Steve Jobs, Adolf Hitler – Kindred Souls?

Let me start off by saying this isn’t supposed to be controversial. It’s not one of those troll-esque articles making Steve Jobs out to be the Antichrist, using ‘Hitler’ as an embodiment of evil. I’m actually writing this having just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, and as someone who used be deeply fascinated by the Nazis and interwar European history, I couldn’t help but notice a startling number of similarities between the two figures – most of them neither positive nor negative as such, but just little similarities that are pretty rare and unusual.

I guess the most immediately obvious one relates to Hitler’s and Jobs’ famed ability to achieve the seemingly impossible, bending reality to accommodate their grand ideals. Hitler called it “triumph of the will”; in Steve’s world it was referred to as the “reality distortion field” – basically where the sheer force of one’s conviction, induced upon others through brilliant oratory and fuelled by selective and cleverly presented truths, allows one to manifest one’s vision no matter how immense the scope or tight the deadline. Powered by intense and forceful personalities, both Jobs and Hitler were able to whip people up into a frenzy at events that were painstakingly staged to perfection. Their delivery was markedly different – Steve spoke slowly and softly; Hitler tended to work himself up into a rapid-fire onslaught of shriekery – but whether we’re talking the annual MacWorld or annual Nuremberg rallies, where the faithful gathered to hear their leader reflect on the year gone by and prophesize the one ahead, the staging would be planned down to the smallest minutiae, the lighting and backdrop and the theatre of it all just right, with the sole intent of transfixing the audience to see the future through the orator’s eyes. Both events were characterized by empowering rhetoric of “We will change the world” – simultaneously rebellious yet New World Orderish, embodying a key paradox in both Jobs and Hitler as underdogs obsessed with control.

In this respect, Apple and the Nazis were undeniably alike. Both started off as ‘rebels’ against an established order – IBM in the former’s case, the Weimar Republic in the latter. These two entities became obsessive focal points, representing everything that was wrong with the world of high technology / national governance. Apple portrayed Big Blue as Big Brother in its brilliant ‘1984’ TV commercial; the Nazis condemned Germany’s democratic government as a similarly oppressive dead weight on their country imposed by their World War I enemies. Both saw themselves – quite justifiably – as a young, dynamic force that would overthrow the status quo and implement radical change; fresh and virile faces charging a stagnant, stifling, overgrown edifice to forge a new way forward. Both started off very humbly – in a garage and pub respectively – but grew to fulfil these lofty ambitions, led by the unshakeable, reality-distorting passion of their leaders.

Of course, you could apply this argument to a plethora of successful people and their organizations. Grandiose vision, burning ambition, dynamism, a desire to beat the system – these qualities are hardly unique to Apple and Nazism, and perhaps it’s a bit silly even comparing the two on these grounds, valid as the case may be. It’s really the similarities in the personal lives and characters of Jobs and Hitler that drove me to sit down and write this, and that’s what I want to focus on for the rest of this entry.

Both Jobs and Hitler started off similarly in life. Steve was abandoned by his biological parents; Hitler lost his father as a child and his mother as a teenager. Both spent their early adulthood as listless vagabonds: Hitler wandering between guesthouses for unemployed men in Vienna, Steve wandering through India and an array of hippy communes on the American west coast.  Even in this meandering early phase of their lives, the two displayed a very clear artistic streak with a penchant for perfectionism, manifesting itself in architectural design with Hitler and technology design with Jobs. Both spent this period looking for big-picture answers for why the world is the way it is: Jobs found them in Buddhism and the Beat culture of the 60s and 70s; Hitler in the racialism and nationalism of early 20th-century Europe. Both were avid readers of a publication that epitomized their corresponding ideology: the Whole Earth Catalog in Jobs’ case, the anti-Semitic magazine Ostara in Hitler’s.

Both were already vegetarian by this point, placing little priority on eating, and smoked/drank minimally if at all. Both were heavily into opera. Both held formal education in contempt and did not complete university, while dedicating much of their abundant spare time absorbing seemingly frivolous knowledge that would later prove useful. And as they left this period behind, discovered their love in life and dedicated themselves to it, both became convinced that they would die too early; a fear that drove them to achieve as much as they could in their life span – which, sure enough in both cases, was not as long as average. Both died aged 56.

After a remarkable and rapid rise to fame, both figures also suffered a major, almost career-killing setback after staging an unsuccessful coup. In Hitler’s case this was the Beer Hall Putsch, which saw him go to jail for several years; in Jobs’ it was his expulsion from Apple after trying to oust then-CEO John Sculley. Both used their period of exile to undertake important projects – the dictation of Mein Kampf and the foundation of NeXT and Pixar – which allowed them to solidify and broaden their radical ideas, rethink their behaviour and recharge for a Second Coming that completely eclipsed the first. In neither case, however, was their prodigal return a glamorous phoenix-like affair – Jobs returned to Apple merely as an advisor, before becoming interim CEO and finally accepting the position as permanent. Hitler, too, did not storm the Reichstag and seize the reins of power like some wild-eyed revolutionary, but played the democratic system lawfully, diligently and patiently campaigning across Germany until the NSDAP were finally voted in with a balance of power, at which point he negotiated a Chancellorship and only later, finally, invoked emergency powers to secure himself as Germany’s permanent Fuhrer.

There were even more similarities beyond these, not all of which I can remember right now. Another one that comes to mind is how both men were fascinated with the exotic spirituality of the East – while this is reasonably well-known and not particularly surprising with Jobs, it’s less well-known that the Nazis sent multiple expeditions to Tibet and India in search of artifacts relating to early Aryan spirituality, in a chapter of history that comes bizarrely close to an Indiana Jones script. It could even be argued that both men’s downfall stemmed from their belief in their invincibility and ability to ply reality as desired – that they were special and the rules of normal men did not apply to them. As he did throughout his life when faced with a problem, Jobs ignored his cancer diagnosis, dismissing advice from traditional experts (doctors) and believing he could overcome it his way, with fasting and diets. Hitler, too, ignored the grim prognosis that was reaching Berlin from his encircled armies at Stalingrad; then, as the outlook grew ever bleaker, believed a combination of steel resolve and new-fangled ‘wonder weapons’ would turn the course of the war back in his favour – again, against the advice of traditional experts (his military generals) who proposed strategic retreats and selective peace treaties.

There are differences between the two men, of course. Hitler would’ve been the better boss to work for, assuming you’d prefer humouring long-winded rants over tea to being outright abused (by all accounts, Jobs liked to yell at individuals in private as much as Hitler liked to yell to crowds in public). Hitler also had a very deep sense of loyalty and sentimentality that Jobs lacked; whereas Hitler cherished and surrounded himself with early “comrades” of the NSDAP even if they had no talent – Himmler was a failed chicken farmer – Jobs did the exact opposite, discarding the old in favour of the more talented new whenever convenient, friendships be damned. On the other hand, whereas Jobs had a string of relationships and was obviously more than capable of falling in love, Hitler’s life contained strangely little in the way of sex or romance, and he only got married to his long-time mistress, Eva Braun, mere hours before they committed suicide. While both were artists at heart, spending hours poring over models made by their special staff favourite (Albert Speer / Jony Ive), Hitler abhorred the functional cubic aesthetic of the Bauhaus school, whereas Jobs loved and was deeply influenced by it. (That said, buildings aside, Nazi design did have a bent towards modern minimalism and bold, simple iconography much like Apple.) Finally, whereas Hitler was, like Jobs, very interested in technology (he actually designed the original Volkswagen Beetle, and could rattle off detailed tank and airplane specs from memory), Jobs was not even remotely interested in issues of nationality or ethnicity, and never took any notice of Middle Eastern affairs despite his half-Syrian heritage.

I guess the two most significant differences are that Jobs did not leave a destructive and divisive legacy like Hitler’s, and his organisation has outlived him and continues to prosper. While Nazism perished in the rubble of Berlin, having decimated much of Europe and torn apart countless families, Apple lives on in its empire of white stores and arsenal of white iThings, bringing pleasure and ease of use to tech consumers around the globe. And while Nazism was very much about the masses, unifying the many and harnessing the base instincts of the mob, Apple is all about the individual user experience – creative expression over regimentation, individuality over assimilation – homogeneous as it is compared to the world of Windows PCs (read on, let’s not go there…)

I guess that pretty much sums up this entry. To finish – and to appease any Apple fanboys who might still be finding my comparison a tad hard to swallow – I did find Isaacson’s biography genuinely inspiring; more an uplifting lesson in life than a tome of juicy never-before-revealed nastiness. Being a long-time armchair student of IT history, I’m no stranger to the fact that Steve Jobs could be a real c*** so those parts of the book came as no surprise – what I did draw from it is simply that it’s important – indeed critical – to assert yourself in life. Which isn’t to say (as numerous articles following the book’s release have implored us to note) that being an arsehole is an acceptable managerial style, or that being mean and arrogant was an active ingredient in Steve’s recipe for success. But like Hitler, I guess, Steve Jobs didn’t waste time doubting himself, being non-commital in what to believe and pursue in life, and realizing his ambitions only when he could do so in a safe, socially acceptable way. Unlike so many of us, he refused to be just a passive observer of life, a mere yay/nay/do-as-you-sayer. Steve spoke his mind, developed a keen intuition and acted on it fearlessly, and these are things we – certainly I – do all too rarely these days with time that, as his death late last year reminds us, is all too short and precious. So for me, more than anything, reading about Jobs’ life has been a wake-up call to, as he himself put it,

“[Not] let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

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Charlie Sheen – New President of Bat Country

I have close to zero interest or knowledge of pop culture, to a point some of my TV-saturated co-workers find difficult to believe, but after the months of media circus he’s generated I finally watched this interview with Charlie Sheen – and tell you what, in all seriousness, I actually find a lot of what the guy has to say more wise than laughable. He’s like a reincarnation of Hunter S. Thompson, espousing the late gonzo writer’s ethic of “Buy the ticket, take the ride” – as long as it’s not hurting anybody else, do what you’re geared for, relish the experience because it’s new – the more out there, the more life-affirming & valuable – and who gives a fuck what other people “believe”. Possibly the most profound bit for me was when he described the support of certain other Hollywood stars: “They didn’t give me any advice… just love”. I love that, and it’s so true – “advice” is for counsellors and think tanks; a true friend doesn’t jump on his analytical high horse without being asked, but simply lends his ears & support. The way Sheen speaks and reacts to his interviewer, dragging on a cigarette between answering questions, is also so reminiscent of Hunter that it’s kind of fascinating – he gives off the same characteristic vibe of nervous energy buzzing over an existentialist, I don’t give a fuck core. Even Sheen’s recent hotel-room antics, which catapulted him to this new peak of celebrity notoriety, immediately bring to my mind the celebrated craziness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and its introductory quote: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Anyway, just a quick thought for the day… probably not really blog material but a bit wordy for Facebook.

Thoughts on Inception vs The Matrix

So I saw Inception last night. One friend sent me an SMS describing it as “cream in your pants awesome”. A Facebook contact announced to her 457 friends: “Oh my god – AWESOME!!!!!!” That’s six exclamation marks. That means pretty fucking awesome, right?

Well, I dunno.

It was definitely a damn good film. The concept was brilliant. I also took a fancy to the Uni-student female character… very pretty & natural-looking; no fake blonde curls or balloon lips here.

But that’s beside the point. The point is, was it the next Matrix like some people claim?

The thing is, it’s hard to compare the two coz in my opinion, Inception’s strength is The Matrix’s weakness and vice versa. Basically it’s like this.

Critics & audiences alike called The Matrix the defining film of the 90s. At Uni I even read a text (how Media & Communications of me… a “text”) that divided cinema into two periods: pre-Matrix and post-Matrix. Hell, “post-Matrix” is pretty much a standard term nowadays, the next diner a few miles up past “postmodern”. In short, The Matrix was huge – even the soundtrack became a staple of teenage boys’ CD collections & ushered Rammstein into the mainstream – and its success can be attributed to the fact that it captured, vividly & artistically, the zeitgeist of the late 90s when it was released. In the space of two decades, our world had indeed become saturated with computers and permeated by interconnecting networks & cyberspace, leading to ever-greater media saturation and a blurring between the real and the virtual… and The Matrix, with its seemingly endless streams of green binary code, mirrored with unprecedented flair and conviction the uncertainties and implications arising from this civilizational change, encapsulated at the time by the growing fear and awe of the Y2K bug as the turn of the century loomed.

Inception, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a powerful aesthetic or atmosphere. It doesn’t encapsulate the spirit of the ‘Noughties’, doesn’t crackle with distinctive imagery, fashion or music from its era like The Matrix. It’s pretty generic. It could’ve been filmed anytime in the previous decade or even the 80s, although its “post-Matrix” direction still comes through quite blatantly at times… slow-motion raindrops, anyone?

However, this weakness is also a strength, because Inception’s concept is far more abstract and therefore far more universal, viable and enduring. The Matrix, ultimately a Messiah story steeped in the classic high-tech dystopic future scenario, creates its own fictional reality – a convincing one, but also very specific. Earth’s surface has been taken over by big black machines, and humans have fortified themselves in the planet’s core where they face invasion and extinction at the hands of said machines – with an anomaly in the form of a megalomanic ex-enforcer of the machines’ matrix. Not something I’d wager on happening anytime soon, or ever.

10 years later, this scenario of artificial intelligence gone bad – initially portrayed all the way back in the 1920s with Metropolis, and juiced for all it’s worth ever since (remember how big Terminator 2 was in the early 90s?) – is even starting to seem kind of dated. We can see technology isn’t mutating into armoured shells of simmering hatred for humanity… if anything, it’s getting smaller, cuter and ever more consumer-friendly. Instead of armed cyborgs hissing at us in vocoder English, the 21st century has given us kitten-light iPads, milk-white Wiis and adorable Pixar films.

Inception, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with technology but human psychology – something that’s always been there, always will be, and which is still pretty murky territory ripe for exploration and poetic license-taking. Science still doesn’t know exactly why we dream, how these movies in our mind’s eye are generated or what they mean, and what their effects are on the other reality we occupy – the waking world. In this sense, Inception’s “artificial reality” is far more believable and possible than The Matrix’s, and a lot more intimately familiar. While telephones have never teleported people and a random black dude in leather will probably never offer you insight-stimulating pills (then again…), we’ve all had the experience of Inception’s induced comas, lucid dreams and sudden ‘kicks’ back into reality – not to mention the subtle but immensely potent power of suggestion.

I guess in a nutshell, I’m saying Inception was the better concept, Matrix the better entertainment.

Inception’s characters, for example, aren’t as memorable. The Matrix had a brilliant villain in the smirking, crisp-suited Agent Smith, or the dreadlocked ghost twins of Reloaded. To be fair, Leo’s lead was more interesting than Reeves’ one-dimensional Neo, but even then, the psychological strain of wanting to reunite with the wife & kids has been done to death in Hollywood scripts.

And considering Leo’s character was thus afflicted, Nolan could’ve utilised Cobb’s wife to far more dramatic effect. In the first third of the film she manifests as a vicious and unpredictable figure, and I was convinced that as the film progressed she would loom ever larger into a menacing, eventually even terrifying “projection” (as they’re called in the film) as Leo loses his grip on his mind. Yet this never happens; the nightmarish Silence of the Lambs sequence that Pretty Female Sidekick might’ve found herself in, in the basement of Leo’s subconscious, never unfolds – Mrs Cobs never evolves into anything more than a slightly hostile, eventually just annoying tear generator who helps Leo play out his hackneyed internal conflict. There’s actually a lack of satisfying, nail-biting action right throughout the film; for all the gunfire, back-alley chases and explosions, the action always seems hurried, confusingly & hastily directed, like these were sequences that simply had to be got through to get to the next scene – Good Guy jumps out from behind corner into a hail of bullets, blindly fires his gun, two Villains miraculously fall dead, Good Guy keeps running, repeat… uninspired and not very believable stuff, all the more disappointing considering it’s from the director of Batman Begins/Dark Knight. This is where The Matrix, with its ingeniously choreographed martial arts duels/lobby shoot-out, is undeniably superior.

Ultimately, of course, it’s stupid to compare two excellent films as an A vs B contest. I’ll say outright that Inception didn’t thrill me as much as The Matrix did back in 1999, despite its “next Matrix” tag. The Matrix was the more intense and colourful experience for me, thanks to its much grander scale, its unique, in some cases larger-than-life characters and its characteristic “worn & torn future” aesthetic, perfectly reflecting the 90s penchant for both distressed grunge and sleek futurism. But precisely because it’s void of any caped superheroes or mechanical flying squid, Inception is probably the deeper, more realistic and ultimately more thought-provoking film – that, hopefully, will not sink into incomprehensible weirdness the way the Matrix trilogy did.