Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple and the man credited with bringing both personal computers and advanced mobile electronics to the masses, died on October 5, 2011. But the battle to define both the man and his legacy is being waged right now in the form of several books and high-profile films, the latest of which is the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man In the Machine, from Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, a man I've interviewed in the past and whose work I greatly respect.
That's why it really bums me out that The Man In the Machine makes little attempt to portray someone who was, by most accounts, a complex, iconic, but all-too-flawed man who, over the course of his career, could be both inventor and thief, monk and businessman, brat and sage, tyrant and beloved leader, and managed to use those conflicting traits to both change the world and create the most valuable, influential, and admired company on the planet. Instead, The Man In the Machine is focused largely on the thesis that Jobs was always and only a jerk, that people who enjoy Apple products and admire Jobs are idiots and cult members, and that the computer revolution that was born of Jobs' vision must inevitably contain the same ugly darkness Gibney feels is Jobs' defining trait, despite any evidence to the contrary. Watch the trailer for Steve Jobs: The Man In the Machine below.
To prove what an asshole Jobs was, The Man In the Machine covers the well-trod territory of Jobs' younger years, with people who knew, worked, and interacted with Jobs decades ago recounting the oft-told stories of how the hungry, often petulant maverick was prone to screaming fits, insensitivity, crying outbursts, harsh insults, and working his teams to exhaustion to create products, like the original Macintosh, that only Jobs, his aesthetic taste, and his relentless perfectionism could deem "insanely great". There's the story of how, in one of his first collaborations with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jobs swindled Woz out of thousands dollars, a moment one interviewee hyperbolically describes as "Apple's original sin" in an attempt to paint Jobs and his company as fatally flawed from the start. And, of course, there's the truly shameful story of how a young Jobs, after his girlfriend became pregnant with a daughter, denied paternity and support for years before belatedly attempting to make amends. Jobs would later apologize for his behavior and went on to marry another woman and become a devoted father, but the film doesn't allow this to redeem him.
It's when the film attempts to prove that Jobs was still just an asshole when he returned to Apple in 1997 (after being forced out in 1985) to transform the near-dead company into one of the most valuable in world history that the film's thesis really shows its cracks. Probably sensing the unflattering biases of The Man In the Machine, Jobs' wife Laurene and Jobs' contemporaries, friends, and colleagues declined to be interviewed for the film, though they would tell interviewers for other outlets how Jobs in his later years matured greatly as a businessman, leader, and friend.
But lacking these interviews -- or perhaps omitting those that would counter or complicate Gibney's thesis -- the film attempts to conflate some of Apple's transgressions as a company as a clear, damning reflection of Jobs as a person. Much is made of the illegal backdating of stock options and how Jobs allowed some of those under him to take the fall for it, how Apple played hardball to retrieve an iPhone 4 prototype that an Apple employee mistakenly left in a bar, illegally colluded with other tech companies to keep salaries down by not poaching each others workers, and, of course, the conditions at the Foxconn factory in China where Apple products are assembled, with workers receiving low pay, using dangerous chemicals, and sometimes committing suicide in abnormally high numbers.
To be clear, some of this is pretty crummy stuff. But the fact is, Apple is only one of the major tech companies whose products are made at Foxconn, including Dell and Hewlett-Packard among others. And while we may rightly find worker conditions and the dangerous chemicals used there to be deplorable, they are all legal under Chinese law and considered totally standard across the tech industry, not something particularly bad that Apple implemented due to Jobs' unique cruelty. Apple was just one of several tech companies that colluded on the anti-worker-poaching agreement, and one of many tech companies that used its considerable power and pull to get their way with the police and local government in Silicon Valley. Jobs went ballistic over the lost iPhone prototype because he believed deeply that he could delight Apple customers best by surprising them, and the lost iPhone and the publication that bought and leaked what Jobs considered stolen property jeopardized that. Why would Apple, or any other company, play nice or continue a cordial relationship with an entity that did that? And while acts of financial impropriety deserve to be criticized, is Apple alone in finding ways to goose the paychecks of its most valued employees, including its CEO? While it's true that Apple uses Ireland as a tax shelter, just as many other companies avoid paying US taxes by keeping cash overseas, isn't the real problem that such practices are legal under US law?
Gibney's answer for why Apple deserves such special criticism boils down to the fact that they once had an ad campaign that urged people to "Think Different", which was a rallying cry to artists, free thinkers, the creative class, and rebels to be inspired, ambitious, feisty, independent, to dream big, question the status quo, and dare to change the world, with the strong implication that Apple would provide the tools to help them do it. However, Gibney, very strangely, claims this ad campaign was Jobs' declaration to the world that Apple would, in virtually every aspect of its business, act differently and more virtuously than any other company, even if it reduced Apple's profits. This is an odd and strained interpretation, but it seems to be Gibney's only way to claim that Apple's behavior, as it became a large company and sometimes acted like one, is proof that Jobs was a liar, scoundrel, and jerk.
Unfortunately, just as Gibney seems unwilling to entertain the notion that Jobs was anything less than tech's biggest asshole, he also seems to be unable to understand why people like Apple products, admired Steve Jobs, and were sad about his passing. Therefore, in Gibney's mind, the only answer must be that Apple users are simply idiots, victims of clever marketing or mindless worshippers in a Steve Jobs cult of personality. To do this, Gibney plumbs the depths of YouTube for the most devoted Apple fans professing their love for Apple products and admiration for Jobs, along with news footage of excited fans lined up at Apple stores at product launches, and the spontaneous shrines and tributes that followed Jobs' death from pancreatic cancer in 2011.
If you own Apple products, you should rightfully feel insulted. That's because the film never seems to entertain the most obvious of possibilities -- that maybe people like Apple products because they're actually good products. Maybe the iPod didn't dominate the mp3 player market by hoodwinking consumers with deceptive marketing, but because the marketing they used was basically, "You love music? 1,000 songs in your pocket." Maybe people bought Macs because Apple believed that people had taste and were willing to pay for attractive, thoughtful industrial design and easy, intuitive software? Maybe it's because of Apple's award-winning customer service, or that Apple's philosophy that the best user experience comes from one company providing the hardware, software, and services (unlike Microsoft) has been utterly vindicated? Maybe people are willing to pay more for Apple products not because they want to brag and look cool, but because it's worth spending a little more on something like the iPhone, which you'll use dozens of times a day and is considered the best phone in the industry? And would Gibney similarly criticize and mock kids who waited in lines wearing costumes to buy a Harry Potter book at midnight, or people willing to stand in line to see a movie on opening day?
Gibney is befuddled by why average people would mourn the death of Steve Jobs, someone they'd never met who Gibney sees mostly as a jerk who ran an electronics company. But to see Jobs as only that not only misunderstands the man, but the world we live in today. We live in the computer age, and no man has shaped that age and how we use computers more than Steve Jobs. No, Jobs didn't invent the PC, the laptop, the mp3 player, the smartphone, or the tablet. But his taste and intuitive understanding for how we should interact with these technologies and the role they can play in improving our lives is what brought them to the masses, where they'll remain at the center of our lives for the rest of our lives. For me, Apple under Jobs taught me what good design is -- that it's "not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." Apple taught me about excellence in execution, and what to expect from a product (especially an electronic one) if I was to consider it truly great. And for all that, it's hard to say that any overworked employees, hurt feelings, questionable business dealings, or even estranged family members weren't worth it in the end if it brought us the future. Few great accomplishments come without sacrifices, and a lot of icons and great figures were hardly saints.
All this is apparently lost on Gibney, and at the end of the film, he seems to reveal why: despite being an iPhone user himself, Gibney dislikes or is at least ambivalent about the digital age. He doesn't like how engrossed we are in our phones and other technological gadgets, and since Jobs -- a man Gibney thinks is a creep -- is largely responsible for that technology in its current form, Gibney feels there must be something sinister behind it, even though anyone twenty years ago or earlier would be considered a god if they had a working iPhone 4, with all of the world's knowledge in their pockets, just a tap away.