The bug lights of social media have drawn out the last great, living recluse of our era: Steve Jobs.
J.D. Salinger and Howard Hughes are both gone. What other cultural icon is left whose private thoughts are held so tightly in a light-less well of mystery?
In an endearingly direct, if testy exchange last weekend with Gawker writer Ryan Tate, Jobs gambols across a lively field of topics including porn (hello SEO!), the dying PC world, battery-sucking knaves, freedom and "Apple trying to do the right thing."
"I've written about a lot of tech CEOs and [Jobs] is the only one I've ever gotten into a direct conversation with on the weekend in the middle of the night," Tate told me. "It's a reflection of his dedication that he's emailing people from 1 to 2:30 in the morning."
Or unusual sleep patterns.
How did this happen? Years ago, when we were trying to invite local legends to write for the Chronicle, it was clear that two, George Lucas and Steve Jobs, were aggressively not interested. Lucas had a long-standing beef about coverage of his films and Jobs was just, well, Jobs - inaccessible unless it was a show he'd fully programmed himself.
We thought at the time that maybe the two of them were just not interested in talking with anyone less intelligent than themselves, which would exclude most people. Maybe they'd agree to interview each other and we'd just record it, kind of like the Sundance series, "Iconoclasts." That never happened, either. Another decent idea left to wither that could have saved newspapers.
But this weekend, with a volatile nighttime mix of alcohol and access to the web, Tate shot off a challenge into the digital wilderness regarding an Apple ad claiming the company was still revolutionary. What would young Bob Dylan feel about Apple today, Tate demanded to know, probably more rhetorically than with expectations of a response.
He used Jobs' Apple public announcement email address, which seems like writing to Lady Gaga's fan club PO Box. How did Tate know it was the real Jobs?
"That's a good question," Ryan said. "My initial reaction was that maybe it was someone domain squatting and I'd misspelled Apple. But I checked the headers as well. I could see it had gone through several Apple servers. He was in full control of the account. I was confident on a technical level it was him."
Mr. Jobs isn't exactly the kind of person you'd find left behind by his pals sitting on a Peninsula bar stool. All of his creativity and manic energy, his serially successful business enterprises, have been shrink-wrapped in the tightest kind of message control since Leni Reifenstahl flood-lit the Third Reich.
(Of course I don't mean to compare Steve Jobs to Hitler, any more than I meant to compare gay people with cartoon dogs in a Chronicle column I wrote for today about Elena Kagan. It just seemed to be a metaphor lying around waiting for someone to steal it and sell it to the most desperate writer.)
But from deep space, like a ping in a SETI probe, came a message back from Jobs. Or someone who certainly seemed like Steve Jobs and was definitely not the blogger "fakestevejobs." A fully interactive debate ensued.
Unfazed by Tate's foul language and obvious anger over some Apple behavior, Jobs asks at one point, "Gosh, why are you so bitter..?"
Jobs also wasn't bothered by the fact that Tate's Gawker employers own Gizmodo, the company that bought a snatched iPhone prototype and revealed one of Apple's secrets to the world. Law enforcement authorities served a warrant on the Gizmodo editor and seized his computer, setting off a First Amendment flap. Jobs tells Tate the episode was full of "erroneous blogger reports".
Slamming Microsoft or Facebook is one thing. Going after bloggers...watch out, Steve!
But at the end, Jobs gets a little irked. "By the way, what have you done that's so great?" he asks Tate. Very human, the whole thing.
In his Gawker post, Tate says Jobs "deserves big credit [for] his willingness to engage." Michael Moore will not be knocking on Apple's door anytime soon.
Maybe it was Tate's high-end tech literacy underlying his Apple-bashing that drew Jobs to the flame. But, as Tate pointed out in a Gawker blog post today, there have been four headline-making email responses from Jobs since early April.
"I think what's drawing him out is in part because he's changed the world in digital technology," Tate said. "He realizes the world is so connected now that he and Apple have no choice but to engage directly with consumers."
I don't know if Apple's motives are "pure" - which is what the Apple CEO told Tate. But Jobs' pen pal dance over the weekend does give us some hope that big voices don't only listen to each other.
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