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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steve Jobs: The Anti-Hero dies.

In the saga of "The World Has Lost a Genius" of the last two weeks, I feel compelled to point out that in dying, many people gloss over or ignore the flaws in a person's character.

In short, Steve Jobs died.

And Steve Jobs was, to put it nicely, one of the world's biggest assholes.

Sure, he made your phone, and commanded the design team that rebuilt Apple as a premium computer, and had an attitude of "We'll release it when it's perfect". He was a brilliant technological leader. He was a marketing and creative director without comparison in his time, and he was relentless in the pursuit of quality and function (not perfection - anyone who's tried to make Apple products play nice with other products on the market might reserve judgement).

But he also built slave labor factories in China.

He sent his critics rude, slimy emails, haranguing them into the ground, removing their access and ability to see Apple products if he didn't like what they said.

He didn't want to talk to his fans - at his own events. He blew people off who set up meetings years in advance. He routinely flipped people off when they made salient points in news conferences.

When he had a diagnosis of [X] months to live, he flooded transplant waiting lists and bumped people who'd been waiting years for theirs to get to the top of the list. He paid people off.

If he made it to an Apple meeting, he'd derail it, humiliate the presenter, and take center stage as to why it was a waste of his and everyone's time. Employees dreaded it. Conversations were recorded in the Apple cafeteria that referred to Jobs as "The Asshole".

He fired people who made simple mistakes - people whose entire careers had been pursued only to sit at the feet of the Master, to work for Jobs, to take pay cuts and do incredibly long hours just to be able to say "I work for Apple".

He routinely parked in handicapped spaces at Apple in his unplated (that's no license plate) Mercedes Benz - with no handicapped sticker, hanger, etc.

He did what could only be described as wanton, egregious cruelty and manipulation to the man who built Apple as a computer company - Steve Wozinak (and frankly, that guy is my personal geek-cred hero).

And at the end of his life the culture of Steve Jobs began to take a life of its own. For design and creative geeks who would fight to save fifty cents on a can of beans at the grocery store, he was the person who built the machine that said you were an individual. A rebel. To someone who compared the components of his computers, he was the man who knew how to spin the widespread hammerlocks on his company's technology into a badge of honor among his adherents, and took credit for the brilliant design of others' work.

Steve Jobs never designed the iPod. He didn't design the interfaces of the computers. He approved them. He browbeat his people into making perfection and being meticulous about the process. And then he sold their work.

By being the man who sold the work of his minions, he was credited with the wild success of the Apple products.

Steve Jobs was a complete asshole. He was a successful asshole, and so the world loved him, because success so often allows cover ups of the character flaws. But when the world speaks of Steve Jobs, they talk only about his miraculous success. Not that he was worse than most of the Evil People of Microsoft, that his entire fiscal policy revolved around himself, that he never gave away money, or that his entire career and life was built upon the destruction and manipulation of others. Had he been born five or six hundred years previously, he would fit beautifully along the manipulative, effective, cruel Borgia popes and slave-trading mercenaries of the Venetian nobility - not the Leonardo da Vincis, the Galileos, or Shakespeareans.

In essence, Steve Jobs was not a creative genius. He was not an icon of brilliance of design or simplicity. He was a cruel, ruthless, relentlessly perfectionist bastard who had an iron grip on his company and ran it in a culture of fear, reprisal, and retribution. He used people; he institutionalized top-down control over products and he routinely screwed people who wanted to work with him.

It wasn't likely that he'd step down or move on to other things, and so it is only with his death that Steve Jobs can longer run Apple like the Inquisition on crack.

When viewing Jobs as a professional, I cannot mourn his death. I look at his successes and I think that he made some contributions to the world, but he wasn't a genius. He wasn't a Great Man. He was a Great Flaming Asshole, and while he got some stuff done, in ten years' time his legacy shall only be that he got the world to plug in their headsets and listen to overpriced downloadable music.

I realize this isn't a popular take on his life and times, but I also think Steve Jobs knew what he was, what he was doing, and was content with that role in his life. He described the movie The Pirates of Silicon Valley as accurate and praised the actor portraying him. The actor - Noah Wylie - made him out to be a manipulative, scheming, explosively angry man who destroyed people on a whim.

In the end at our deaths we forgive many of the trespasses that we have made upon the world and those whom we have touched. It's possible that Jobs did this at his end, and for those he loved and who loved him, that may be enough. But to blind ourselves to the measure of the man who dies and to hide away the darkness of his character is to do ourselves and the person who dies a disservice.

To say this to his family and friends, and those still mourning his loss would be yet another act of an asshole, and so I can only say that I would never wish to injure his loved ones at a time of grief. I don't know if he played basketball with his kids or made ebleskivers every Sunday morning, or tucked them into bed at night, or as he lay dying wrote each of them a book about his life with them, or told them how much he loved them. That's their private grief, and nobody can share that with them.

But those who aren't grieving - who are merely commenting and lauding Steve Jobs because of the things he did - they should know better.

Jobs was an asshole, and he knew it. He was a magnificent asshole, but he is not someone whose passing is truly mourned. He was an icon - and as George Armstrong Custer and many other cultural fixtures are, will likely be viewed with rosy-tinted glasses for years to come.

But frankly, I saw the measure of the man when he was alive. And I for one do not mourn his passing as a professional. As someone who died far too young of cancer, yes, I can say his passing is sad. But those lauding him are not judging him based on his life as a man. They're judging him based on his life as a cultural icon. And believe me when I say we have much better men to look to as examples of how to both be a role model, an effective leader, and a person.

Nobody wants to speak ill of the dead, for fear that when they die, others will speak ill of them. And the sad truth is that even the most glorious, sanctified person on Earth will be vilified in the hearts of others. You can't live life without having people hate you, or love you, or ignore you. It is simply the way things are.

One line of of Joss Whedon's Firefly seems accurate - "Every man who had a statue put up of him was one kind of son of a bitch or the other." In Jobs' case, it seems to be (like many other things about him) truer than most. He may have been a great man of industry and may have had brilliant success hitting the target of design, usability, and marketing genius, but he was not a saint.

His passing is just that. The end of a life. Let's not pretend he was other than he was, and let's quiet down the Anti-Hero worship. He deserved nothing less.

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