Notes from the Epicenter: Exploring the Reality Distortion Field
If you’ve ever been to a Macworld trade show, or any other event where Steve Jobs has been booked to speak, you know about the so-called Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field. This field is created around the Apple CEO and is equal in size to the auditorium in which he is speaking. He says things like “insanely great” and “this is really exciting,” and you find yourself pumping your fist in the air, hissing “Yesss, yesss!” You get teary eyed watching forthcoming advertisements. (Remember the first commercial in the Think Different campaign? “Here’s to the crazy ones, the rebels…”) And then the speech is over and you leave the auditorium and suddenly realize that you just got emotional over an ad for computers, that you were up out of your chair screaming and yelling about new software, that it was all because this guy, Steve Jobs, made it seem so darned great.
Is It Something He Ate?
So what is it with Steve Jobs? Here’s a notoriously cranky guy in charge of a relatively small computer company, from which he was once ousted in a boardroom coup, and who subsequently burned through most of $100 million trying (and failing) to start a successful business (remember Next Computer?) — and yet he is revered by fans and critics alike. Why? It’s hard to say, but a new book by journalist Alan Deutschman is trying to answer the question. Again.
Tech-savvy America has been obsessed with Steve Jobs since he started Apple in a Silicon Valley garage at the age of 21 (we’ve been, oddly, slightly less obsessed with a certain Harvard dropout who started the most successful software company ever — at roughly the same age), and Deutschman is not the first to try to pin down the iconoclastic computer maker. He is, however, the first to write about Jobs since he returned to Apple Computer in 1997 as an “informal advisor” and effectively put the struggling company back on its feet. Deutschman’s book, “The Second Coming of Steve Jobs,” is excerpted in this month’s Talk magazine, and in what appears to be a less edited version, on Salon.com.
It’s a titillating read, and Jobs comes off as alternately inspired, dedicated, tyrannical, controlling, clever, and irreverent. I imagine that he is all those things, and it could be the great dichotomy of his personality (Deutschman describes this as the Good Steve/Bad Steve phenomenon) that makes him so intriguing to the average Joe. I remember sitting in a New York City bar late one night trying to shake off the effects of the Reality Distortion Field, listening to the publisher of a Mac-centric technology magazine complain about what a jerk Jobs was. I listened in drunken disbelief as this person described a phone conversation in which Jobs had screamed and yelled, and generally acted like a spoiled autocrat who was going to get his way, no matter what. How could this possibly be the same Steve Jobs who I had so recently heard gushing about having the greatest job on the planet? The same Steve Jobs who had moved me to actually get out of my seat and cheer for a measly software revision (and me, a hardened, cynical journalist)?
Steve Had a Dream Today…
Even more bewildering than the apparently many sides to Jobs’ personality is the relative fame, and downright rock star-ness, of someone in charge of a relatively small computer company. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I think I’ve figured it out. Steve Jobs is so popular, and he’s perceived as so successful regardless of empirical data (Apple’s stock price was $19 last week, down from $58 a month ago), because he’s selling more than just a machine. He’s selling a lifestyle.
Deutschman says that one of the first things Jobs did as interim CEO at Apple was shift the company’s focus from being at the leading edge of technology to being at the leading edge of style. Jobs wanted Apple to be hip and cool, and it worked. Millions of people bought iMacs not because they thought the Mac OS was superior to Windows (it is, in my opinion, but I’ve discovered the general public doesn’t share that view), but because the iMac looks cool, and because buying an iMac became a hip thing to do.
And millions of people revere Steve Jobs not because he’s necessarily a nice guy, but because he gives people the sense of being a part of something hip and cool, something big, something they’re not going to get from buying another beige Windows PC. Heck, Jobs even makes us tech geeks feel cool, and that’s something not everyone can pull off. And so, as I once overheard a magazine editor quip about Jobs, “I think we’ve all got to take our hats off to the [gratuitously insulting profanity deleted].”
Read more by Andrea Dudrow.