover of Walter Isaacson's "Steve Jobs"
A detail from the cover of Walter Isaacson's "Steve Jobs"

The day after the March 2011 launch of the iPad 2, as a very sick Steve Jobs prepared to fly to Hawaii for a short stint of recuperation, Walter Isaacson, Jobs' hand-picked biographer, asked to see what the Apple CEO had downloaded onto his iPad to divert him on the flight. There were three movies, and one book: "The Autobiography of a Yogi," "the guide to meditation and spirituality that he had first read as a teenager, then reread in India, and had read once a year ever since."

How appropriate! One of the great mysteries of Steve Jobs is the question of how a man so sincere in his commitment to Zen Buddhism and Eastern spirituality could at the same time be such a flaming asshole. If there's one thing that comes shining through in Isaacson's warts-and-all biography, it's Jobs' consistent tendency to act like a jerk; to make his friends, employees and family miserable with his insults and put-downs. His tantrums, manipulations and lies (or "reality distortions") are the stuff of legend. But by golly, he also dedicated himself obsessively to cultivating the perfection and purity of his inner spirit. Uh, how exactly does that compute?

Steve Jobs embodied a unique duality. As Isaacson documents, Jobs fully embraced the hippie-dippie mores of his native Northern California: he dropped acid, smoked dope, lived in a commune, became a vegan, grooved to Bob Dylan, sought transcendence and enlightenment and neither regretted nor disowned any of it ... and yet he also became the most successful businessman of modern times, in part by employing management tactics featuring the kind of cutthroat machinations not usually rewarded by upwardly mobile karmic transmigration.

As I finished Isaacson's rushed-into-stores tome, I realized that I was still confused as to how these contradictions could be reconciled. After almost 600 action-packed pages, I was dismayed: no enlightenment for me! In a sudden burst of yogic whimsy, I reached for my brand-new iPhone 4S and tapped the iBooks app. I stumbled for a second -- the first suggested purchase was none other than Isaacson's book. That seemed a little incestuous. But then I typed the letters "auto" in the search query box, was instantaneously prompted with the suggestion "The Autobiography of a Yogi," and tapped the screen two more times to download my own free copy.

Which is how I found myself reading the life story of Paramahansa Yogananda, a man considered instrumental in introducing millions of Westerners to meditation and yoga -- on my phone. And then how I found myself watching a YouTube video featuring 1936 footage of Yogananda lecturing on the topic of "How to Sleep Correctly" -- on my phone. And then, caught up in the inexorable flow, how I found myself asking Siri -- my phone's voice-recognizing personal assistant -- to locate the nearest yoga studio: ("I found 10 yoga studios, nine of them are fairly close to you," answered Siri.)

To all of which a younger version of myself might say, wow, man, that's trippy. "Yoga is not magic," saith Yogananda, but to anyone who is part of the generation that came of age along with Steve Jobs, the iPhone 4S sure as hell is. To borrow the argot of the mighty Jobs: Who gives a shit whether he was a jerk or not? The products he brought to market are fucking amazing! Steve Jobs didn't invent the integrated circuit or the Internet or the personal computer or the cellphone -- but he saw, ahead of almost all the rest of us, how to put the pieces together in ways that unlocked creativity and inspired passion and delight.

And there's your connection, there's your paradox resolved. The good karma derived from midwifing all those incredible devices into the world surely outweighs the personal unpleasantness. Maybe the universe forgives Steve for being an asshole because the combined force of everyone loving their iPhone has lifted the entire planet into a more exalted state (with the likely exception of exploited Chinese workers -- though who is to say they don't want their iPhones too?).

The most serious flaws in Isaacson's ultimately unsatisfying "Steve Jobs" are that the author doesn't step back and grapple with how the world has changed as a consequence of Steve Jobs' passage through it, and also fails to resolve the contradictions in Jobs' character into a coherent narrative. This is disappointing, especially when one considers that the level of access Isaacson enjoyed to Jobs and his family during the last days of his life is, of course, impossible for anyone else to duplicate.

It doesn't make the book a bad read. Steve Jobs' life is inherently interesting -- his rise and fall and rise again, his LSD-dropping entrepreneurial genius, his epochal impact on not just the computing industry but also the movie, phone and music businesses are all riveting stories. But most of us already know most of the details. Few recent figures have had their daily adventures more chronicled than has Steve Jobs. Some key parts of the legend -- such as the creation of the Macintosh -- have been told far more entertainingly and with much more insight than they are here by Isaacson.

The real challenge any would-be biographer of Jobs faces is to explain what it all means. In the past 40 years, the personal computer and the Internet have vastly transformed how billions of people live and Steve Jobs was right there in the middle of it, as big, or bigger, a player than anyone else. It's hard to imagine a more appropriate vehicle than Jobs for telling this grand story. No one, for example, better embodies the synthesis of countercultural values and start-up entrepreneurialism --the dual impulses for self-actualization and capitalist accumulation, the frenzied pace of change -- that define the San Francisco Bay Area than Jobs. One of Jobs' favorite songs was Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changing." Exactly!

But instead of fully immersing himself in this fertile Ganges of cultural and technological cross-pollination, Isaacson skates across the surface. He jumps from product launch to product launch, recounting all the standing ovations Jobs received from his adoring fans, and toting up the stunning sales numbers of each new release, but never really getting to the bottom of the question of why something like the Macintosh or the iPhone engendered such strong emotions, or what is really signified by the fact that I can now carry all the teachings of all the yogis that ever lived in my pocket.

There are other failures, other mysteries left unsolved. Isaacson's depiction of the chaos that an undisciplined and out-of-control Jobs was unleashing on Apple just before he was pushed out by John Sculley in 1997 makes a pretty convincing case that he deserved exile from his own creation. He was a terrible manager. But 10 years later he comes back and this time around he can do almost no wrong. From whence came this catharsis? What changed? Did the umpteenth reading of the yogi's autobiography finally deliver an epiphany that catalyzed his transformation into one of the greatest CEOs to ever stride the earth? Job's reinvention of himself is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of modern business, but Isaacson portrays it simply as something that just happened.

Steve Jobs didn't just happen. His was a force of will the likes of which most of us will never see again. And in that respect, Isaacson's biography does make perfectly clear one point that should trouble all of Apple's employees and customers. No one can step into Steve Jobs' shoes. None of his successors will be able to combine the vision and the assholery and the moral authority into a package seamless enough to ensure Apple continues its permanent consumer electronic revolution. At a moving memorial service held for all of Apple's employees on Oct. 19, the new CEO, Tim Cook, recounted how one of the last things Steve Jobs had told him was that he didn't want Apple's executives to be asking themselves, "What would Steve do?" --he wanted them to do "what they thought was right." Well, what happens when people disagree on what's right? One of the obvious lessons of Steve Jobs' life is that true greatness doesn't necessarily emerge from a collective decision-making process -- in Apple's case, it emerged from one man's stubborn conviction that he was right 99.9 percent of the time and heaven help those who got in his way. Steve Jobs was the one asshole to rule them all. And there's no business school you can go to that will tell you where to imbibe that defining elixir.

After the news broke that Steve Jobs was resigning as CEO, I was chatting with my daughter about his accomplishments, and as we discussed his legacy, I realized that she didn't even know he had been the CEO of Pixar. We are all huge Pixar fans in my household -- every new movie release is a major cinematic event in south Berkeley. My son, a 13-year-old with pretty strong geek credentials in the making, emerged from his lair and asked what we were talking about. I said Steve Jobs had resigned -- a fact that my son registered as pretty big news. "Did you know he was responsible for Pixar too?" I asked.

His eyes widened. "WHO IS this guy?!" he exclaimed.

Who indeed! I still don't know -- even after devouring the endless encomiums and memorials and biographies that have proliferated since his death. But I keep coming back to that quest for transcendence and to Steve Jobs' off-repeated testimony to the almost spiritual mandate he felt to incorporate purity and simplicity into everything he touched. As a human being, Jobs was anything but pure, anything but simple, all too easily swayed by raw emotion. But one cannot hold an iPhone without marveling at its grace and sublime design. In a consumer society, it is the ultimate consumer object, a key to infinite libraries and a doorway to infinite malls, an instrument of connection and pleasure, an object insanely simple to use, but encompassing within it the full complexity of technological progress and the accumulation of human knowledge.

It is, of course, not the final statement of consumer electronic apotheosis. There will be better gadgets to come. There will be a cooler phone in six months, or earlier, and it might not even be from Apple. That's part of the fun. The journey toward those gadgets, as Jobs liked to say, will be its own reward. But it's all still pretty mind-blowing, especially for those of us who recall playing games of "Pong" as teenagers. And when you get right down to it, maybe the world doesn't just owe Steve Jobs thanks for all of the goodies produced by Apple and copied by everyone else. Maybe the world also ought to consider sending the countercultural craziness of 1960s California a big smooch.

Because one common thread to all the drug experimentation and dalliances with Eastern spirituality so rampant in the region Steve Job grew up in was the active desire to get your mind blown -- to get knocked out of the mundane world you occupied straight into some new realm where everything made sense, where everything was connected, where transcendence and enlightenment were finally within one's grasp. Make no mistake -- that restless seeking is an integral part of Apple's DNA.

Isaacson recounts a meeting between Steve Jobs and the New York Times technology reporter John Markoff, author of "What the Dormouse Said" -- an investigation of the psychedelic roots of the computer revolution. "Taking LSD," writes Isaacson, "was one of the two or three most important things he'd done in his life, Jobs told Markoff. People who had never taken acid would never fully understand him."

If everything is connected, and the iPhone is the ultimate instrument of connection, then maybe the key to what made Steve Jobs go was his desire to translate that quest for transcendence into products that blow our minds.

I'm not going to say the iPhone can deliver enlightenment -- but I just asked Siri: "Is there a god?"

Her answer: "There are 14 churches near you." The closest, I was amused to see, just happened to be a Zen Buddhist Center less than half a mile away.

I hope Steve Jobs is grinning, too.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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