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.

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.

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."

So there you have it: paternalism via personal computing. Jobs -- whoadidhereallyjust -- names one of Apple's early computers the Lisa. And proceeds to pour his time and attention and maybe even his love into the machine.

In bringing these flaws to screen, virtually unexplored and virtually unexplained, the film, instead of ignoring or celebrating them, ends up doing something else. It justifies them. It implies that Jobs's inhumanity to man is in fact part of what makes him good -- not good as in "guy," because even hagiography has its limits, but good as in Newton and Darwin and Einstein. Good in a way that renders the non-good irrelevant. This is the Great Man theory of technology, basically: The world is better off because of Apple, the film insists, and Apple exists because of Steve Jobs. Not, mind you, because of Steve Wozniak, the guy who actually invented those early personal computers, or because of Mike Markkula, the guy who provided the first capital to produce those computers, or because of Intel and its microchip, or DARPA and its Internet, or a calligraphy class or an acid trip or a love or a loss or a perfectly designed butterfly flapping its perfectly designed wings.

Jobs, as its title promises it will, happily ignores Apple's inconvenient, if inevitable, contingencies. Apple is Jobs, Jobs Apple: The one could not exist without the other. So while the Jobs of Jobs may be at turns unbathed and unkempt and careless and cruel, these are features rather than bugs. They ratify the vision of Jobs as the revolutionary -- the man whose distaste for the status quo was so pure and so precise and so perfectly designed that it led him to rebel against the ultimate convention: empathy. The Jobs of the film disappoints his friends. He betrays his allies. He abandons with abandon. Not because he can, but because, on some level, he must. Because everything, and everyone, must be subservient to His Vision. "They're not seeing the big picture," Jobs huffs at one point. "You're not seeing the possibilities," he insists at another. "How can you not know what I'm talking about?" he fumes at another. You'd be angry, too, the film suggests, if you wanted to change the world and the world kept insisting it was fine the way it was.

Jobs does not question whether Jobs's vision has, indeed, changed the world for the better. It instead adopts Apple's core branding -- technology as connection, technology as power, technology as self -- as its own. The first scene in the movie shows Jobs introducing the iPod. "It's a tool for the heart," he announces of Apple's new product -- "and when you can touch someone's heart, that's limitless." Jobs thrusts the device into the air, Simba-style, as lights flash and applause thunders and the film's orchestral score swells. The scene -- a consumer electronic product, presented with religious zeal -- is ripe for irony. Yet there is none to be found. The film seems to believe in His Vision as much as Jobs does. It is fan fiction in the guise of biography. The final scene in the movie shows Jobs recording the voice-over for Apple's famous "Think Different" ad campaign. "Here's to the crazy ones," Apple's leader says.

The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

It's a libertarian notion of human progress -- progress as defined not by social connections, but by the rejection of them. The lone geniuses. The round pegs. The stubborn individualists. "A system can only produce a system," Jobs remarks. "I don't want to be part of that."

Which is both admirable and, in the context of Apple's own story, flawed. Apple is -- like everything else, you and me and Steve Jobs included -- a system. It is, like everything else, the result of connectivity and exchange. But collaborative achievement is, in general, not the kind of thing that gets one admitted to the society of Great Men. Jobs barely mentions the Internet or the World Wide Web -- the inventions that turned personal computers into vectors of connection and, finally, revolution. It presents the candy-colored iMac as having sprung, fully formed, from the mind of Jony Ive. It portrays Woz as a bumbling, if charming, rube. It rejects a communal reading of creativity in favor of a tidier vision of solitary genius. It reduces the complexities of the computer revolution -- the tangled contingency of the whole thing -- 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: He took other people's ideas -- Woz's, Xerox's, Walkman's -- and made them better. He iterated. He calibrated. He exploited. 

He did it ingeniously. But he didn't do it alone. This is the complication of an otherwise uncomplicated film. Jobs, in life, derived much of his greatness from the one source Jobs rejects: other people.