Steve Jobs: monster and genius

An insight into the man who crowdsourced his own marriage.

Steve Jobs was obsessive about the pursuit of perfection. When he bought a family home after his son was born, he didn't just pop to Ikea for a coffee table and some chairs. Oh no. "We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years," his wife, Laurene, says. "We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, 'What is the purpose of a sofa?'" (I know this one: it's to sit on.)

Walter Isaacson's biography of the Apple svengali is peppered throughout with such eyebrow-raising anecdotes. For several years up to his death in October, Jobs gave the writer his full co-operation, and did not (for once) attempt to exercise any control over how he was portrayed. The result sometimes feels less "warts-and-all" and more "all-warts".

The computer pioneer could be, in his own words, an "asshole". Colleagues said he projected a "reality distortion field", which convinced employees, rivals and the press that the impossible was possible. It sprang from a belief that the rules of normal behaviour did not apply to him. In the early days of Apple, he claimed his vegan diet meant he didn't need to shower, and he relaxed by soaking his feet in the loo ("a practice that was not as soothing for his colleagues", Isaacson writes drily). Pulled over for speeding in 1984, he waited for a few moments as the policeman wrote his ticket, then honked his horn impatiently. He was, he explained to the traffic cop, in a hurry.

Jobs may have cried frequently when crossed, but he could be frighteningly cold to those he believed had betrayed him. Often he would scream at employees and tell them their work was "totally shitty", even if he later embraced it - and took the credit. Jonathan Ive, the trusted English-born lieutenant whose close collaboration with Jobs led to the sinuous designs of the iPod and iPhone, is one of several friends who complain about this.

Yet perhaps the most shocking example of his callousness is one that Isaacson describes with little fanfare. After abandoning a pregnant girlfriend at 23 - Jobs's reality distortion field became a mirror and he convinced himself that he was not the father of her baby - he met a young graduate called Laurene Powell and proposed to her twice before she became pregnant. Then, abruptly, he broke up with her and crowdsourced a decision on their future, asking dozens of his friends if she was prettier than his ex. "It was probably fewer than a hundred,"saacson writes. (The two then married and lived happily for 20 years until his death.)

The triumph of this biography, however, is that Jobs's mountain of peccadilloes is weighted perfectly against his undeniable triumphs. Isaacson makes a convincing case that he was an artistic visionary with pure motives, driven only by a love of "the product". Jobs knew how to inflame desire for something you didn't even know you wanted: a computer with a graphical rather than text interface, a phone with no keyboard, a computer the size and thickness of a magazine.

He also ruthlessly exploited other companies' shortfalls. Take the graphical user interface - essentially, the use of a picture-based desktop rather than lines of text - that put the early Apple computers so far ahead of the competition. The interface was originally developed by a rival firm called Xerox Parc, but the management there did not understand its potential significance. Jobs did, and promptly appropriated it. (When Bill Gates used the same tool to design Windows, Jobs accused him of "ripping us off". Gates's reply is immensely endearing: "Well, Steve . . . I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbour called Xerox and I broke into his house to steal his TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.")

The comparison to Gates, his near-exact contemporary, is illuminating. The Microsoft man is cool, methodical and humane: Jobs was fiery, intuitive and unreasonably demanding. Their approaches to design were equally opposed, Gates believing in licensing Windows to any hardware manufacturer who would pay, while Jobs wanted "end-to-end control" of the user's experience.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed that Gates's promiscuous approach guaranteed him market dominance, until Jobs made a triumphant return to Apple in 1997, 11 years after being ousted in a boardroom coup, and led the company to greatness with a raft of iDevices. Apple surpassed Microsoft's valuation in May 2010, and last quarter it had larger cash reserves than the US Treasury.

The only duff moment here, aside from too much boardroom infighting for my taste, is when Jobs woos Bono to release U2's records on iTunes. The author retells the story breathlessly, but it is clear that behind the billing and cooing about artistic integrity, two monumental egos were jockeying shamelessly for supremacy.

Isaacson ends the book with Jobs slowly succumbing to the cancer that killed him last month. The unspoken question is whether Apple can thrive without its founder. This biography's great achievement is to interweave the personal and the professional, showing how Jobs the monster and Jobs the genius were indivisible. Apple may survive, but it will miss its monstrous genius.

Steve Jobs
Walter Isaacson
Little, Brown, 627pp, £25

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood