The Columnists

Steve Jobs and Apple Pie

Robert J. Samuelson

October 7, 1985

Why are we so fascinated with Steve Jobs, the 30-year-old ex-chairman of Apple Computer? The reason has less to do with Jobs's remaining importance to the computer industry -- Apple's influence is fast waning -- than with his status as a fallen folk hero. The business of America is business, but Americans do not love business. Jobs was going to change that. He was going to rewrite the rules and prove that you didn't have to surrender your individuality to succeed. His odyssey made him a celebrity because his dream is everyone's dream.

Jobs and Apple Computer became a cult; they were the corporation as commune. They promised to provide a model for liberating us from one of the great conflicts of American culture: the need for the individual to come to terms with the organization. At Apple the conflict would disappear. People would work because they loved it. They would dress informally and set their own hours. The corporation would flourish because the individuals within it flourished. Alas, it didn't turn out quite that way. But that's what makes Jobs's story compelling. Not only was he a utopian, but because his vision appeals to us all, we share his failure.

Our individualistic culture coexists uneasily with its dependency on mass organizations. In the private economy roughly half of us work for companies with more than 500 employees. Our bureaucratic bosses inspire a love-hate relationship. We want a place to go in the morning, a regular paycheck, familiar faces and an appreciation of our work. Our organizations represent security and belonging. But they often enrage us with their organizational idiocies and imperatives. Their routines and demands regularly abuse our individuality and stifle our creativity.

Dropping Morale: The conflict is not just a cultural tension; it's also an economic problem. Economist Eli Ginzberg and banker George Vojta argue in a new book ("Beyond Human Scale, The Large Corporation at Risk," Basic Books. $16.95) that many companies have grown so large that they can't motivate their workers or coordinate their activities. Good ideas get lost. Workers become demoralized and defeated. There are too many meetings and memos. Ginzberg and Vojta believe that large corporations' natural efficiencies in technology and production may increasingly be offset by "diseconomies of coordination and waste."

No one knows whether their theory is correct, but there's no shortage of corroborating anecdotes. An article in The Wall Street Journal recently characterized Du Pont this way: "Over the years, Du Pont developed a highly stratified, risk-averse organization that tended to stifle the free flow ofideas." As one executive put it: "The problem wasn't that people didn't have ideas, but they were surrounded by every system and control a large corporation can develop." The inflexible and impersonal corporation hurts itself by alienating its workers. According to Opinion Research Corp., employee loyalty to their companies has been dropping for more than a decade.

But corporations often can't avoid becoming bigger and more bureaucratic. As transportation and communication costs have fallen, their markets have become national and global. Companies must expand to exploit economies of scale -- in manufacturing, advertising, marketing and research. The expansion then creates more formal corporate controls; otherwise, chaos results. As Ginzberg and Vojta argue: "One of the strengths of every large organization is its ability to establish policies and procedures informed by its successes in the past." But bureaucracy can ultimately be suffocating; the contradiction of the corporation is that the forces that propel its growth and efficiency also undermine its efficiency.

At Apple, Jobs was going to defeat the contradiction; instead, he became its victim. As Apple grew, its character changed. It did different things and required different skills to run it. I am willing to concede that Jobs got what he deserved. In some ways, he's the John McEnroe of American capitalism: arrogant, self-centered and too wealthy for his own good. (At last count, his Apple stock was worth roughly $90 million.) But his wealth hasn't brought him contentment, and his discontents seem utterly characteristic of our age. In a society that places immense value on work, his work has sent him on an endless roller coaster of emotional highs and lows.

Like many of us, Jobs has had bad days at the office. Even if you don't find him a particularly attractive person, it was hard to read his long NEWSWEEK interview last week without some compassion. Although he helped to found Apple, he was banished from its main executive suites. No one called him. From time to time, people commiserated with him in the parking lot. He often left work "depressed." He agonized that Apple might "own" him, but he clearly wanted to be wanted. After a while, he stopped coming in. "You know," he said, "there was nobody really there to miss me."

Unheroic Work: At the same time, you want to scream: Steve, grow up. He now disdains life in "big organizations" doing "incremental improvements." He yearns to "build things" and to have a company where he "can influence its destiny and have a really fun place to work." How nice. But someone has to make society's "incremental changes" -- everything that is ordinary and unheroic -- and all work is not fun. Jobs comes offas a romantic snob, too good to do the work the rest of us do. And yet, his romanticism is precisely what creates his appeal. A world without romanticism and vision would be not only deadly dull but also dreadfully stagnant.

Some individuals capture our imagination because they personify larger conditions. America's love affair with high tech has not merely been a celebration of new technologies. It has also embodied a yearn- ing that, along with new technologies, better ways would come of reconciling our individuality to the inevitability of large organizations. Jobs and Apple symbolized these hopes. We subconsciously share in his disappointment and disillusion because we can recognize them in everyday life. Jobs has been a metaphor for our persistent cultural contradictions. What rivets our attention is the extravagance ofhis ambitions and despairs: they are as American as apple pie.

Copyright 1985 Newsweek