In a recent piece in the The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell called Steve Jobs “the greatest tweaker of his generation.”
Malcolm Gladwell as you may know, is the best selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, The Outliers. He seems to capture trends, occurrences, and happenings in our society that others may sense but have not fully realized nor described.
But in many of his shorter pieces, often in The New Yorker, where he has been writing since 1996, he seems to be on some kind of a kick to be a maverick about things technological, the Internet, etc. To me, he just doesn’t seem to get some of these issues right.
I post below a Letter to the Editor of The New Yorker written by Richard Margolies a psychologist, a long time consultant to government and business leaders, and a friend. The New Yorker didn’t publish it.
Malcolm Gladwell, (Annals of Technology, Nov. 14, 2011) describes Steve Jobs as a “tweaker” of existing technology. He analogizes to those who improved the cotton gin, saying Jobs was not a visionary. He describes Jobs’ demanding perfectionism, his disregard for those without his view of good design or his precise esthetic. Citing vignettes from Jobs’ life and products, he describes parts of Job’s vision but not the vision itself.
Jobs foresaw in the early 9Os that emerging information, computer, and telecommunication technologies could converge. He integrated these technologies in transparent and enjoyable forms for non-engineers. His vision aligned these parts into a system to uplift and facilitate the user’s life and work. He continually improved these parts in an expanding system.
A voracious learner from others, Jobs demanded his employees create better options. He acquired patents and companies infusing the system with greater potentials for users. In spite of the Great Recession, Apple has flourished, becoming the world’s most respected brand and valuable company.
Why have other companies not done as well in a shrinking global economy? Might it be that few corporate leaders have Jobs’ visionary personality or his strategic intelligence to design and deliver a delightful system of integrated technologies to enhance our lives? This innovative system, with that esthetic and practical purpose, is the vision.
Washington, DC 20009
Seems to me Margolies gets Jobs right, and Gladwell somehow was short sighted on this one.
What do you folks think?
W David Stephenson said:
I cast my vote with Margolies. It’s true that Jobs didn’t invent de novo any totally new technologies, but it seems to me that his radical simplifications of devices — meeting customer demands that they hadn’t even articulated! — constituted a consistent, unified vision, not just tinkering at the edges.
Michael Douma said:
Margolies is right. It’s a trick of story telling to conflate the origins of innovations with a lack of vision.
The difference between ‘tweaker’ and ‘inventor’ is semantic, and misleading when justified with the examples Galdwell cites. It’s like saying that van Gogh was a ‘tweaker’ because all he did was draw what was in front of him, or modify what was already on a canvas. Moreover, many great inventors and creatives will say that 90%+ of the work is refinement and execution.
For sure, most of Apple’s products and features have origins in academia or elsewhere, e.g., the mouse from SRI and Xerox. It takes a lot of vision to draw inspiration from ideas in academia or other industries, and choose to invest resources in developing and polishing them at the right time, in the right way.
Most of Apple’s innovations seem obvious in retrospect (e.g., as mere ‘tweaks’), but are very hard to have anticipated. If there was not vision, there would be lots of success stories similar to Apple.
As to taking credit for other people’s ideas in a presentation — that’s marketing. Steve would often have to subtly lie on stage, announcing new products as the latest spectacular, while at the same time the next (better) versions were already underway. Taking ownership of other people’s ideas may be rude, but it’s within a larger context of having hired the people whose ideas he would appropriate. Steve was creating a process for generating ideas that would be Apple’s and therefore be his.