The Book of Jobs

By Maureen Tkacik
February 22, 2012

Steve Jobs smelled so foul that none of his co-workers at Atari in the seventies would work with him. Entreating him to shower was usually futile; he’d inevitably claim that his strict vegan diet had rid him of body odor, thus absolving him of the need for standard hygiene habits. Later, friends would theorize that he had been exercising what would prove a limitless capacity for sustained and gratuitous lying that came to be nicknamed the “reality distortion field.”

Jobs originally learned the “reality distortion field” from Bob Friedland, an enterprising hippie he met by chance one day when he returned early to his dorm room and found Friedland having sex with Jobs’ girlfriend. Bob was four years older than Steve, and had taken two years off to serve a prison sentence for LSD trafficking. Like Steve, Bob would eventually become a billionaire, just in the mining business. His followers would often invoke his old drug dealer nickname “Toxic Bob.”

Steve Jobs needed no nickname. As the title of his definitive biography reminds, Steve Jobs speaks for itself. His name was his essence, what set him apart even among greats like Einstein and Kissinger, iconic figures with whom he shared a biographer, Walter Isaacson (though not the cheesy, descriptive subheads Isaacson used in his books about the other two subjects).

Steve Jobs, the book, is very much a product of its time, which is to say, a product of its subject’s fastidious narcissism and the broader culture’s limitless capacity for nurturing it. With any luck future generations will saddle Steve Jobs, the brand, with the blemish of all the jobs (small “j”) a once-great nation relinquished because of brand-name billionaires like Jobs. But we are not there yet.

Arriving in stores all of a fortnight after his death, the book was instantly deemed by the New York Times as “clear, elegant and concise enough to qualify as an iBio.”

In truth Steve Jobs is the antithesis of concise, but words have a way of inverting meanings in the reality distortion field. Surely Isaacson might have dropped one of 92 references (according to Kindle) to Bob Dylan.

Sometimes the repetition serves a purpose: The drug LSD, referred to 33 times, is clearly important to Jobs. (The FBI thought the same, according to documents released this month.) “How many of you have taken LSD?” Jobs taunts an audience of Stanford business school students. “Are you a virgin? How many times have you taken LSD?” he demands of an Apple interviewee. Bill Gates would “be a broader guy if he had dropped acid.” Tripping was “one of the two or three most important things he’d done in his life.” People who had never dropped acid “would never fully understand him.” The generations that followed his own were more “materialistic” and less “idealistic” for not having tripped; also, they all looked like “virgins.” In the binary world within Steve’s reality, having consumed LSD was the key determinant of whether a colleague or employee was deemed “enlightened” or “an asshole.”

To iSummarize: Steve Jobs had a litmus test for evaluating workers: It was a lot like a literal litmus test.

***

Steve never learned to program computers, but he was far too skilled at manipulating people. He wooed all manner of women who were too good for him – such as Joan Baez, who was good enough for Bob Dylan to neglect in the sixties—only to discard them so thoughtlessly it seems like a joke. According to Baez, he experienced a “fervor of delight” while demonstrating a computer programmed to play a Brahms quartet and explaining that future generations of computer orchestras would sound better than humans, down to the innuendo and cadences. This filled Baez with “rage,” she recalled later on with evident amusement; it reinforced Jobs’ growing suspicion that she was “antiquated.” Later, Baez brought him to a dinner party at which he met a 20-year-old who became his new girlfriend.

Jobs’ love life is explored somewhat more laboriously in Steve Jobs than it was in the profile the FBI compiled in 1991 from interviews with 29 people who knew him. Jobs was being researched because the administration of the first President Bush was considering nominating him to the export council. His love life’s prominent role in both the book and his FBI profile underscores Jobs’ extreme consistency. There’s a jilted ex-girlfriend tone to the remarks of most people to whom Jobs was ever close, with the notable exception of the ex-girlfriends themselves, who have for the most part gotten over it. There is no “getting over” Jobs in business. One character witness offered a lengthy discourse to an FBI investigator on the “deceptive” Jobs and his propensity to “twist and distort reality in order to achieve his goals.” He then gave the names and phone numbers of three other individuals who might offer further insight into his cruelty, dishonesty, and deadbeat fatherhood. But finally he granted Jobs a hearty recommendation for the post:

[Redacted] concluded the interview by stating that even though he does not consider Mr. Jobs to be a friend, he possesses the qualities to assume a high level political position. It was [Redacted]’s opinion that honesty and integrity are not required qualities to hold such a position. [Redacted] recommended him for a position of trust and confidence with the government.

If honesty and integrity have no business in public service, they are a downright liability in private enterprise. At least Jobs didn’t usually pretend he believed they were anything else. His management maxim: “It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy.”

***

Curiously, Steve Jobs’ formative work experience came on a factory floor. He was only 14, but Bill Hewlett himself had given him a summer job on a Hewlett-Packard assembly line, and Jobs called him at home to ask if he’d send him some HP parts for his computer club. Jobs recalled the summer’s experience to Isaacson as a bittersweet rite of passage, evidently still stinging from being teased by a supervisor. The pubescent Jobs had gushed to the supervisor: “I love this stuff, I love this stuff.” He then asked the man what he liked to do best.

“To fuck, to fuck,” the guy responded mockingly.

From this Steve Jobs learned the power of public humiliation, especially when directed at possible “virgins.”

He also seems to have formed a significant grudge toward factories themselves. In 1982, he was so repulsed by the “messy and inelegant” sight of so much “work being done by hand” in a Tokyo Sony factory that he refused to order their disk drives. His underlings circumvented this particular decree by hiring a Sony engineer whom they banished to the closet whenever Jobs visited. But Jobs won out in the end, successfully commandeering an overhaul of the Mac production process to ensure that all its computers would emerge from a veritably dust-free, human-free assembly line. The walls were “pure white,” the robots red and blue and yellow. One of the most expensive robots, once given a new coat of paint, began to chronically malfunction. It was decommissioned. The human manufacturing director quit in solidarity.

“It took so much energy to fight him, and it was usually over something so pointless that finally I had enough,” the director said.

***


In the end, of course, Jobs would bow to shareholder demands and export the robots’ jobs to cheaper human laborers in China. But that is not part of Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, which makes zero mentions of Foxconn, the million-employee contract manufacturer that ultimately enabled the great iResurrection of America’s favorite iBrand.

Foxconn is a subsidiary of Hon Hai Precision, a Taiwanese contract manufacturer founded by a curious man named Terry Guo, who does not seem particularly astute at self-branding. He apparently wears an ancient Yuan Dynasty bracelet in honor of his supposed “personal hero,” Genghis Khan, but his management maxims sound suspiciously Confucian. “I always tell employees: The group’s benefit is more important than your personal benefit,” he once said to the Wall Street Journal. It’s better to join the navy than be a pirate, in other words.

Or is it? Guo’s factories employ 90 percent of Apple’s workers in exchange for less than 5 percent of its profits, all so they can consume approximately 99 percent of Apple’s negative press. Guo doesn’t talk to journalists often, but angry employees leaked some comments he made in January at a company annual “family day” at the Taipei Zoo. Taking the stage next to the zoo’s director, he compared Foxconn to his surroundings. “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” he said.

“What kind of animal jumps off a building?” an indignant Internet commenter wanted to know.

***

Sun Danyong started the Foxconn suicide trend in 2009, following a humiliating interrogation session with security. He texted his girlfriend, told his co-workers he was going to do “something big,” and jumped out of his 12th-story window.

Suicidal people aren’t often motivated by the thought of an ensuing international media event, unless they are planning on taking others down with them. But Sun proved right; his suicide was an international media event, and more improbably it was a media event that mattered, eventually winning his million co-workers a 30 percent raise and flooding their factories with earnest news reporters seeking to chronicle the conditions that might motivate such a bold move.

It was probably inevitable that the media missed the point. The lives of Chinese assembly line workers are not conducive to mainstream media coverage, as the former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie Chang concluded the morning she began writing Factory Girls, a 2008 book based on a series she’d written about life in the factory metropolis of Dongguan. After a few heated fights with the editor-voices in her head, she began writing in the second person, and a realization struck: She could never go back to newspapers, because “the journalistic voice strangles imagination.”

This becomes less and less bearable when you are attempting to convey life in a place where the imagined is relentlessly replacing reality, and vice versa. The lives of virtually all 1.6 billion Chinese have “changed beyond recognition over the past two decades,” she notes. Anyone who has visited twice will understand that to be an understatement; some things only take a month or so to become unrecognizable.

When imagination is off the table, you get coverage like CNN’s Foxconn series, in which CNN interviews a disgruntled Foxconn employee complaining of “dehumanization” and, lacking anything terribly sensational or sordid, asks her if she might be able to quantify that. We learn that the job entails sticking more than 4,000 stickers onto iPads each day.

In Factory Girls you learn that “dehumanization” is a pretty universal fear of migrant factory workers, but mostly because they are so much more acutely aware of humanity, and the vast spectrum of possibilities it can hold, than most people one encounters these days. It’s hard to explain why, but this renders Chang’s barely connected collage of scenes bizarrely gripping in a way that usually requires an elaborate plot. As she explains in the introduction, her subjects don’t have much in common beyond a kind of self-possession that reminded me of Sun Danyong: “They understood the drama of their own lives and knew why I wanted to write about them.” Their ambition is familiar in a way that reminds you of reality-show teenagers, but their priorities keep changing with the world. As the world around them gets richer, the meaning of wealth shifts; fear of dehumanization is the new fear of poverty.

***

The most inspiring passage of Steve Jobs is the part where Tina Redse refuses to marry him. It is the summer of 1989, they have been dating on and off for five years, and Tina has come closer than anyone to domesticating him. She has brokered peace between Steve and Chrisann Brennan, the mother of his 11-year-old daughter, a woman Jobs had so cruelly ignored after she got pregnant that she’d been reduced to scrawling messages on the walls of the house they shared. Tina has coaxed Jobs into being an occasionally decent dad (a change which would be mentioned somewhat incredulously by a number of the FBI interviewees two years later). She has moved in and out and in again. In one dark hour she left her own message on the walls:  “NEGLECT IS A FORM OF ABUSE.” But he claims she is the only woman he has ever truly loved, and she knows this is true enough.

It is not, however, enough. “I didn’t want to hurt him, yet I didn’t want to stand by and watch him hurt other people either,” she said later, describing the overall courtship experience as “painful and exhausting.”

Jobs, on the other hand, had 22 more years of pain and exhaustion to produce, so the reader is not so easily let off the hook.

And so each passing orgy of rage over the color of something made Steve Jobs more successful; each outlandish, last-minute demand made Steve Jobs richer.

***

I happened to move to Guangdong province the same summer as Tiananmen Square. My new home was far away from the protests, but shared Beijing’s compulsory poverty.

Mercifully everyone was getting richer, thanks to factories. A Nike factory opened that year, informing what would become an abiding, personal frustration with the anti-“sweatshop” movement. Back then, the movement seemed naively oblivious to the realities of everyday Chinese; today it seems more cruelly oblivious to the realities of everyday Americans. For 20 years now it has consistently cast Chinese laborers as victims, quantifying that victimhood by an arbitrary formula: How many hours of assembly line toil would be required to purchase whatever overpriced good they happened to be assembling?

But Chinese factories aren’t really sweatshops anymore — rather they’re some of the most sophisticated high-tech manufacturing plants in history. This is not because their workers assembled more and better sneakers every year. It is because China’s government, emulating that of Japan and Taiwan and Korea before it, subsidized industries that required rapid, constant change. And by doing that, China created a working class that is no longer so impoverished that it’s also powerless. Economic growth isn’t always pretty, but if you can legitimately make things better than they were for the majority of the population, it’s worth it.

Over two decades the quintessential Chinese factory worker has gone from earning $50 a month assembling $100 sneakers to $300 or so a month, depending on overtime, assembling $300 or so smartphones. If a Foxconn worker — given the other opportunities in life and the current no-cell-phone policy on the factory floor — was going to splurge on a smartphone, the only reason he wouldn’t buy an iPhone is that Apple products are inevitably a ripoff, which is the not-so-dirty secret of 31.5 percent operating margins.

Because when you work in a factory, brands lose a lot of mystique, as Chang demonstrates in Factory Girls when she experiences a mild panic attack after discovering, all at once, that a teenage subject’s beloved collection of Coach and LeSportsac handbags is not fake. The purse factory at which she works is actually a genuine, officially sanctioned Coach factory, and this is no big deal because she is friends with the security guards, who will let you take a bag out of the factory as long as you promise not to sell it to strangers.

Working at Foxconn is nothing like that. Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous; military” protocols the sneaker factories abolished in the early nineties govern every little process; countless rules seem intended purely to subjugate; and security guards are friends with no one, as Sun Danyong learned when an iPhone prototype in his car went missing in the summer of 2009. Foxconn security searched, interrogated, and tortured Sun in episodes he described bitterly to friends. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became.

So he jumped out of his 12th-story window to protest the perverse pathology that values inanimate objects over the humans that make them. Nowhere in his final text messages or chat transcripts did he mention long hours or low wages. The first news reports focused on Foxconn’s draconian confidentiality and non-compete agreements; in ensuing interviews with the Hong Kong labor rights organization Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), workers focused mostly on military training, standing, and other practices they described as “nonsense.”

But the nonsense works better closer to home. Excerpts of Adam Lashinsky’s new exploration of Apple’s vaunted “culture of collaboration,” Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–And Secretive–Company Really Works, detail a policy prohibiting employees from talking to one another about any topic about which both parties have not yet been officially “disclosed” — Distortionspeak for “cleared to discuss” — by a higher authority.

To be clear: Enforcing such a policy at a company that prides itself on collaboration is pretty much the textbook definition of “Orwellian.” It is also good for shareholder value and a practice that has stood the test of time: Forbidding workers from talking to one another keeps wages down, especially when senior management has struck deals with its rivals (as Apple allegedly did) agreeing to refrain from poaching one another’s talent.

***

Until a decade ago, I didn’t really consider what globalization meant for its really big winners: the corporate elite who reaped inflated margins. That profit was enabled by China’s low-cost manufacturing, along with price-distortion mechanisms of companies’ marketing departments and advertising agencies and intellectual property lawyers. But those are the people you meet as a domestic reporter at the Wall Street Journal, which is where I worked in 2002, when I first traveled to the blandly luxurious Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon. Scanning the landscape for possible stories, which at the Journal generally entailed some big and undisclosed line item, I wondered how the famous architects who designed the buildings made out compared with the famous athletes for whom the buildings had been named, versus the creative directors who shot the commercials, how they split the residuals, and how the executive I was about to interview stacked up against everyone else.

Anticipating the interview, I realized my breath urgently required gum and found a store with a grandmotherly cashier who was definitely the oldest person for miles. (There for stock options, presumably.)

“Oh, there’s no gum on the Nike campus,” she informed me, solemnly. “It’s Phil Knight policy.”

Assuming material was better than minty breath, I laughed and made a mental note to rib every executive I met about the Phil Knight Policy.

“I don’t know if I would call it a formal policy,” the first VP I asked said stiffly. “I think it’s just part of an overall standard of excellence.”

It gradually dawned on me after this encounter that much of the cultural nonsense I presumed had died with the tech bubble was alive and well. Especially wherever brands had adequately inoculated themselves against the threat of the proverbial “burst,” which in this case just happened to involve a ban on bubblegum. And the nonsense was proliferating. It occurred to me at some point that exploitation would be accepted as so fundamental to the general “lifestyle” that slavery itself could be recast in the jargon of “aspiration.”

***

In 2010, employees of a Bay Area Apple store learned that new hires were getting paid more than experienced staffers, and about a dozen agreed to bring it up during their upcoming performance reviews. One after another, the employees were simply given the same response:

“Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.”

***

In the end Steve Jobs’ contempt for human life did not exempt his own. He sacrificed himself thoughtlessly in one final and meaningless act, an act of radical branding so brave and revolutionary the media listed the cause of death as pancreatic cancer.

Of course, as we learn in Steve Jobs, to attribute Steve Jobs’ death to pancreatic cancer is to libel the cancer. In 2003 Steve Jobs had a pancreatic cancer scare that turned out to be a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, an extremely rare and slow-growing condition that accounts for only 1 percent of pancreatic cancer cases. It was the best-case scenario. His wife told Isaacson she remembered his doctors “tearing up with joy” when they learned the good news.

But then Steve Jobs refused to have surgery, once again putting all his faith and bullying, reality-blind certitude into his insufferable brand of sanctimonious veganism. This wasn’t a matter of passing up radiation and chemo; this was a matter of passing up every cancer patient’s dream of not even having to go through radiation and chemo.

“The big thing,” his wife explained to Isaacson, “was that he really was not ready to open his body,” as if such a move might jeopardize his manufacturer’s warranty. Then, burrowing into the depths of reality distortion, she added: “It’s hard to push someone to do that.”

WHAT IN KRISHNA’S NAME WAS HE DOING GETTING A BIOPSY THEN?!

But like all the other internal contradictions that seem to endlessly fascinate the punditry elite about Steve Jobs, this apparent conflict between Jobs’ profound affinity for technology and his bizarre unwillingness to allow it to save his life is another pointless straw man that only serves to further elide the very Jobsian simplicity that lies beneath:

There once lived one of those really obstinate assholes who will constantly tell you he couldn’t change his assholic ways if it killed him. It killed him.

There once lived a pathological liar who convinced the world his particular habits of lying were the foundation of his astonishing business success. That turned out to be a lie.

There once lived a drug dealer named Toxic Bob who taught Steve Jobs how to emit noxious fumes and lie about it. Toxic Bob made billions extracting riches from the earth and leaving the toxins behind for the government to clean up. Toxic Bob now resides in Singapore, where chewing gum is against the law.

Both men stayed very true to their brands.

PHOTOS: REUTERS/Stringer; REUTERS/Bobby Yip; REUTERS/Robert Galbraith; REUTERS/Donald Chan; REUTERS/Rick Wilking; REUTERS/Seth Wenig; REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco; FILE

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