Sue Halpern has written the first interesting assessment of Steve Jobs I’ve seen, in the form of a book review of Isaacson’s biography. It happens to be very negative. She says little about his now-well-known bad treatment of coworkers, friends and family (“a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator”) and focusses on the effects of Apple Computer, which are obviously much greater.
She makes one very bad point. He should not call himself an artist, she argues:
There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.
“In the end, products”? “Gadgets”? Are books gadgets? I cannot imagine a future without books. Nor one without cellphones and laptops. If they are lovely and work well, so much the better for all of us. Moreover, cellphones and laptops, much more than other necessities (food, clothes, housing, transportation, medicine) help us express ourselves — our hidden inner selves — in so many ways. (Like art and books, but better.) Mark Fraunfelder made a similar point (obliquely).
“Products” and “gadgets” is Halpern’s conventional anti-consumerism. She goes on to make two equally conventional but much better points:
According to a study reported by Bloomberg News last January, Apple ranked at the very bottom of twenty-nine global tech firms “in terms of responsiveness and transparency to health and environmental concerns in China.” Yet walking into the Foxconn factory, where people routinely work six days a week, from early in the morning till late at night standing in enforced silence, Steve Jobs might have entered his biggest reality distortion field of all. “You go into this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools,” he said after being queried by reporters about working conditions there shortly after a spate of suicides. “For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”
Apple had (and has) the power to improve working conditions at Foxconn. I completely agree: this was (and is) an enormous missed opportunity, for which Steve Jobs is completely responsible. No doubt he said that Apple products empower individuals (and they do) — well, how about empowering Foxconn workers?
Halpern’s final point is about recycling:
Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.
Yeah. Apple could (and can) lead the world in making their products easy to recycle. They haven’t. Entirely Steve Jobs’ fault. As Halpern says, this really matters.
Steve Jobs spent his working life (a) exploiting the commercial potential of new products (home computer, etc.) in large part by (b) caring obsessively, much more than others in his rarefied position, such as Bill Gates, about how they made him feel. Apple made products that Steve Jobs enjoyed. Fine. The problem is what Steve Jobs enjoyed. My take on him is a lot can be explained by (a) he cared little what others thought of him and (b) he lived in a tiny, uncomplicated intellectual world — as illustrated by his remarks about Foxconn and his Stanford graduation speech. Nabokov might say he had the emotional development of a child and the curiosity of an adult.
He left behind a company that reflects the shallowness of what he cared about. Those who take over Apple Computer are likely to be less shallow than he was — most people are. I predict the company will begin to care more about working conditions, ease of recycling, and other things beyond immediate user experience.