I used to tick my wife off before every Apple keynote by telling her that Steve was coming down from the mountaintop to show us the direction of computing and technology for the next six months or year or whatever. So I make no bones about my admiration for the guy. My take on Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve is not the same as what most of the press has been saying, and while it’s interesting that Steve had some ideas for television, that’s not what I’m going to write about. So here are some points that come out of the book.
- Steve was a jerk—Jean Louis Gassee is quoted as describing himself as a recovering a**aholic. I know that description is true of me, and probably of most people. Steve had his problems too. Notably his hygiene, which in his early years appears to have been non-existent. He was convinced that his diet eliminated body odor. Sorry, Steve, that’s caused by bacteria on the surface of your skin, not by what you put in your body. He mistreated his friends, and was abusive of employees. Granted. He mistreated lovers and his daughter Lisa. Granted. On the other hand he spurred people on to do good work, and he was capable of seeing the benefit of turning the computer into a mass market device. If Steve Wozniak, who is an adorable bear of a guy, had had his way the Apple would still be a hobbyist machine. Now I can and have soldered capacitors, resistors, and transistors in my day, but why would I want to build a computer prior to writing my novel? It’s easier to buy it, and get started on the novel. Steve saw that; Woz didn’t. Steve insisted that good enough for government work was not good enough for Apple.
- Spirituality—Steve, like many people, wanted a spiritual life, and either did not know where to look in Western religion, or was turned off by early incidents, and looked to the East for religious inspiration. Like myself and many others of our generation he also tried drugs as a shortcut. The description of the religious seekers that Steve associated with also shows that while they wanted a religious or spiritual life, they were also sexually active, and not necessarily in a monogamous way. Now at some point in Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, you have to make a renunciation of desire. Buddha, at least in the Hinayana, or Theraveda tradition, attributes suffering to desire. Teresa of Avila, in her Interior Castle, describes the first of the seven mansions as filled with snakes and reptiles. Those are the snakes and reptiles of desire. Hinduism, to the best of my knowledge, conceives of a variety of stages in human life, the final one being one of renunciation. Unless you’re willing to take the step of renunciation, no matter what you do, you’re not going to make much progress in any religious tradition.
- The Intersection of Humanities and Technology—Steve spoke of Apple as standing at the intersection of liberal arts and technology. Some might think that because of the emphasis that he had on design that he’s thinking of merely graphic design but at one point he mentions that some of the people who worked at Apple were poets and philosophers in their non-Apple lives. Interestingly that ties in with Toy Story.
- Final Causation and Toy Story—Aristotle identifies four types of causation. The last one is final causation. What is the thing made for. Isaacson brings out that the team behind Toy Story asked themselves what is a toy for. It is to be played with, and to be a source of joy to a child. If the child ceases to play with it, it loses the sense of its purpose, it loses, if you will, its joie de vivre. So the emotions that the toy feels arise from its knowledge of the purpose given to it by its creator. We’re very far from existential angst here, and right in the realm of classical metaphysics.
- Vegetarianism—Steve was a vegetarian. Now you can be a vegetarian and be healthy. You have to observe certain guidelines, like eating rice with beans so that you get a complete protein, all of the amino acids. What you cannot do is go crazy, and eat only lettuce, or only greens, or something like that. If you’ve got cancer, and you’re a vegetarian, particularly with the kind of cancer that Steve had, you need to get protein through foods that will produce that substance. Rice and beans, eggs, if you’re diet/religion will allow them, and whatever else. Steve had crazy diets, and I think those, and his failure to get treatment earlier, killed him.