Form and Fortune: Steve Jobs’s Pursuit of Perfection—and the Consequences
In 2010, Der Spiegel published a glowing profile of Steve Jobs, then at the helm of Apple. Jobs’s products are venerated in Germany, especially by young bohemian types. Recently, the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg presented an exhibition of Apple’s products, with the grandiloquent subtitle “On Electro-Design that Makes History”—a good indication of the country’s infatuation with the company. Jobs and Jony Ive, Apple’s extraordinary chief of design, have always acknowledged their debt to Braun, a once-mighty German manufacturer of radios, record players, and coffeemakers. The similarity between Braun’s gadgets from the 1960s and Apple’s gadgets is quite uncanny. It took a Syrian-American college dropout—a self-proclaimed devotee of India, Japan, and Buddhism—to make the world appreciate the virtues of sleek and solid German design. (Braun itself was not so lucky: in 1967 it was absorbed into the Gillette Group, and ended up manufacturing toothbrushes.)
The piece about Jobs in Der Spiegel shed no light on his personality, but it stood out for two reasons. The first was its title: “Der Philosoph des 21 Jahrhunderts,” or “The Philosopher of the Twenty-First Century.” The second was the paucity of evidence to back up such an astonishing claim. Jobs’s status as a philosopher seems to have been self-evident. It is hard to think of any other big-name CEO who could win such an accolade, and from an earnest German magazine that used to publish long interviews with Heidegger. So was Steve Jobs a philosopher who strove to change the world rather than merely interpret it? Or was he a marketing genius who turned an ordinary company into a mythical cult, while he himself was busy settling old scores and serving the demands of his titanic ego?
There are few traces of Jobs the philosopher in Walter Isaacson’s immensely detailed and pedestrian biography of the man. Isaacson draws liberally on previously published biographies, and on dozens of interviews that Jobs gave to the national media since the early 1980s. He himself conducted many interviews with Jobs (who proposed the project to Isaacson), and with his numerous colleagues, enemies, and disciples, but as one nears the end of this large book it’s hard not to wonder what it was that Isaacson and Jobs actually talked about on those walks around Palo Alto. Small anecdotes abound, but weren’t there big themes to discuss?