Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson

Yes, the bio was a disapointment but I don’t think it’s the end of the world. The best critique I’ve seen was by John Siracusa, on the Hypercritical podcast (episodes 42 and 43.) There was none of this “bending over backwards” in order to meet conventional expectations.

Yes, Isaacson blew it. Steve was a rare idividual who merits a true “definitive” biography. He was unique but this wasn’t it. Here’s one reason why.

Steve seemed be fond of that hockey metaphor about getting to the puck. I have a hockey metaphor that summarizes this book: Isaacson missed the open net. A better player has to get possession of the puck and score against a defense that’s now playing at full strength.

It’s SOP for a professional historian to produce great biographies of people long since dead. How else can they study Lincoln, Lenin, Napoleon, Washington, etc.? Perhaps this book will motivate the right biographer to take up the challenge.

It’s instructive to think about what is involved in writing a biography that is worthy of Steve. The last definitive bio that I’ve read was Robert Caro’s biography of President Johnson. That is, I’ve read the first three of the projected four-volume biography. It’s taking him more than 20 years. To call it a book is like calling Richard Wagner’s &lsdquo;Ring of the Niebelungen” a song. It is on a different scale.

The Big Picture

Ironically, there is a huge “human-interest” story here. Steve repeatedly hinted at it. He talked of Apple as the intersection of technology and liberal arts. The real story, though, is the intersection of three dimensions, not two. [He left the last dimenson as an exercise for the reader!]

The elusive third dimension is epitomized by his work as CEO. The elusive art is to fuse technology with liberal arts and then turn it all into a multibillion dollar business. Its this last dimension that is the critical difference. If Leonardo da Vinci had Steve&rsuo;s CEO skills, the world would have had the airplane hundreds of years earlier.

It occurred to me that this is substantially the same story that motivated Mr. Caro to devote most of his professional life to one biography. He is fascinated by those who masterfully exercise power. His previous book was on Robert Moses, the master builder of NYC. Mr. Caro wants to know what is unique in the character of these men.

In government, LBJ was the one who permanently took power away from rich white boys and turned it over to the underprivileged. Twice — with the 1957 civil rights law and the monumental 1964 law which changed society forever. When was the last time a US President did that? That was it: 1964.

[In addition to studying a diseased leader, Mr. Caro also had to overcome the obstacle of being banned from the LBJ Library midway through the project -- presumably for his discussion of the 1948 Senate race in a way that did not serve the LBJ myth.]

People are attracted to the story of someone who can actually get things done — not power-holders who misuse their power to obstruct progress & protect vested interests. Witness Steve’s latest victory over that idiot Flash player. Starting from 0.0% of the cell phone market, he took Flash down. Isaacson needed to know all the technical details cold as a prerequisite for telling the “human-interest” story: writing from a general audience is no excuse for lazyness. It actually means that you need to work harder to explain the details in context and tell the general public what it all means.

The story of how a broken system can be fixed and made to work is one important theme of a definitive biography. Gruber talked it briefly (”Ideas are just a multiplier of execution”). Among many other things, Isaacson needed to turn that sentence into a book.