The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Part Three

This is Part Three of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey, the 2011 Trading 8s “Journalist of the Year”.

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3. “Fruit of Early Pirates”
by Mike Daisey

IN THE BEGINNING there were two Steves, and this is very important: there was Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Wozniak was a geek’s geek, sort of like a geek version of Santa Claus: very fat, very jolly, and he could code like a motherfucker. He would drink Mountain Dew— WHARRRRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!—then he would code, all night long. Serious geek— serious genius.

Steve Jobs was something else entirely. He wasn’t even really a geek, he was more like a showman, like an inventor-entrepreneur, and he loomed over the tech industry.

You know, we don’t have many giants like Steve Jobs anymore. I mean, who do we have today?

Ballmer? At Microsoft?

<<makes horrible cat throwing up sound>>

Ballmer’s a fucking monkey! He throws chairs at his subordinates when he’s angry.

Steve Jobs didn’t need to throw chairs.

Steve Jobs could do that shit with his mind.

If Steve Jobs even looked at a subordinate in a certain way, the subordinate would get up and go and get a chair…and beat themselves to death with it.

That’s power. That’s real power.

Jobs was adopted into a working class family. He was always driven and idiosyncratic. He went off to college and dropped out after one semester, but he stayed on campus, auditing the classes he wanted to take while he surfed on other people’s couches, and he began to live a kind of dual existence: half of it in the Pacific Northwest, where he went to vegan communes and dropped a lot of acid, and the other half in what is today Silicon Valley, where he became more and more obsessed with electronics.

And he fused these two parts of himself together until he became a kind of techno-libertarian hippie—someone who believed passionately in the power of technology to transform all our lives, and believed that transformation could be welded to humanist values.

And he hooks up with Wozniak, and the first thing they work on together is a pirate box: it’s a box that lets you hack into the telephone company and steal long-distance calls.

They don’t just make one of them—they make hundreds of them, and they sell them to everybody, but they need to test it, so Jobs has Wozniak test the box by using it to place a call to the Vatican—but spoofing the call so it looks like the call is coming from the White House.

So Wozniak does this and says, “Hello Vatican, this is the White House. I have Henry Kissinger on the line for the Pope.”

And the cardinal—or whoever the fuck answers the phone at the Vatican in the middle of the night—says, “His Holiness is sleeping, but please hold on, we’ll go and wake him.”

And Wozniak says, “OH MY GOD I’M SORRY DON’T DO THAT THIS WAS A MISTAKE DON’T WAKE THE POPE GOODBYE!”

Because he’s a regular geek so he’s like,

“It fucking works, proof of concept. Jesus Christ!”

Now if Jobs had placed that call, Jobs would’ve said,

“Excellent.

Please go and get him.

And while I have you here on the line, listen to the sound of my voice…”

Their next project together is the Apple I. It’s a computer, but it doesn’t look very much like a computer as we imagine them today. And that’s because the beginning of the personal computer revolution was a hobbyist movement, so the kind of people who are going to buy a computer are the people who are into chemistry sets and ham radios.

And so the Apple I is a bundle of circuit boards; it actually comes with a manual that explains exactly how it’s circuited because it’s expected you’ll want to hack it or modify it or fuck with it. It doesn’t even always have a case, and it definitely doesn’t have a keyboard—and that’s a feature, not a bug. Because if you’re the kind of person who bought one, you’re the kind of person who would say, “There’s no keyboard? You mean I get to make my own keyboard? Awesome!”

Now their next project, the Apple II, is entirely different. This looks like a product, it looks like something you could buy in a store, and indeed, thousands of Americans run out and buy it. And they have this brand new experience that Americans had never had before, the experience of going out and buying an incredibly expensive piece of machinery, setting it all up correctly, turning it on…and nothing happens. It just goes:

<<mimics the sound of an Apple II booting up, disk drive whiring, then mimes a cursor blinking>>

That’s because a computer fundamentally is an appliance, and appliances, by their nature, do one thing: your blender blends, your iron irons, and your computer computes—it executes the programs that are run on it. What’s different about a computer is it’s kind of like a chameleon: it becomes whatever program is executing on it—so the value of a computer increases exponentially as more programs are written for it.

And the Apple II drops at this fortuitous moment, when a critical mass of Americans are getting into computing, and it’s them—the users—they are the ones that give value to that machine, that make that computer a success.

They come up with programs that Apple never would’ve thought of, like spreadsheets. People are like,

“You know what’d be great? If there were spreadsheets on the computer. That would be so much better than these clay tablets we’re using now.”

And the Apple II goes on to be the best-selling computer in the history of the world, and a mind virus starts to spread across America, infecting parents everywhere with the idea that if they do not get a computer for their child, their child is fucked.

And parents everywhere fall prey to this—they don’t even know what they do, but they’re like, “Well, Junior, this was certainly very fucking expensive…I hope you know what the fuck to do with it!”

And that’s how I got my first computer.

My first computer was an Apple IIc.

It was bought for my family by my grandfather, who was fairly well off—my family was actually fairly poor, so when the Apple IIc came into our home, it was easily the most expensive thing that had ever been in our home, and so it was treated with a degree of deference as befitting something with that lineage: it was given its own room—the Computer Room—where it sat in its own desk, and we had to ask permission to go and speak with the computer.

It was a beautiful machine. I think everything I fundamentally understand about industrial design I learned looking at and working with that machine. It had this beautiful off-white platinum finish, and there were these slits cut perfectly, vertically, into the top case…the keys had this wonderful travel to them, they were a delight to use, and the font on the keys was Garamond—a font I still feel strongly about today. The disk drive would open and close with a satisfying chunk, and I learned on that machine. I started with the tutorials, played a lot of Lemonade Stand, and moved on to programming in Basic, Pascal, typing in programs from magazines.

I became a writer on that machine. I and the machine learned to write together late into the night, the cold Maine night, everyone else in the house is asleep, I would be there, seated before the computer, the thoughts in my fevered brain traveling down my arms, out my fingers, into the keys, up through the computer, into the screen and spraying back at me as light, this virtuous circle, I and the computer, learning together.

I remember everything about that machine. I remember how the power brick would oscillate…in the depths of the night you could hear the whine going up and down and up and down. I remember how you had to stack pillows on top of the printer if you wanted to print in the middle of the night because it was dot matrix, and it would go:

<<emits a horrifying, piercing impersonation of a dot-matrix printer>>

AIIIIIEEEAAAAAAAAA! AIIIIIEEEAAAAAAAAA! AIIIIIEEEAAAAAAAAA!

<<audience recovers from horrifying dot-matrix printer sound>>

And there were two axes that ran right through Steve Jobs’ character. One is that he was passionate about design, and the other is that he was ruthless in business. And the place where these two best intersect is the Breakout story.

When Apple was barely out of the garage, just starting out, Jobs goes to Wozniak and says, “Listen, I got us a project. It’s a rush job, we have to do it in seventy-two hours. It’s programming this game, Breakout, for Atari. Here’s the deal: if we can make the game fit on fifty chips then we get seven hundred dollars. But if we can make the game fit on fourty chips…then, we get a thousand dollars.”

And Wozniak listens to this, and then he goes, “WHARRRRGGG!,” and he drinks three liters of Mountain Dew! And then he just starts coding—day and night and night and day—and three days later, he’s done it and he goes to Jobs—

<<groggy incomprehensible bear-like geek sounds>>

—and he’s made the game fit on thirty-eight chips. The people at Atari don’t even understand how he did it. They’re like, “What the fuck? I don’t even understand this…just ship it. Just fucking ship it.”

It isn’t until years later, when Apple is a global company and everyone involved are multi-multi-millionaires, it isn’t until then that Wozniak discovers that Jobs was paid five thousand dollars for that project.

And further, there were no conditions from Atari about the number of chips to be used.

Jobs just liked things to be efficient.

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Tomorrow: “Part Four: The Gates of Foxconn”