A Harsh Attack on Steve Jobs, By Way of a Review (Not Mine) of His Biography

12/26/2011

It is not often my wont to criticize what other journalists and bloggers write, but I came across a review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on the elitist New York Review of Books web site (the same one which, a couple of weeks ago, a conspiracy-theory fueled article about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair). I’ve subscribed to the NYRB off and on over the years, but the type of attack articles they’ve taken to publishing pretty much ensures that I won’t do so again.

I read the Steve Jobs biography, which is certainly no surprise, since I write about Apple products. (If you haven’t read it yet, it’s about half-price on Amazon.com.) Fittingly, I read it on my iPad. I have to admit that I found it painful to read. I had long heard stories about Jobs’ mercurial personality, but reading it in such harsh detail was brutal and shocking. I think it’s fair to write about the biography, and about Jobs, and point out strengths and weaknesses in books, but the NRYB’s approach is to tell the entire story of a book in a “review,” which is especially problematic for a novel. Do you really want to know most of what happens in a novel before you read it? Over the years, I managed to avoid such reviews, unless I had already read the novels in question.

In this “review,” then, the author, Sue Halpern, tells the story of Steve Jobs. She is harshly critical of Jobs, and of Apple in general. Of Jobs himself, she says:

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man, cruel even to his best friend Steve Wozniak, derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read.

I have to agree with part of the above. While I wouldn’t use some of the adjectives that Halpern uses, I did find the book painful to read, and ended up skipping over parts of it.

But where Ms. Halpern goes wrong is in blaming Apple for the woes of the world:

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

Ms. Halpern seems to think that Apple is, if not the only manufacturer of computers and cellphones, most likely the largest and most responsible for their impact. In fact, Apple’s market share for computers is in the single digits, and while iPhones sell well, Apple’s market share is slipping in that sector. (Apple actually only sells fewer than 5% of all cellphones in the world.)

It’s convenient to attack Apple as a poster child for the computer industry, as was common with Microsoft a decade ago. But it’s not hard to look up statistics to back up the claim quoted above, which is the final paragraph of Ms. Halpern’s review. I’ll accept her judgement of the book, but her knowledge of the computer and cellphone industry is seriously lacking. The New York Review of Books could use some fact-checkers to avoid such a blatant personally-motivated attack.