Malcom Gladwell’s Take: Steve Jobs, Tweaker

by Joey deVilla on November 7, 2011

Photo of Malcolm Gladwell speaking at PopTech 2008. Photo by Kris Krug.Not tweaker as in “amphetamine addict” or “hyperactive person” (like the South Park character Tweek Tweak), but as in “someone who takes something and makes it better.” That’s how Malcom Gladwell sees Steve Jobs in his right-on-the-money essay The Tweaker, which appears in the current issue of the New Yorker. In it, he states that Job’s gift wasn’t for invention, but editorial – or, in other words, tweaking.

“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world,” writes Gladwell. “The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution.”

Here’s the key line, which immediately follows: “That is not a lesser task.”

The Tweaker, which could be described as an Apple-esque reduction of the Steve Jobs biogrpahy by Walter Isaacson, is exactly the sort of essay we’ve come to expect from Gladwell. At its heart is an interesting tale, but it’s his trademark touches that make it, from the way he can put together a narrative to the details that make a tale resonate in your mind to the little detours he takes into parallel stories, often culled from history, as a means of underlining his thesis.

In his essay, Gladwell explains Jobs’ genius by way of the industrial revolution and why it took place in Britain and not in nearby and equally-rich France and Germany: Britain had the tweakers – people who took the inventions that defined the age of industry and refactored them, either making them work or work better. They came up with what economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr (whose article on the industrial revolution and tweakers Gladwell cites) call the “micro inventions necessary to make macro inventions highly productive and remunerative.”

MagSafe power adapter and jack

The MagSafe power connector: a great example of the lengths
to which Apple goes in their tweaking.

Gladwell puts forth the idea that Jobs is a tweaker in the same spirit as those Brits who refined the machinery of the industrial age and kicked it into high gear. Douglas Englebart may have given us the mouse and GUI, Altair the home computer, Audio Highway the MP3 player and IBM the smartphone, but it was Apple under Jobs that tweaked each of these devices to such heights that they became the gold standards.

It’s hard not to write about Steve Jobs’ creations without making some reference to his rival, Bill Gates. While the more hardcore Mac fans and even Jobs himself dismiss Gates as an copycat, Gladwell has a different take. He suggests that they’re two sides of the same coin. Both are tweakers, but one “resisted the romance of perfectionism”. Jobs saw Gates’ current role as philanthropist – something that isn’t all that popular in many corners of the relentlessly libertarian, cyberselfish world of Silicon Valley and apparently eschewed by Jobs  –  as something not requiring imagination, but Gladwell counters with this observation:

It’s true that Gates is now more interested in trying to eradicate malaria than in overseeing the next iteration of Word. But this is not evidence of a lack of imagination. Philanthropy on the scale that Gates practices it represents imagination at its grandest. In contrast, Jobs’s vision, brilliant and perfect as it was, was narrow.

Can a tweaker be an innovator? Dylan Love, in the title of his article in Business Insider says “no”, but I disagree. The Latin root of the word innovate is innovare, meaning “to renew of change”, and the dictionary definition of the word means both “to introduce something new” and to “make changes in anything established”. By tweaking established inventions and in turn redefining – or perhaps I should say tweaking – whole areas of technology, Jobs was most certainly an innovator.

This article also appears in the Shopify Technology Blog.

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