Those things—and the many other ones that live under the broad category of Steve Jobs’s Personal Failings—are well-documented, in blog posts written both before and after his death, in in-depth biographies both authorized and not, and in Jobs, the feature film released in 2013. Some of those takes treat his shortcomings as mere inconveniences, justifying them away as the common costs of uncommon genius. Others insistently minimize them, seeming convinced that the flaws will tarnish the sheen of their beloved universe-denter.
Others, though, do something that is arguably much worse: They suggest that Jobs’s failings as a person, rather than impeding his legend, actually bolster it. His uncompromising vision, his unapologetic bullying, his tendency to prioritize the needs of computers over the needs of people—all of that, the thinking goes, was somehow necessary. Jobs’s assholery, like his mock turtlenecks and his New Balance running shoes, made him who he was, and thus helped to make Apple what it was. Jobs could be a jerk in the normative sense because he could be a jerk in the narrative. His successes justified his failings.
The Man in the Machine rejects those easy tautologies. Here Jobs’s flaws are not just a footnote, but a focus. Gibney interviews Jobs’s confederates and his critics and his betrayees, including former bosses (the Atari founder Nolan Bushnell), former friends (the early Apple engineer Daniel Kottke), former girlfriends (Chrisann Brennan, the mother of his daughter), former employees (the engineer Bob Belleville), and current critics (Sherry Turkle, the prominent skeptic of tech utopianism). We get analysis after analysis of Jobs the Jerk, some of them frank (Turkle: “He was not a nice guy”), others accommodating (Bushnell: “He had one speed: full on”), others resigned (McKenna: “I think that Steve was very driven and would very often take shortcuts to achieve those goals”), others indignant (Belleville: “Steve ruled by a kind of chaos: He’s seducing you, he’s ignoring you, and he’s vilifying you”), others angry (Brennan: “He didn’t know what real connection was, so he made up another form of connection”).
Each summation, each person, is a reminder of the sacrifices Jobs imposed on his co-humans in the name of human connection. As Gibney puts it: “How much of an asshole do you have to be, to be successful?”
The most intriguing interviewee, though, and perhaps the most damning, is Jobs himself. Gibney obtained previously unseen footage of the deposition Jobs gave to the SEC in 2008 concerning Apple’s options-backdating scandal—and the footage, spliced between scenes, functions as a kind of refrain throughout the film. In it, Jobs, clearly annoyed at having to submit to such questioning, occasionally cooperates with the SEC lawyer, but mostly fidgets and sulks and glares. At one point, he tucks his jeans-clad legs up onto his chair, reconfiguring his body into an upright fetal position. At another, when asked why he would want Apple’s board to offer him backdated stock options, he replies, “It wasn’t so much about the money. Everybody likes to be recognized by his peers.” He adds, “I felt that the board wasn’t really doing the same with me.”