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Designing Desire

By (April 1, 2012) One Comment

Steve Jobs

By Walter Isaacson
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011

In August 2011, two weeks before Steve Jobs’ resignation, Apple became the world’s most valuable company, its market value of $337 billion surpassing that of long-time frontrunner, Exxon Mobile. Getting there first, Jobs’ legacy proves, is only part of the battle. Of the 323 patents awarded to Jobs and his shifting cast of collaborators, only a handful—five, to be exact—are so-called “patents for invention,” issued for new devices and technical innovations. The remainder are design patents, conferring aesthetic protection on such items as power adapters, headphones, and plastic packaging. Of those products now intrinsically identified with Apple—the MP3 player, the smart phone, and the tablet computer—none are novel in their essential technologies. As Walter Isaacson’s recent biography puts it, Jobs was at once “the ultimate icon of inventiveness, imagination, and sustained innovation” and a man who “didn’t invent many things outright.”

Mulling over this contradiction, Isaacson challenges us to rethink the way we understand invention. Rather than conceived ab origine, Jobs’ best ideas were often adaptations of someone else’s. Jobs poached the concept of a graphical user interface (GUI or “gooey”)—a system of individually mapped pixels that enabled the Macintosh to eschew IBM’s alienating command-line prompts—from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, after a series of visits in December 1979. The first MP3 player came onto the market in 1998. Three years later, after ascertaining that such devices “truly sucked,” Jobs launched the iPod. The iPhone was born of Jobs’ conclusion that existing mobile phones were “brain-dead.” He began work on the iPad after attending the birthday dinner of a Microsoft engineer. Privy to that engineer’s boastings about a tablet PC that would soon make notebook computers obsolete, Jobs decided, with typical perspicacity, “Fuck this.” The following years would find Jobs pushing his engineers to perfect touchscreen technology that would eliminate the need for a stylus, foremost in Microsoft’s tablet conceit and “the kiss of death” in Jobs’.

Isaacson’s book is not the only one to distill Jobs’ persona in prose. Journalist Jeffrey Young made the first attempt in 1988, and numerous others followed suit, including Mona Simpson, Jobs’ estranged sister. Yet in 2004, newly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Jobs wanted something more ambitious. He placed a call to Isaacson, the former Editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN, whose previous subjects included Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Isaacson demurred, but Jobs persisted. Five years later, on the heels of Jobs’ second medical leave, Isaacson acquiesced. The next two years found Isaacson navigating between interviews: forty with Jobs, where allegedly no topic was off limits, and over one hundred with family members, intimates, and former colleagues, many of whom Jobs had spurned, abused, or otherwise wronged. The result is a text notable mainly for its author’s unprecedented access to Jobs, then a man on the verge of death, anxious to sanction the narrative of his life.

Jobs envisioned himself at the end point of a distinguished lineage. Enamored of his own creativity, he compares his accomplishments to those of artistic greats, past and present. In his words, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Picasso are not simply touchstones, but peers. His dogged pursuit of Isaacson, then, comes as no surprise: Jobs no doubt saw himself as Einstein and Franklin’s heir. Andy Herzfeld, member of Jobs’ original Mac team, phrased it thus: “He thinks there are a few people who are special—people like Einstein and Gandhi and the gurus he met in India—and he’s one of them. … Once he even hinted to me that he was enlightened. It’s almost like Nietzsche.”

Comparisons to Nietzsche are generally damning. Isaacson, however, turns the parallel to Jobs’ advantage, professing that Nietzsche’s “concept of the will to power and the special nature of the Überman came naturally” to Apple’s iCEO. The word “enlightened” slips casually from his interviewees’ statements into Isaacson’s own judgments. Such religious undertones frequently attend descriptions of both Jobs and the products he hawked. Jobs, for his part, did nothing to dispel these associations, attending Apple’s first Halloween party dressed as Jesus and repeatedly condensing his company’s aesthetic to the epithet “Zen.” When Isaacson titles his chapter on Jobs’ 1997 return to Apple “the second coming” and details Jobs’ imperative to “reclaim his kingdom,” he only rehashes the string of self-heroicizations that Jobs indulged.

These are the moments where Isaacson’s critical distance falters. His account does not whitewash Jobs’ personal failings. Far from eloquent, Isaacson’s Jobs peppers his speech with juvenile slang. Other people are either “geniuses” or “bozos,” “the best” or “totally shitty,” Jobs’ binary worldview preventing him from entertaining any middle ground. His capacity for cruelty is on full display, as when he denies paternity of his illegitimate daughter. Isaacson, however, tends to excuse such unpleasant details under the guise of Jobs’ “reality distortion field,” a term coined by his colleagues. Honing in on a project, however improbable, Jobs would convince himself and everyone around him of its feasibility: a trait that led co-workers to analogize him variously to a con man, Jim Jones, and Rasputin. These attributions, however, do little to detract from Jobs’ mythic allure: the college dropout, abandoned at birth, who launched today’s most profitable brand from his parents’ garage. Isaacson, for his part, simply rationalizes away Jobs’ unsavory side:

The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him. But it did, at times, serve a purpose. Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change. Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible. And he created a corporation crammed with A players.

Why Isaacson believes that “effective” leaders must be feared, not loved, is never explained. His plummy words dismiss acute character flaws with empty generalities and the aura of Jobs’ professional success.

Isaacson is at his best not when probing Jobs’ psyche, but when describing the iCEO’s vision for Apple, Inc. “Simplify” was Jobs’ mantra; “friendly,” “intuitive,” and “seamless” his buzzwords. The company’s inaugural motto, featured on a 1977 brochure, reads: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The aphorism, attributed to da Vinci, appeared above a photograph of a Red Delicious apple, set against an otherwise bare background. The name itself—Apple—connoted an affable plainness: it was the most basic, and the most stereotypically American, of fruits. Compare that year’s Apple II to Intel’s Altair 8800 of two years earlier: a tangle of circuit boards and wires that had to be assembled, then programmed in binary. By contrast, the Apple II was compact and ready to run right out of the box. Its monitor, encased in a beige plastic shell and comprised of concentric, rounded rectangles, was poised atop two disk drives and a keyboard. Taken as a whole, the machine was vaguely anthropomorphic, its dimensions—taller and narrower than most—resembling those of a human face. Speaking at the 1983 Aspen Design conference, Jobs reiterated Apple’s credo: “The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.”

For Jobs, design was not surface or facade, but a penetrating, complete aesthetic: one that expressed the very essence of the product at hand. As he told Wired in 1996, “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.” As would befit this totalizing view, Jobs proved deeply concerned with the appearance of the inside of his products. Inspecting the circuit board for the first Macintosh, Jobs derided the memory chips as “ugly”: “The lines are too close together,” he judged. Three years later, when finalizing his NeXT computer, Jobs insisted that its interior be painted the same matte black as its outer case. Ironically, these were interiors that few customers would ever see. In the early ‘80s, peeved at hobbyists keen on disassembling his carefully packaged products, Jobs began sealing Apple computers with specialized screws unresponsive to commercially available tools. “For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through,” he opined to Playboy in 1985.

As Isaacson details, the same drive for coherence that informed Jobs’ design sensibilities defined Apple at large. From the start, Jobs railed against the do-it-yourself enthusiasm of hackers, exemplified by his co-founder, Steve Wozniak. Under Jobs, every Apple product offered an end-to-end experience: closed, contained, and more or less impregnable, none required assembly or admitted modification. His relentless drive for continuity proved critical not only to Apple’s aesthetics, giving rise to the company’s signature minimalist (and thoroughly patented) style, but also to its business strategy. In a tech industry modeled on openness and common platforms, Apple would stand as the sole exemplar of a closed company, its hardware and software insistently integrated, its attitude toward sharing miserly. This mentality is perhaps best embodied in Jobs’ life-long hostility to Bill Gates, whose apathy for design, in Jobs’ estimation, rendered Microsoft’s products tasteless, unimaginative, and “mostly irrelevant.”

Steve Jobs with Bill Gates, 2007. photo by Joi Ito

Fortuitously, Jobs’ attraction to sharp lines and lucid forms found its match in London-born Jonathan Ive, the company’s chief designer, a relationship which Isaacson deftly illuminates. Like Jobs, Ive was a devotee of Dieter Rams, the German industrial design mogul whose tenure at Braun spanned four decades. Rams’ ten principles for what he termed “good design,” articulated in the early ‘80s, accorded with Apple’s design aesthetic to a tee. As Rams saw it, products were meant to fulfill specific functions. Neither decorative nor cosmetic, good design elucidated this function, stressing the product’s essential purpose and excising all extraneous features. Good design, ultimately, was “as little as possible.” “Less, but better,” Rams concluded.

Making function intuitive necessitated restraint and economy of form. Heeding Rams’ dicta, Jobs and Ive grounded their designs in basic geometric shapes: rectangles, squares, cubes, circles, ovals, and other organic curves. The circle, for example, features prominently in the iPod, whose scroll wheel eliminated the need for innumerable clicks when navigating between songs. Apple’s reduced palette of forms found echo in its limited array of materials at the millennium’s turn. The mania for transparent plastics of the late ‘90s ceded to an infatuation with somber, muted materials: titanium, aluminum, and glass. With the notable exception of the iPod, Apple’s colors, too, tended toward the neutral: the silver of metal, the white of the modernist cube, and the black definitive of most electronics.

Stripped geometries and the minimalist style they enact can feel cold, impersonal, and technocratic. Jobs and Ive, however, managed to infuse these austere forms with warmth. A humanizing impulse, repeated analogized to “friendliness,” undergirded their project. As Ive relates in his interview with Isaacson, they used the rectangle, but softened and beveled its pointed edges, making it amenable to human touch. Marked by subdued colors, smooth textures, and simple shapes, the products they created were at once unobtrusive and instantly understandable: handling one in a store, the consumer could determine what it was and how to use it with minimal effort. The advent of multi-touch technology pushed this intuitiveness one step further, spawning a bevy of products premised on repeated acts of touching, dragging, and dropping: processes known to us from our day-to-day interaction with tangible objects.

During his hiatus from Apple, Jobs took the reins at Pixar, where he served as an executive producer on Toy Story, a heartfelt tale of toys whose greatest wish is to be played with. As Isaacson observes, the film’s concept is telling: for Jobs, an object’s function was its existential purpose, its reason for being. Throughout Jobs’ and Ive’s fourteen-year collaboration, design always diverted to the product and its use. Here, design and function were inseparable: an entwining that Apple’s competitors failed to grasp.

Take, for example, the iMac, the first offspring of the Jobs-Ive collaboration, released in the spring of 1998. Playful, compact, and approachable, the iMac dispensed with the clunky system unit that accompanied its competitors’ machines, opting instead to squeeze all parts behind a single, sleek monitor. Cased in clear, sea green plastic, the computer was defined by the organic curve extending outward from its screen. Ovular and almost egg-like, the iMac’s shape lent it an impish, dynamic feel, one heightened by its enticing “bondi blue” shell, a striking contrast to the leaden black of most PCs. Its recessed handle invited its user’s interaction, while its transparent exterior enabled a view straight through to its insides. More akin to piece of furniture than an industrial gadget, the iMac belonged in a domestic interior.

Failing to understand the import of its novel form, Bill Gates saw the iMac as a “passing fad,” Isaacson recounts. To Gates, design could only mean “fashion” or “style”: an incidental factor, forever secondary to price and performance. At a Microsoft conference following the iMac’s debut, Gates lampooned the new PC. “The one thing Apple’s providing now is leadership in colors,” he quipped, gesturing at an IBM coated in red paint.

Color, however, was only one measure of the iMac’s ingenuity. Since work began on the Macintosh in the early ‘80s, Isaacson explains, the imperative for simple, elegant design had compelled feats of engineering at Apple. The company’s products did not result from a sequential relay between isolated departments but arose, rather, from an integrated process: one that Jobs’ termed “deep collaboration.” At Apple, the onus was on the engineers to accommodate the designers, rather than vice versa. The iMac’s transparency and convex shape required its hardware to be visually appealing (it was constantly on display) and compact. What’s more, all processing and memory components, typically relegated a boxy unit placed under one’s desk, had to be integrated within one machine. Achieving Apple’s minimalist aesthetic was equal parts a design and a hardware problem.

Isaacson hits on this theme early in his narrative. Insisting that “real artists sign their work,” Jobs had the signatures of the original Macintosh team engraved inside the computer. Later in life, Jobs mused on the similarities between “great artists” and “great engineers” (“they both have a desire to express themselves”) and attributed the success of the first Macintosh to the fact that many of its engineers were “poets and musicians on the side.” It seems fitting, then, that MoMA owns eight products released during Jobs’ direction, including a first-edition iPod and a Power Mac G4 Cube.

Accepting Jobs’ self-definition as artist uncritically, Isaacson’s biography again veers onto unstable ground. As Sue Halpern argues in the New York Review of Books, the term “artist” is a loose signifier, loosely applied. In Halpern’s view, Jobs wields his ordination as artist-genius as an armor of sorts, to deflect reprimand for a diffuse spectrum of bad behaviors. Jobs’ abrasive mannerisms, his dissolution into tears when others contravened his will, the pungent body odor that consigned him to the night shift at his first job: all are subsumed—and, thereby, excused—by Jobs’ “artistic” temperament. He was, in Isaacson’s estimation, a genius; ergo, the normal rules of social engagement failed to apply.

Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. He was, indeed, an example of what the mathematician Mark Kac called a magician genius, someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power. Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds, and sense what lay ahead.

The assumption is implicit: unlike the rest of us chumps, Jobs had license to be mean.

At Apple, Jobs believed that the aesthetic, the technical, and the corporate were seamlessly joined. As Jobs affirmed at the iPad’s 2010 unveiling, “technology alone is not enough”: “it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” Isaacson recapitulates Jobs’ rhetoric, laboring to position one of the world’s wealthiest men as a peculiar fusion of “flower power” and the “power structure,” all while omitting money from the equation. Despite frequent references to his fortune, Isaacson portrays Jobs as indifferent to questions of revenue. The blame for Apple’s precipitous decline after Jobs’ 1985 ouster, the narrative goes, falls on the then-CEO, John Sculley, whose money-grubbing mentality supplanted Jobs’ unsullied obsession with high quality and clean design. Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs, kowtowed to profit, churning out clunky black boxes that undercut Apple’s machines on price, but amounted to little more than circuit boards appended to screens. Jobs’ actions, however, suggest the opposite of an indifference to fortune. From the get-go, Wozniak had wished to distribute Apple’s technology free of charge. Jobs, instead, pushed to monetize it. Isaacson glosses this point: Wozniak was “the gentle wizard coming up with a neat invention,” while Jobs assayed how to “put it in a package, market it, and make a few bucks.”

Here, Isaacson’s prose verges on glib: Jobs’ seemingly casual determination would have much greater ramifications than “a few bucks.” In himself, Jobs believed, the tensions between technology, art, and commerce were resolved: a judgment to which Isaacson accedes. As Isaacson tells it, Jobs’ commitment to simple, self-evident design serendipitously reaped staggering corporate gains, without compromising on quality or belittling the customer. Coming of age in 1970s California and attending Reed college (then, a veritable incubator for hippie subculture), Jobs was at once computer whiz and iconoclast, attending engineering classes at Stanford in the morning and dropping acid in the afternoon.

To be fair, many of Jobs’ decisions did balk the cost-benefit analyses that underlie most corporate decision-making. His dogmatism about design, coupled with his epic obstinacy, frequently led to functional failures, marketplace duds, and combinations of both. The original Macintosh earned the nickname “beige toaster” for its habit of overheating. Jobs had refused to include a fan, resolved that its sporadic whirrings would undermine the Mac’s intended “Zen.” Jobs’ NeXT computer proved an out-and-out failure. Unbending in his demand that the machine be a perfect cube, Jobs ordered the production of costly molds that could cast its edges at exactly 90 degrees. With the iPhone 4, he again sacrificed functionality on the altar of design, indulging Ive’s injunction that an aluminum rim extend all the way around the phone’s edge, without a gap abutting the antenna. Its subsequent tendency to drop calls generated an orgy of media attention—though, fortunately for Jobs, failed to yield a commensurate drop in sales.

Still, the easy accords Isaacson draws feel too artful, and for good reason. In the course of nearly six-hundred pages, he fails to mention the elephant in the room: Apple’s horrific track record in China, by many accounts, the worst among its peers. Last January, a Beijing-based nonprofit ranked Apple twenty-ninth out of twenty-nine global tech companies in terms of “responsiveness and transparency to health and environmental concerns in China.” A recent New York Times article condensed Apple’s string of abuses abroad: laborers work extreme overtime in sweatshop conditions, standing until their legs swell, and, in some cases, living eight to a room. In 2009, forced to clean iPhone screens with a noxious chemical, 137 workers in eastern China suffered nerve damage. Last year, shoddy ventilation led to explosions at two Apple factories, killing four and maiming 77. At least nineteen employees at Apple’s flagship factory in Chengdu have committed suicide in the past two years. The manufacturer, Foxconn, now mandates that all workers sign pledges declaring not to kill themselves and, in the event that they do, relinquishing their families’ right to sue for damages. To maintain the fiction that Apple products are “friendly” requires a willing ignorance of their provenance.

* * *

Like so much else, the attempted synergy of aesthetics and technology did not originate with Jobs. It traces back to the Bauhaus, the design school founded in Weimar Germany by architect Walter Gropius. Instructing its students in both theory and mechanics, the Bauhaus aimed to erase the distinction between artist and craftsman. By reconnecting the artist, so long sequestered in the academy, with workaday life and technical construction, the school hoped to foster a functional design aesthetic to accommodate the demands of the machine age. As Gropius proclaimed in 1923, industrial society was informed by a new, architectural impulse that shunned art’s isolation from industry and the decadence of l’art pour l’art. Bauhaus protégés would produce a “clear, organic architecture” whose governing logics would be “radiant and naked,” free from the “lying facades and trickeries” of ornament. Propelled by “modern materials” and “the new boldness of engineering,” this would be an architecture aligned with “our world of machines, radios, and fast motor cars,” its function clearly deducible from its form.

Jobs’ design successes were legion. The man, however, was no Walter Gropius, transposed into our contemporary era. Rather than inventing outright, Jobs capitalized on the innovations of others, manufacturing not only products, but desire and obsolescence. Like so many others who have appraised Jobs’ achievement, Isaacson seems too confident in his conclusions. Leveraging the demands of form to drive technical innovation, Jobs made a strong case for why industrial design matters—at least as far as corporate profits are concerned. Yet, as conditions in China betray, the aesthetic elegance and minimalist purity of Apple products is not as chaste as Jobs, and Isaacson, would have us believe. As scrutiny mounts on Apple’s operations abroad, Jobs’ most abiding legacy remains to be determined. Likely, it will fall somewhere in that middle ground which Jobs proved so unable to apprehend.

Courtney Fiske is a writer based in New York. She is currently an editorial intern at Artforum and Bookforum magazines.