Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs makes some play of the fact that Jobs deliberately ceded control of the ‘product’. Aside from an intervention over the cover photographs, Jobs put his trust entirely in Isaacson, declining to set in train a relentless round of design iterations. It certainly shows.

If Jobs had been in charge of this ‘product’ you can bet the quality of the paper, the presentation of the photographs, the typesetting, the binding, and many other details, would all have been remarkable. And you can bet there would be some aspect of the ‘product’ that would have been innovative, perhaps the first instance of a new technology beautifully perfected, made ready, attractive and accessible to a large audience. By contrast, Isaacson’s ‘product’, with the exception of its subject, is no more than run of the mill.

It’s easy to make these bets, because that was how Jobs got things made. He didn’t repeat existing formulae – that held no interest for him. Rather, he pulled the future, kicking and screaming, out of the present. His gift was that he could see that future, a future in which technical products didn’t just do amazing things, but did so in a way that delighted rather than alienated. Technology’s good fortune was that he was reliably able to surround himself with people from which he could drag the technical and aesthetic solutions to make his vision of the future real.

Clearly, Jobs wasn’t always easy to be around – he was rude, capricious and sometimes cruel. Isaacson’s biography is strong, if occasionally repetitive, when it comes to illustrating this. The book also demonstrates one reason why the best designers and engineers chose to hang around – Jobs’s vision and taste, along with his sheer drive, created an environment where people achieved more than they ever believed possible.

The book is weaker in other areas. It barely addresses Jobs’s key role in creating the desktop publishing revolution, for example. And Isaacson rarely offers us intimate details – moments of humour, kindness or vulnerability – that would thicken the plot by providing counterpoint to the dominant narrative. This lack means that the Jobs shown here sometimes seems cartoon like, only abstractly drawn.

Isaacson also does little to bring out what I suspect is a key reason for Jobs ceding control over the biography project, a key reason why this is not an iBiography. That reason is that Jobs was just not interested in looking back. He didn’t choose to deploy his energy and focus on the past, because he was so fixated on looking to the future.

Consider that when Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, one of his early actions was to have dumped the company’s extensive historical archive. This was not some carefully weighed act of ‘decluttering’. To ‘declutter’ is to give up something you care about in the reasonable hope that it will bring renewed focus on the future. But, for Jobs, this archive was, literally, junk. It cost him nothing to give it up. It was simply taking up space. It had nothing to do with what lay ahead.

A friend, whom I mildly annoy with my enthusiasm for Apple products, asked me, in all open curiosity, whether Jobs had an interesting story. He did. There’s all sorts of big drama in his personal life, in the big arc of his career and in the very many smaller arcs that made up each product development cycle. While it might not have been Jobs’s cup of tea, for those of us not single-mindedly inventing the future, his is a fascinating and edifying story. Isaacson’s book tells it well enough. But it left me wondering what a ‘product’ setting out to do this job might have been like if someone with Steve-like standards had been in control.

References and Links

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography – Walter Isaacson
–the book under review.

Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story – Pamela Pfiffner
—includes coverage of Jobs’s role in the introduction of the LaserWriter printer. has a PDF extract.
—transcript of a Steve Jobs and Bill Gates interview in 2007. It covers Jobs’s donation of Apple archive material to Stanford University on his return after ten years away.

Inside Steve’s Brain: Business Lessons from Steve Jobs, the Man Who Saved Apple – Leander Kahney
—an excellent book on Jobs which, no doubt, will soon be updated to cover the iPhone and iPad era.

What is Narrative Therapy? An Easy to Read Introduction – Alice Morgan
–a great read if you are interested in the battle between dominant narrative (‘thin descriptions’) and thickened plots (‘rich descriptions’).

Note: the links to books on Amazon generate a tiny kickback for me if you make a purchase.


Review: On the Internet by Hubert Dreyfus

This book is a brilliant polemic targeted at those who would promote the internet as a tool for the social good and, indeed, a tool for expanding the possibilities of being human. While there are ways in which the internet can allow us to overcome geographical and bodily impediments, for Dreyfus there is, ultimately, something corrupting and possible incoherent about abandoning our identity as embodied agents. Physically being in the same space as another human being not only brings a richness of detail that ‘virtual presence’ cannot achieve, it also brings with it a sense of engagement, of relevance, and risk, that is integral to genuine human-to-human engagement.

Dreyfus addresses a range of topics. He writes about the ultimate poverty of internet search engines, stressing that search in the absence of understanding will always have severe limits, limits we should not allow ourselves to forget. And he writes about how the idea of trust, interconnected with the idea of risk, must inevitably wither in situation in which human beings are only virtually, as opposed to actually, present to one another. But for me, the two most exciting targets concern education and public debate.

Distance learning is widely hailed as a means of broadening access and lowering education costs. Dreyfus is clear that much can be achieved in this way, but argues that it can only take us so far, and, indeed, only a little further than more conventional methods, such as reading books or watching instructional videos. For all that you might receive personalised feedback via email, there is something critical missing in the learning experience. Both learners and teachers need to see each other exercise and explore their expertise. To learn you need to try out your understanding or your skill, and run the risk of embarrassment when things go awry. When it comes to achieving expertise and mastery, the actual co-presence of teacher and learner, far from being some accidental feature of learning, is essential to it.

For Dreyfus, far from being a tool of democracy, the internet encourages the sort of communication that threatens to undermine clear, effective, and responsible social thinking. Dreyfus here draws on the work of the nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Writing about the increasing power of the press, Kierkegaard feared the creation of a ‘world in which everyone had an opinion about and commented on all public matters without needing any first-hand experience and without having or wanting any responsibility’. Arguably Kierkegaard overplayed his case, and under-estimated both the positive power of the press and the responsibility that some sections of it are prepared to take. But Dreyfus shows convincingly that Kierkegaard’s critical analysis fits perfectly the world of internet chat-rooms and newsgroups. Participation in such forums can be addictive, but it is, ultimately, a failure to engage. Moreover, because, as is true, what is said in such a forum really does not matter, and because if you get bored you can simply walk (virtually) away, it can encourage us to think that this is what human engagement is really about, and thus lead us towards nihilism. All very dramatic, you might say. But Dreyfus makes a compelling, and at times, quite chilling case.

Dreyfus mixes common-sense with sociological research, and makes obscure philosophers–Heidegger is invited to the party along with Kierkegaard–address some very contemporary issues with impressive clarity. And he gets us to think deeply about the internet, and to think about it in relation to deep and perennial questions about who we are and how we live. But, remarkably, he achieves all this in a short and highly readable volume.

Written sometime back in 2003


Review: Choice Products (two books on free will)

A book review of Daniel C. Dennett Freedom Evolves and Daniel N. Robinson Praise and Blame that I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement in 2003.

From the review:

To a point being good at maths might be biologically useful, but very quickly maths moves away from anything so utilitarian. As such we would expect it to reduce our biological fitness. But the maths thing has its own momentum, securing its influence at a pace that far outstrips the speed with which mere biological evolution can produce countermeasures. In the same way, the practice of reason asking and giving, and what follows in its wake, could also establish an influence independently of whether it makes us fitter or not.

This version includes the spelling error that the sub-editor and I both missed, but one TLS reader and letter writer did not. Can you spot it?