Jobs's Great-Man Theory of Technology

The new biopic doesn't just portray Steve Jobs as a jerk, it justifies and glorifies his ruthless, uncompromising vision.
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Endgame Entertainment; Five Star Feature Films

After the 1976 launch of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs bought a mansion. In the enormous house's living room, over its enormous fireplace, the newly successful entrepreneur hung an enormous picture -- of Albert Einstein.

This was appropriate. Steve Jobs, the man, was keenly aware of Steve Jobs, the legend. His keynote speeches and product launches were performances full of iconography that could forgivably be mistaken as religious. He used the word "revolutionary" the way most people use the word "nice." He enlisted Walter Isaacson, the consummate biographer of great men, to write his official biography. He saw himself, by most accounts, as a member of the historically elite group that includes Newton and Darwin and, yes, Einstein -- people whose lives made, as Jobs liked to say, "a dent in the universe."

We tend to recognize people of this caliber, through history's fuzzy filter, not so much for who they were as for what they did. And that pragmatic approach to progress tends to reduce greatness, in turn, to binary equations of person and product. Newton gave us gravity and Einstein gave us relativity and Madison gave us representative democracy, and all the other details of their lives and their characters tend to erode, in the public mind, with the wash of time. Were the Great People of history kind? Were they funny? Were they jerks? It doesn't much matter, in retrospect, because they -- their work -- made the world better. The other stuff, the human stuff, is inconsequential.

It has been less than two years since Jobs died of cancer. His death is, in the scope of history, fresh. And his Great Man mythology is still malleable. Which is a fact that Jobs, the new film based on Jobs's biography (though not on the biography), is itself keenly aware of. The biopic, starring a serviceably Steve-like Ashton Kutcher, offers what any biopic must -- 120-ish minutes' worth of biographical detail -- but it does so with the sweeping conviction of history: that these details are, to some extent, irrelevant. Steve Jobs, the film suggests, has already earned his ticket into the pantheon of Great Men, and that ticket is the personal computer. The Jobs of the film -- a "Jobs" who, as Kutcher has noted, is only "an approximation" of the real-life version -- is a guy who is actively writing his own obituary. He cares about his work, the product of his life, above all else. The "all else" being, among other things, his hygiene, his health, and his fellow humans.

So Jobs-the-movie, unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with Jobs-the-man, travels well-worn terrain: Its star is a hero who is also an anti-hero. But instead of the complex villainy of a Walter White or a Don Draper, Jobs's flaws here filter down to one simple, salient fact: He is -- and this is really the only word that will do -- an asshole. An asshole of the conventional variety (he parks in handicapped spaces), but an asshole, too, whose assholery occasionally veers into cruelty. He betrays people, it seems, simply because people, being imperfectly designed, are betrayable. In an early scene in the movie, Jobs's girlfriend tells him she's pregnant. Jobs sets his jaw. He insists he's not the father. He kicks her out of his house. This was not part of his vision. "I'm sorry you have a problem," he tells her, coolly, "but it's not happening to me."

Dent in the universe, indeed. We are meant to empathize, of course, with the pregnant woman who has just been abandoned by her boyfriend. We are meant to be shocked and appalled and whoa-did-he-really-just-ed at the extent of Jobs's callousness. And we are meant to be all those things all over again when Jobs refuses, in a later scene, to acknowledge his daughter, Lisa. Yet the film never explains why Jobs treats people the way he does, why others to him are so painfully expendable. The film does not, indeed, seem to care. Because Jobs-the-Jerk has become, in real-life cultural lore, a crucial component of Jobs-the-Legend. Isaacson's biography notes that Jobs "had the uncanny capacity to know exactly what your weak point is, know what will make you feel small, to make you cringe." That's a quote from one of his friends.

In the film, one of Jobs's early bosses tells him, "You're good -- you're damn good -- but you are an asshole." This announcement is clearly not news to its recipient. Being a visionary, after all, Jobs is perfectly aware of his own assholery. And he is perfectly untroubled by it. If you want to put a dent in the universe, the people in your path may get a little dented, too.

'Jobs' reduces the complexities of the personal computing revolution -- the collaboration of it, the connectedness of it, the contingency of it -- down to a single name. Jobs the man, it's been argued, was not so much a creative genius as a savvy co-opter of creativity.

This is the perspective -- the asshole-centric view -- that Jobs, the film, adopts. The movie assumes what so many Apple fans seem to believe about the real-life Jobs: that his well-known assholery, his storied capacity to humiliate and to alienate, is, far from being a flaw, a crucial aspect of his genius. The same exacting standards that Jobs applies to consumer electronics -- in another scene, he fires an employee for insufficient attention to fonts -- he applies to fellow humans. He is cold because he cares. "It's not my job to be nice to people," movie-Jobs informs a critic. "It's my job to make them better." 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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