A series of abstracts examining who Steve Jobs was, how he viewed the world and how he shaped the future.
The Holy Mountain is a whirling, terrifying masterpiece. Full of flesh, magic and horror. The film was created in 1973 by Mexican auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky, and- being limited by the physical medium of the time- was only shown at select film festivals and screenings. Jodorowsky’s ability to blend the obsessions of the '60s and early '70s: psychedelia, transgression and the occult, leave The Holy Mountain a vital achievement. In many ways, the film is the reverse of The Beatles’ legendary album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, often seen as the definitive statement of that generation. Offensive instead of populist, alienating instead of inviting. But powered by the same vigour and vision. Allen Klein, manager of the Beatles produced the film- while John Lennon and Yoko helped fund the project.
Within its disjoint, The Holy Mountain strips the logical world away. Replaced by a twist of metaphor, mocking the audience for even watching. The plot focuses on a character known as ‘The Fool’ who is sent, along with 7 planets, an alchemist and his silent assistant, to the vast Holy Mountain- on top of which the secret of immortality lies. Waxworks burn, stormtroopers march and arcane rituals are performed. Human bodies pile up bloodied and sacrifices are threatened. At the top of the mountain The Fool’s conceit fails, and the characters and audience are sent forth, “Goodbye Holy Mountain, Real Life Awaits us!”
The only consistent theme throughout the film is a burning dislike of conformity- and a willingness to offend and profane at every level. The struggle of the post-war generation to break free of their parents stifling hold leads to their most unsettling artwork.
In 1974, Steve Jobs had a similar, puzzling encounter with a holy mountain. Jobs was travelling in India, performing his international pilgrimage on the Hippie Trail. De rigueur for every child of the sixties. Finding himself in an unknown village during a festival, Jobs was befriended by a Baba holy man. Fascinated by the foreigner in their midst. Jobs was pulled away from the jubilant crowds and led alone up a mountain.
"He didn't speak much English and I spoke a little Hindi, but he tried to carry on a conversation and he was just rolling on the ground with laughter."
"We get to the top of this mountain half an hour later and there's this little well and pond at the top of this mountain, and he dunks my head in the water and pulls out a razor from his pocket and starts to shave my head."
"I'm completely stunned. I'm 19 years old, in a foreign country, up in the Himalayas, and here is this bizarre Indian Baba who has just dragged me away from the rest of the crowd, shaving my head atop this mountain peak. I'm still not sure why he did it."
On top of the Holy Mountain, the place that promises ascension- is only confusion.
One of the legacies of World War Two was the loss of permanence across the western world. The horrors of the Nazi regime and the collapse of the old European Empires sent a sharp crack across the traditional pillars of society. Structures of nation, tradition and religion were no longer comforting- they were oppressive. Their excesses had caused the war, two wars, and they had to go.
As the generation that fought WW2 had children, and as those children grew up in the post-war ruins, they took on this transformative task. Sexual liberation rolled out, class strictures were loosened and culture turned towards the youth. Armed with a growlingly sophisticated understanding of power and how it was wielded, across race, gender and class lines; and developing their own potent culture through which to transmit their ideas, the ‘60s generation closed the door on the Old World.
The United States, with its claimed ideals of liberal democracy, individual rights, and entrepreneurship was to be the nexus for their brighter New World. While the war had brittled and burned Europe, it had made America strong. Spreading its troops and culture across the planet. Only the Soviet Union, with its sclerotic planned economy, and dour Politburo, offered an alternative vision. And against Levi Jeans and Elvis Presley, it could not compete. Self-expression and individualism were to be the New World’s mantra. We were going to break the mental chains of history, and a become better, enlightened humans.
Into this tumult, Steve Jobs was born. In San Francisco, right at the heart of planet counter-culture. 1955, making him an exact Baby Boomer. His biological father Abdulfattah "John" (al-)Jandali grew up in Homs, Syria, while his birth mother Joanne Schieble was Catholic, raised on a farm in Wisconsin. Schieble’s family objected to her transgressive relationship with Jandali, and so baby Steve was put up for adoption. He was adopted and raised by Paul and Clara Jobs, who Steve considered to be his ‘real’ parents throughout his life.
His blend of immigrant family background, adoption, and the working-class nature of his foster parents make Jobs an exemplar of the opportunities and challenges his generation faced. What place did he have in the Old World of race, propriety and tradition? To Steve Jobs, the task of creating a fresh paradigm for humanity weighed heavy. To create a world where he belonged.
I'm an optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble and honourable, and some of them are really smart. I have a very optimistic view of individuals. As individuals, people are inherently good. I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups.
-Steve Jobs, Wired, 1996
And Technology was the tool Jobs would use to create this world. Using capitalism, individual grit, and the spiritual curiosity of the ‘60s, he would allow each of us to belong. Wherever we were from, wherever we were going.
Jobs was as close to a true believer in capitalism as it is possible to get. As he saw it, capitalism could be used, not just as a way to generate wealth, but as a means to transmit ideas. To get products which fostered imagination into the hands of the people. And if those objects were useful, if they improved lives and made them richer- fuller, then capitalism could become a distribution system. A lifeline transmitting energy outwards.
In this sense Jobs is one of his generation. While the Baby Boomer’s attitude to social conservatism was one of flat rejection, their relationship to capitalism was complex. Nebulous even. The appeal of rival Soviet communism was muted, especially after the 1956 crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. Other systems, like communes, anarchism or “off the grid” living had a decent cultural impact but failed to shift the mechanisms of society. Rejection of ‘the system’ was certainly popular, yet capitalism weathered the sixties better than any other pillar of western society.
This was no accident. America was the force of the era, the place youth across the globe looked to for guidance. And America was capitalism. Rock'n' Roll, Coca Cola, Blue Jeans. If you wanted to play you had to pay. If you like those Bob Dylan records, if you want that Stratocaster and those bell bottoms, you better cough up. After all, the things you buy are an expression of who you are. So the flower children repurposed capitalism. They took over the reins from their parents, dressed in their tie-dye and bangles.
They blended traditional capitalist ideals of hard work and competition, with their own explosion of self-expression and personal vitality. Capitalism didn’t just have to be about selling butter, dishes and soap. It could give us meaning. We could buy and sell ourselves into peace & love. This was capitalism as soundtracked by The Who. And Steve Jobs would be its standard bearer.
"Apple's engineering teams had passion. They always believed that what they were doing was important and, most of all, fun. Working at Apple was never just a job; it was also a crusade, a mission, to bring better computer power to people. At its roots that attitude came from Steve Jobs. It was "Power to the People", the slogan of the sixties, rewritten in technology for the eighties and called Macintosh."
—Jeffrey S. Young, Steve Jobs: The Journey is the Reward (1987)
The Jobs family was rugged and blue-collar but placed their new child Steve in an extremely lucky position. Steve grew up in California, hitting his teenage years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Right on the very cusp of ‘Silicon Valley’ as we now know it. The state was blossoming with technology companies- computer technicians and programmers. IBM, HP, Intel, the very first tech super-companies were spreading their influence steadily across society. And their workers had to live somewhere.
In the pre-internet era, the best way to connect with people was to be physically in the same location. So for Jobs to be placed in Los Altos, so close that he could reach out and touch the Valley, was remarkable. He made all the use out of the opportunity he could.
It was in these sprawling, electric suburbs that Jobs met his long-time partner Steve Wozniak. Steve was 5 years older than Jobs, and the two connected over their enthusiasm for the blossoming world of computing (and their shared love of pranks). They also famously visited the super-influential Home Brew Computer Club together. Jobs was the brains Wozniak was the (tech) brawn- Jobs the ideas and Woz the creation. Impressed by the computer designs Wozniak was producing, and convinced he could turn them into a profitable business, Jobs persuaded Wozniak to start a company with him. On 1st April 1976 Apple Computing Co. was formed.
"Basically Steve Wozniak and I invented the Apple because we wanted a personal computer. Not only couldn't we afford the computers that were on the market, those computers were impractical for us to use. We needed a Volkswagen. The Volkswagen isn't as fast or comfortable as other ways of travelling, but the VW owners can go where they want when they want and with whom they want. The VW owners have personal control of their car."
Young, Jeffrey S. (1987). Steve Jobs: The Journey Is the Reward.
To take computing out of the vaults of the elite and the corporate, and into the living rooms of America, seems obvious. It's such a blunt truism in 2019- why shouldn’t everyone have access to a computer? But in the late '70s, the ambition of Jobs was Promethean. Everyone must have the power to self-actualise, everyone must have the tools the chart their own course. The promise of computing, dynamism and power: for everyone.
One of the most important steps towards this goal was the Macintosh personal computer line. The system by which Jobs first achieved his goal of simple, affordable computing for the masses. Building on the success of their popular Apple II model the Macintosh 128K, launched in January 1984. Macintosh was the first commercial computer to feature a graphical interface, screen and mouse combination. Giving every purchaser the power to easily interact with the system. The idea showed enormous potential, and as a consequence, the Macintosh was reiterated on intensely. Each one improving on power, form and functionality. The series stretches from its launch to the present day- from desktops to laptops- a byword for the power of personal computing.
The launch of the Macintosh was also preceded by one of Apple’s greatest, bluntest, commercials. Largely regarded as one of the best adverts of all time. Titled simply ‘1984’ the ad drew inspiration from the George Orwell book of the same name. A room full of grey, uniformed drones march through a bleak dystopia. They sit in a large theatre listening to a blaring, video of Big Brother haranguing them about the dangers they face. Imploring them to know their place for their own safety and security- this world is their only hope.
Down the aisle comes running a glamorous Olympian, brilliant blonde hair, dressed in tight white and orange- wielding a sledgehammer. As the tempo ratchets up and the speech becomes more frantic she reaches the front of the auditorium. At the climax, she triumphantly swings the hammer around her- launching it skyward with a yell. Smashing the screen in an explosion of electricity. The crowd, now bathed in light, sit amazed.
Bringing fire down from the Gods and spreading it among the people.
“I don’t know how to answer you. In the broadest context, the goal is to seek enlightenment — however you define it.”
-Steve Jobs, Rolling Stone, 1994
Jobs blended his passion for technology with an equal zeal for ideas. His travels in India and his fascination with Zen Buddhism would follow him throughout his career.
He was especially good at repurposing spiritual concepts to business scenarios. Famously basing the minimalist design of Apple products on Zen principles. Jobs was equally enthusiastic about mind-altering drugs, widely quoted as having said that he regarded taking LSD as "one of the two or three most important things" he had ever done.
But in his own unique way, Jobs moulded the ideas he studied. Enlightenment was no longer achieved through letting go of attachment to the world. Of seeing beyond its veneer. Instead, Enlightenment was to be complete mastery of self- and active engagement with the universe. To not see beyond this plane- but to perfectly express oneself within it.
"I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love."
"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. "
"If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it."
- Steve Jobs, Stanford, June 12, 2005
Work and personal achievement were the forces to focus on. With our “Enlightenments” being hyper-specific to each of us. Unlocked through the successful completion of our ambitions. We need to be generative, we need to "love what we do". That's the path. It’s why the letter “i” became Apple’s signature style. “i” for intelligence, “i” for individual and “i” for I.
In his famous Stanford commencement address Jobs shows the second half of the Janus-face. As much as he drew inspiration from adventure and discovery, he was equally powered by the presence, and knowledge, of death.
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share.”
“No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.”
You have to chase what you love, while constantly running from what can destroy you. Jobs' Stanford Commencement speech has been referenced countless times- and is seen as an ur-text for the aspiring entrepreneur. Imagine there’s no heaven, above us only sky. Our only option is to achieve all that we can on the earth: and then face oblivion.
Jobs, like many of his generation, was deeply touched by the Beatles. Both for their creative perfectionism and eye-popping business success. His goal was for Apple to become as famous, deeply invested in and loved as the Fab Four. John Lennon especially, the brooding, idealistic soul of the Beatles struck a chord with Jobs. Both having grown up in working-class households, both of immigrant parentage. The two men even held a striking physical resemblance, tall and thin with aquiline noses. Armed with vision and flair, but abrasive personalities. Jobs even adopted similar circular glasses to John.
Lennon’s afflicted personal life and his poor treatment of his family, especially his son Julian, contrasted against his vaulting ambitions of peace and love. Likewise, Jobs with his desire to help humanity ascend was by all accounts a bully and a dictator in his personal and professional life. Showing a similar callous treatment of his first wife and child.
The struggle to square this circle is a difficult one, one that asks how much we should blend our outer and inner worlds. Lennon’s music was integral to an entire generation, and his cut-short life and idealism remain potent. Jobs succeeded in his goal of fundamentally transforming, and birthing, a new kind of system. Yet the pain they caused is also real. Whether this represents the “price of greatness”, or hints at the lackluster nature of their supposed New World remains undecided. Perhaps instead of fundamentally changing our humanity, The Beatles and Apple have simply mixed different shades into our existing flaws. And the personal lives of their architects reflect this.
They stretched a new skin over the same rusted wire frame. The distant Victorian father, in baggy pyjamas and long hair. Always away at work. Or the angry executive dad in a black polo and jeans. Denying he’s even the father.
Perhaps the most enduring image of Jobs is him standing on stage at Macworld San Francisco on January 9th 2007.
Dressed in his trademark uniform, shaven head and circular glasses. Jobs rests alone on the stage, about to announce the iPhone I. He’s more casual than you might expect. More University lecturer than Napoleon. He flubs a few lines, takes swigs of water and reads a script full of joke. But the technology that Jobs unveiled that day would be his final testament to the world. The unification of the man-machine meld.
As the audience ripples with excitement Jobs summons, “an iPod”, “a phone” and finally “a ground-breaking internet communicator” before chimer-ing them into the form of 'iPhone'. The crowd goes absolutely wild. The reaction the audience elicits whenever Jobs mentions the word “phone” makes the event seem like prophecy being fulfilled. Of course, Apple are now putting all of their strengths together into the phone market. 'We’ve waited for this day!'
The most important moment of the speech comes when Jobs discusses the limitations faced by the competition. A parade of stodgy- ugly looking phone keyboards and put into a police lineup. As Jobs mocks them for being confusingly hard to use, even for simple tasks. This leads into a visual gag where the rotary select of an old fashioned phone- and the circular control of the iPod are merged into a horrible looking jumble. This was a blend which Jobs was desperate to avoid during the design of the iPhone. No matter how the iPhone turned out, it absolutely could not have a retro rotary dial.
The solution then. One blank screen. A phone with no buttons. A phone whose controls can be endlessly repurposed and mixed at the whim of the creator. A piece of technology, connected to the internet- running Mac OS X. Not a tool to be used for a single task, but a canvas to be painted upon. The App-store was Jobs throwing the keys to his audience, challenging them to create for him and for themselves. So futuristic was the idea that it even shipped prepared for ideas and technologies yet far in the future. Nothing was off-limits.
Smartphones, the singular object of our age, have struggled to meaningfully iterate on the iPhone. While phones have been made, bigger, smaller, faster, stronger, they are still essentially the same design and concept that was lit up on that stage in 2007. We are now online every minute of every day. The internet is like air, and our smartphones are how we breathe it. Individuals connected to each other through technology, forever.
Steve Jobs died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 56 years old. One of the most famous men on the planet, having achieved everything he ever set out to do.
The true legacy of Steve Jobs is not found in his philosophy, or his business acumen, but in the tools he created. A torch to pass on to future generations. In the hope that they can make better sense of the world than we can.
"You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something."
- Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005
Sam L. Barker is a freelance writer and marketer living in Cambridge, UK. He writes about music, technology and memory.