There's a couple of ways to tell the Steve Jobs story. In one, he’s a visionary who built a company that built computers for the rest of us and became enormously and deservedly rich doing it. In the other, he once had stars in his eyes, but had marketing in his heart and become a relatively ruthless businessman who treated people who worked for him, and cared for him, badly. In both stories, he had a tremendous impacton the way personal electronics became a part of all of our lives.
There’s a third way to tell the story, and since the others are pretty well covered, I’ll tell it that way. This is a story about Steve Jobs as a visionary, but as a different kind of visionary than the one at the helm of what became of Apple Computer.
I first found out about Steve Jobs at the beginning of 1984, just after the Macintosh was released. I was hired to write a book about this new personal computer. My brother and I had somehow gotten some time on an insurance company mainframe in high school, and I’d hung out at the computer center once in a while in college, but I was an English and theatre major and I was going to be a playwright. Before I received the first Macintosh purchased at retail on the East Coast of the US I’d never touched a PC keyboard. I wrote the book (in three weeks) and it got published and disappeared pretty much without a trace, but in the process I became captivated by Steve Jobs’ approach to life, an approach which was anarchic, optimistic and revolutionary.
He dropped acid, he dropped out of Reed but attended classes for a year and a half. He sold his VW microbus. The target market for his first design and manufacturing project was the phone phreaking community. Phone phreaking, for those who don’t know, exploited a short-lived technological vulnerability of the long distance phone system. By producing particular patterns of tones, a phone phreak could place unlimited long-distance calls for free. The device to accomplish this, not particularly technically demanding for those who knew about such things, like Steve’s partner, the other Steve, Steve Wozniak (Woz) did, was called a Blue Box. They went into business together and made about $6,000 selling blue boxes, some of which were beautiful designed, slim, with silvery keyboards, looking not unlike the iPods which were then in the quite distant future.
There’s a ghost in the machine appeal to phone phreaking, being able to hack the telecommunication industry’s technical journals to put together the frequencies and codes, then to be set loose on the system, free, a secret and savvy citizen directing electrons through unseen wires and switches, in communication around the globe.
Speaking of freedom and systems, the Steve Jobs story can’t be told without including the story of the Homebrew Computer Club. And story requires talking about the extraordinary and mostly forgotten community it sprang from. They were electronic hobbyists, they were corporate engineers by day and nocturnal partying visionaries, academics, stoned grad students and counter-cultural pioneers. And a goodly number of them were transfixed by a vision of information technologies fundamentally transforming all of society. They were at a cusp, a threshold. It was the end of the era when the only computers in the world were huge, cost millions of dollars, required teams of high priests to keep them running and were owned exclusively by governments, corporations and institutions. The Homebrew crew built their very own computers which were affordable and fit on a tabletop. And they saw a revolution in the offing. Come the revolution ordinary people would be empowered and information, which wanted to be free, would be decentralized and universally available. The two Steves sold the microbus to make the first manufactured micro-computers ever and sell them to members of the Homebrew Computer Club.
Steve Jobs’ vision was a machine that would make ordinary people’s lives better, that would break the connection between data processing on the one hand and capital and control on the other. He imagined the development of an electronic companion who would accompany you through life, paying attention, and when you were about to repeat the same romantic mistake yet again would gently ask whether you might notice a certain pattern at work.
The famous hammer thrown at the enormous Big Brother screen was not just about the liberation of computer technology but also about a more intimate and personal liberation, and a political liberation as well.
The revolution Jobs ended up leading than the first revolution he imagined. It may well be that the Apple revolution is actually deeper, more personal, and more significant then we suspect now. The limitless video, the graphic design, the garage band recordings that otherwise would never have existed count for an enormous amount. And, to be fair, what he always had in mind was creating machines to release, to enable, to facilitate a revolution that would spring from the deep sources in people, from their realest desires. That intention is fundamentally different from leading the revolution. And like so many of us, at some point he lost some of his innocence on just this question. As said to Wired in 1996:
“When you're young, you look at television and think: There's a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that's not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That's a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It's the truth.”
Who knows if maybe the technology itself and what resonates with the market didn’t guide development more than any one person could have, even a true visionary. There’s a reason that one of his most fundamental aphorisms was, “real artists ship.” Perhaps his legacy is primarily not about business, or technology, or daring to follow one’s dreams to international celebrity. There is throughout his story a theme of embracing one’s particularity, to take as a given, and make manifest, one’s essential inclinations, however peculiar or out of synch with reason or the rest of the world. The story of learning calligraphy in the eighteen months between dropping out and leaving campus, with the 5-cent bottle deposits and the one dinner a week at the Hare Krishna temple. The trip to India in pursuit of enlightenment, his 1985 description of life in California, “Woz and I very much liked Bob Dylan’s poetry, and we spent a lot of time thinking about a lot of that stuff. This was California. You could get LSD fresh from Stanford. You could sleep on the beach at night with your girlfriend. California has a sense of experimentation and a sense of openness – openness to new possibilities.” His Buddhism, his juice fasts, his house with no furniture and a motorcycle. Think Different from this angle is a deep slogan, “different” meaning something like “closer to one’s core.” How to go about being oneself and shipping that out into the world might be the question to which his life was the answer. Being open to the internal clues about what to do next, and then go ahead and do that with some kind of confidence that it’ll work out. He said he did learn something in India, a confirmation of a way he’d already been living. As his biographer relates, "The people in the Indian countryside don't use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That's had a big impact on my work."
There’s no doubt he ended up changing the world. The world would be transformed yet again if everyone watched his 2005 Stanford Commencement address just once a year. He was difficult, a perfectionist and sometimes treated people badly. The company he and Woz sat in the microbus and decided to create became for a time recently the most valuable company on earth. The vision he made manifest was arguably a different vision than the one he started with. But there’s no doubt that some aspect of the preference of being a pirate instead of joining the navy survived. He brought beauty and respect for creativity into an industry which was at the time dominated, after all, by a company devoted, with their blue suits and company song book, to International Business Machines. His devotion to the commandants “do what you love” and “honor creativity” would have been legacy enough, and his legacy was so very much more than that.