Show Hide image

The great illusionist

A study of Steve Jobs, the visionary behind the success of Apple, doesn’t quite discover what drives

Inside Steve’s Brain: Business Lessons from Steve Jobs, the Man Who Saved Apple
Leander Kahney
Atlantic Books, 224pp, £8.99

There are, said F Scott Fitzgerald, no second acts in American lives. Steve Jobs is already on his third or fourth. There used to be a popular collection of essays about the Model T Ford entitled The Machine That Changed the World. Any time soon, someone will blow the dust off that cliché for a story about the iPod. It has already been called “the perfect thing”, the title chosen by Steven Levy for his 2007 book about how this gorgeous, lapidary device changes the way we think. Ford rearranged geography with petrol, but Apple Computer’s iPod rearranges thought with electrons. The estimate is that sales will flatten at 500 million, by which point it will be the most successful electronic product ever.

And Apple Computer is the creation of Steve Jobs. Born on 24 February 1955, in the same year as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Jobs’s story-arc has a mythic, legendary dimension altogether different from the Seattle lawyer’s son, even though their destinies are as interwoven as Fibrox cable. Jobs, the illegitimate child of San Francisco graduate students, was given up for adoption to a working-class family living in Mountain View, California. At that time, Mountain View was fruit orchards; now it is Silicon Valley.

By every account – including his own: “I would absolutely have ended up in jail” – Jobs was a difficult, rebellious child. Saved from the California corrections system by a teenage interest in dismantling televisions, he developed a personal culture that mixed hippie-dippy Hare Krishnaism with hobbyist electronics. Jobs built his first computer in his bedroom in 1977. Apple went public in 1980, the biggest flotation since Ford in 1956. He was a multimillionaire by the time he was 25.

In 1984 Jobs launched the Macintosh, a synthesis of existing technologies and smart consumer design whose intuitiveness and cuteness were intended to undermine the galumphing corporate tedium of IBM, whose personal computers then led the market. The Mac was launched with Orwellian adverts, directed by Ridley Scott, pitching it as the thinking person’s choice in the office war against Big Brother.

Then, in 1985, even though Jobs had never actually been expelled from school, he managed to get expelled from his own company, stabbed in the front by a dull, suited CEO of the very type he had designed his business to subvert. In a huff, he went off to plot revenge and, incidentally, to found Pixar, the computer animation business that now dominates the sector. Although his enemies accused him of petulance and baroque arrogance, Apple, in his absence, lost confidence, became muddled, lacked direction and seemed doomed. There is much, it seems, to be said for petulance and arrogance.

By 1997, after a lost decade for Apple, he was back and all the rest is computer science fiction. In Steve Jobs’s second coming, Apple’s product line was hugely simplified and a commitment was made to fascination and to beauty. Fabulous products – colourful iMacs, stunning studio displays, the iPod, the iPhone – soon followed. As a youth, Jobs had been interested in calligraphy and he insisted a keen aesthetic sense be applied to every aspect of Apple’s business. So you get ravishing packaging and stores like modern art museums, products like jewellery and clever ads.

In a way that the glazed-eyed early modernists could not even have imagined, Jobs made the whole consumer experience into a work of art. Here, if proof were needed, are the benefits of total design. In 2004, however, he was diagnosed with a potentially fatal cancer. Apple guarded his privacy, as it generally does, and a happy reprieve followed – only for him to stop making public appearances early this year. Apple PR blames a “hormone imbalance” caused by (perhaps unorthodox) treatment stratagems.

Inside Steve’s Brain attempts to understand the psychology of this extraordinary man whose achievements combine elements of Ford, Edison, P T Barnum, Walt Disney, Akio Morita, Bob Dylan and Howard Hughes. In a sense, Jobs is the ultimate corporate personality, in that he understands and interferes in every aspect of Apple’s business. He identifies completely with the company he has created, something psychologists may attribute to a lost sense of belonging arising from his adoption. Yet, despite his visibility, he is secretive and rarely gives interviews.

So the question of what actually goes on in Steve’s brain is a matter of speculation. But some things are clear. Jobs is a 164GB exemplar of the creative type. He has a persuasive vision and will not be diverted from it. He charms and insults in turn. He is no respecter of authority. Numberless correspondents have described him as an “artist” and, rather as Picasso said, “Great artists don’t borrow, they steal”, so there is very little new technology in any Apple product. Instead, you get masterful borrowings. The technology that drives an iPod was well established twenty years ago. The extinct Digital Equipment Corporation used to make one, but it was as ugly as a car battery.

Apple is a success because it makes beautiful machines that excite an almost unbearable itch to consume. Understanding this psychosexual physicality, Jobs himself says a design is good if you want to lick it. But, beyond that, Apple is something else. There is something of the Messiah about Steve Jobs and what he has created is not so much a business as a religion. It is a belief system and all its customers pay tribute in the form of premium prices for products that make them feel good. (I don’t listen to music but I have three iPods.)

So, what can we learn after a visit to Steve’s brain? Certainly, the primacy of the creative spirit. And that means cussed. Jobs used to sack people on the spot if they could not explain what they were doing there and then. He can be so difficult that it has been suggested he may suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy”. Yet you could say the same about any successful leader.

In Kahney’s book you can find the perfect metaphor for Apple’s controlling genius: while computer nerds enjoy fiddling inside the box, Jobs insisted that the first Mac be entirely sealed. The screws holding its case together could be released only by using a rare, four-foot-long screwdriver. Kahney has not had access to a similar tool to get inside Steve’s brain, but he gives us a compelling tour around it.

Stephen Bayley was founder director of the Design Museum, London

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know

Show Hide image

Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.