Steve Jobs never lived to be an old wise man.
“Imagine yourself as an old person looking back on your life,” Jobs wrote in a June 2005 email to himself as he was preparing to give the Stanford commencement speech. “Your life will be a story. It will be your story, with its highs and lows, its heros and villains, its forks in the road that mean everything.” The book, published by the Steve Jobs Archive, will be released on Apple Books and the Steve Jobs Archive website. The fact that it aesthetically resembles an Apple product — mostly gray and white, minimalist — is no coincidence: It was designed by LoveFrom, the firm founded by Jony Ive, Apple’s former chief design officer.
Few people in recent history have been as well chronicled as Jobs. He first appeared on the cover of Time magazine before he turned 27. There are more than 162,000 YouTube videos of his speeches. Walter Isaacson’s biographical tome runs to more than 600 pages.
But Laurene Powell Jobs wanted people to be able to directly hear her husband of 20 years. “He has been written about, but this is actually his writing and his work,” she said. “So there’s no intermediary.”
In the more than 11 years since Jobs died, technology has accelerated exponentially. He foresaw the rise of personal computing and the ubiquity of the internet years in advance. But technology triumphalism has faded over the past decade amid phone addiction, social media disinformation and other societal scourges.
“Technology doesn’t want to be good or bad,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, who Jobs hired in 1998. “It’s in the hands of the creator whether it becomes good or bad.” Cook is distributing a hardcover copy of the book to Apple employees as a reminder that “the purpose of the company is to make the best products in the world that really enrich people’s lives and leave the world better than we found it.”
The recent rise of generative AI — artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT that can create texts or images and hold humanlike conversations — has thrust us into a new era of technology and of freshly urgent ethical debates about it. It is dividing tech leaders, with some, including Elon Musk, calling for a moratorium on training more powerful AI systems so that their risks can be evaluated. Powell Jobs says Jobs, in the current context, “would speak even more loudly about the need for us to have a certain philosophy about it and to pay attention to what could be unintended consequences.”
Culturally, technology is so focused on the future that lessons from the past are often neglected. And when the past is revisited, it can seem less glorious than before, as in Malcolm Harris’s new book, “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World.” At this moment, when AI is rattling society, its creators seemingly prone to repeat the hasty mistakes of previous tech innovators, the Jobs book serves, in part, as a warning to ground technology in humanity.
“The ability to put something back into the pool of human experience is extremely neat,” Jobs said in 1983, after Apple introduced its Lisa computer. Twenty-four years later, the year of the iPhone launch, he said: “One of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there.”
For Jobs, that manifested through making products, not a memoir. “That was never something that he intended to take the amount of time it would require to do,” Powell Jobs said. “One never knows, as life goes on, whether there would be a desire for that.” Disney CEO Bob Iger, who befriended Jobs when Disney partnered with and later purchased Pixar, said, “I exhorted him to sit with a producer and a camera and tell his story. In his last six months, he never got around to doing that.”
Instead, the preservation of Jobs’s legacy has been taken up by the Steve Jobs Archive, which launched last year with a website featuring a small selection of the kinds of emails and speech excerpts that appear in the book. The idea for the book grew out of an initial 40-page pamphlet that the group behind the archive, led by Silicon Valley historian Leslie Berlin, mocked up in 2017. As they kept adding items, especially photos, it grew into a book of about 250 pages.
Some of the photos have never been made public before, such as one of a note on Pixar letterhead that reads: “Steve, President Clinton is holding.” Then there’s the Polaroid portrait, provenance unknown, chosen as the front-cover image: a young Jobs in a tuxedo, looking enigmatic.
The book’s material, ordered chronologically, focuses on Jobs’s inner thoughts, philosophies and mantras more than his business decisions or how he became one of the preeminent corporate leaders of his time. “We don’t need a book that tells us what he did, because we have examples of that every day in our lives,” Iger said. “But a book that really brings us inside him and tells us who he was — it’s very intimate.”
“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you,” he wrote in 1994. “And the minute you can understand that you can poke life, and if you push in, then something will pop out the other side; that you can change it, you can mold it — that’s maybe the most important thing: to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there, and you’re just going to live in it versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.”
Those closest to Jobs describe his desire to give back his knowledge and nurture younger people, traits most evident in the commencement speeches he gave. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” he told graduates in his famous speech at Stanford, where he audited classes after dropping out of college. He borrowed the closing line from the Whole Earth Catalog, a publication that celebrated tools and helped to inspire the technological revolution of the 1970s.
In a lesser-known episode, he spoke to the 1996 graduating class at Palo Alto High School, which included his oldest child, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. “Think of your life as a rainbow arcing across the horizon of this world,” he told them. “You appear, have a chance to blaze in the sky, then you disappear.” A photo of Jobs’s draft of that speech includes scribbled notes at the bottom that didn’t make it into the final version: “They tell you that you will love your kids. Never mention that you will fall in love with them.”
In other people’s telling, Jobs could be abrasive and dismissive, berating his employees and spurning his family. Brennan-Jobs, who was born to Jobs and Chrisann Brennan several years before Jobs met and married Powell Jobs, wrote her own 2018 memoir of growing up with her turbulent father, “Small Fry.” “Make Something Wonderful” tiptoes around some of these traits. In the preface to a section of excerpts dedicated to Jobs’s early days at Apple, in the 1980s, Berlin writes delicately that his “management style was dismissive.”
In contrast with all his time in the public eye, Jobs’s emails to himself are a mental version of dancing like no one is watching. “They’re quite rarefied and intimate glimpses, because the conversations that you have with yourself tend to be the most candid, the most honest,” Ive said.
In 2003, after the iTunes music store debuted, Jobs emailed himself playlists of his favorite songs and the memories some of them evoked. About Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green,” a song about giving up a daughter for adoption, he wrote, “Maybe it’s because I’m adopted, but this song moves me like few others. After I realized what this song was about, I cry every time I hear it.”
In the last email to himself included in the book, from September 2010, Jobs reflects on the fact that the world he lives in — the food he eats, the language he speaks, the medical treatment he receives — were all invented and grown by others. “I love and admire my species, living and dead, and am totally dependent on them for my life and well being,” he wrote. The final words are “Sent from my iPad.”
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