Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Jobs Versus Einstein

By Mike Dorf

Malcolm Gladwell has a nice piece on Steve Jobs in the latest issue of The New Yorker.  Relying heavily on the new Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, Gladwell paints a picture of Jobs as a "tweaker," someone who does not invent anything dramatically new or different, but through the application of relentless perfectionism, improves existing ideas to make them much more workable.  Comparing Jobs to other tweakers, Gladwell suggests -- following an argument by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr -- that we should honor tweakers more than we do.

It's easy to see why the Meisenzahl/Mokyr idea would appeal to Gladwell.  He himself is a bit of a tweaker.  He didn't come up with the idea of tipping points, the efficacy of snap judgments, or outliers, but he did take other people's ideas and present them in a way that caught the public imagination.  The parallel isn't exact.  The tweakers that Gladwell's article describes worked in the same field as the pioneers, whereas Gladwell is a non-fiction writer popularizing work by researchers in other fields.  Still, there's enough there to see why Gladwell might feel a certain kinship with tweakers.

So much for my armchair psychoanalysis of Gladwell.  I want to turn now to an arresting line from the article.  Quoting Isaacson, Gladwell writes:
When Jobs approached Isaacson to write his biography, Isaacson first thought (“half jokingly”) that Jobs had noticed that his two previous books were on Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, and that he “saw himself as the natural successor in that sequence.”
Any comparison of Jobs to Franklin or Einstein is ludicrous.  As Isaacson writes, Franklin was "the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become."   Einstein's insights revolutionized humanity's conception of space and time.  Jobs oversaw a company that made somewhat more elegant computers and portable communications devices than its competitors.

And yet, there is something appropriate about treating Jobs as a character who for our age roughly fills the niche that Franklin and Einstein filled for theirs.  On an all-time list, Jobs surely doesn't rank with Galileo, Newton, Darwin, or, if we restrict ourselves to Americans, Edison or Feynman.  But Jobs is nonetheless an appropriate sci-tech icon for our age.

Jobs wasn't really an inventor and he wasn't in any sense a scientist.  But it's hard to imagine anyone who, over the last 30 years or so, played a bigger role in shaping how human beings lucky enough to live in the developed world interact with one another and with technology.  Is that as important a contribution to how people live or understand the world as the contributions of the all-timers?  Who can say?  The slightly nutty folks who think we are nearing a singularity that will forever change what intelligence itself is might say that Jobs was a central figure in making computing "cool."  And without that move, the compu-revolution would have taken substantially longer to get off the ground.  For myself, I prefer to think that the secular canonization of Jobs reflects the death of cool and the triumph of nerdiness.

Others have pronounced on Jobs's legacy, which is at best complicated.  I'll leave that aside by noting finally that it says something about our age when someone like Jobs is legitimately a contender for our leading technologist.  That's not a dig at Jobs.  It's just recognition that the age of the lone hero scientist or inventor is over -- if it every existed.