Steve Jobs died yesterday, as all but Martians know. He left an enormous legacy of American innovation and entrepreneurship. He is admired, even worshipped by many. I’ll leave the accolades, no doubt much deserved, for others. I want to talk about the Steve Jobs you won’t be hearing much about.
Juan Cole notes, in an appreciation of Jobs he posted yesterday, that his biological father, who he appears never to have met, was a Syrian Muslim political science graduate student. The latter met Jobs’ biological mother when they both studied in Wisconsin. After the baby’s birth, she put him up for adoption because she wasn’t married to his father (they later did marry).
Jobs’ adoptive mother was of Armenian origin and his father was a blue-collar worker. This is all the stuff of the American Dream. The upwardly striving child of immigrants who seeks to realize his grand ambitions for commerce, discovery or knowledge, using all the tools that America has to offer. And certainly Jobs did that in spades.
But there is a dark side to the American Dream. The one represented by Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. The side of overweening pride, of hubris, perfectionism, intolerance for difference. The rage at the world that slights or disrespects your vision, at anyone who stands in your way.
Like Kane, Jobs left behind a trail of acolytes along with those he betrayed, deserted, quarreled with or left behind.
I want to write tonight about one particular part of the Steve Jobs legacy which curdled my entire impression of him. He’d owned a large, imposing Spanish Revival home in Woodside, CA built in 1926 by an earlier generation of visionary entrepreneur, Daniel Jackling. Jacking House was designed by the Frank Gehry of his day, George Washington Smith, who also designed the most imposing historical public buildings of Santa Barbara.
Jobs bought the house in the 1980s, lived in it for a number of years, and then moved out. Possibly around the time he learned of his cancer diagnosis in 2004, he decided he would build his own Xanadu (the palace Kane had built for himself and wife and where he ultimately dies) on the site. Since he wanted to make a bold statement about himself and his vision, Jackling House would have to go. It represented the past and Jobs wanted to leave his own legacy. For Jobs, it appears the past was only useful when it directly benefitted his own personal needs or vision.
This meant tearing down one of the architectural gems of Northern California, one recognized as such by the National Trust for Historic Places. When local historic preservation activists heard of Jobs’ plans they organized to save Jackling House.
As I wrote earlier, Jobs didn’t get where he was by compromising with the vision of others or by brooking opposition. So the appeals to his sense of history and architectural preservation fell on deaf ears. He was committed to one course and one course alone–realizing his own personal architectural vision and legacy.
The community group founded to save Jackling House recruited wealthy individuals who proposed moving the house to another site so it could be saved and Jobs could get his way. But Jobs always managed to find a way to reject every suitor. Once he realized the preservationists were serious and would not roll over in the face of his legal and PR steamroller the handwriting was on the wall as far as Jackling House’s fate.
For four years, fighting the combined forces of the Town of Woodside and Jobs, the preservationists won every legal battle. But finally, after putting up shoddy arguments, he learned from his previous failures and figured out how to persuade the State judges that he’d exhausted remedies to save the House, when he hadn’t. He finally won and got his way.
On a sad day in 2010, behind a tight security cordon to keep out prying eyes, Jobs’ demolition crew destroyed a moment of California architectural greatness (here is an account from the Woodside local paper). All for the sake of the vision and vanity of a “Great Man.” As Sarah Amelar writes in Architectural Record:
…What if Jobs had put the funds he poured into destroying the house toward its creative salvation? What if he’d embraced relocation as win-win—freeing his land while preserving a cultural resource? Would a “reasonable contribution” (public or undisclosed) have impinged on a man with $8 billion-plus net worth? Or why not sell the property years ago, and be done with it?
According to Brian Turner, a National Trust regional attorney, “In property disputes, people tend to defend their initial position. They develop tunnel vision, dig in their heels.”
The NY Times reports Jobs’ estate valued around $6.5 billion. Despite this, during all those years he knew he had a possible fatal cancer, he decided philanthropy was not going to be where he devoted his energy. I find this startling because almost all the greatest American entrepreneurs devoted considerable time and energy to building their legacy, and they defined an integral part of that through a philanthropic vision. This didn’t interest him. When Bill Gates approached him to join an initiative of the super wealthy who took a pledge to give away a majority of their fortune to charity, Jobs refused. Personally, I think this was a major failure of vision. I say this perhaps with a touch of self-interest since my professional career was spent as a non-profit fundraiser. If every wealthy person in America behaved as he did not only would I have been out of a job, there would be none of the amazing philanthropic initiatives which have contributed to our greatness as a free, democratic society concerned with the welfare of even the most humble among us.
But Steve Jobs was not one for humility.
So to those who celebrate Steve Jobs I say, do so, he deserves it. But alongside this celebration of his unmistakable contributions to our culture, hold some space for the dark side of Steve Jobs’ vision. The one who would let nothing and no one stand in his way. The take-no-prisoners Steve Jobs. The angry, vengeful Steve Jobs. This was a human package containing great good and great badness.