What We Learn About Steve Jobs from the New Documentary, 'Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine'

A new documentary unveils the contradictions of Steve Jobs — the man, the businessman and the tech icon.
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Steve Jobs Photo

Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone in 2007. The Apple icon is the subject of Alex Gibney's new documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. (Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

The press notes to Alex Gibney’s new documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, boast that the film “is no corporate sanctioned hagiography and was made without Apple’s cooperation or that of Jobs’s immediate family.” This apparent stumbling block gave Gibney leeway to feature former colleagues of Jobs pillorying the great man for his self-centeredness and lack of social skills. In addition, in a remarkable interview, Chrisann Brennan, Job’s onetime girlfriend and the mother of one of his daughters, observes that he didn’t know how to “connect” with people but compensated by creating products that connected consumers to each other. 

Nevertheless, the question remains: How many of the details unearthed, or arguments put forward, differ from previous biographical accounts of Jobs’s life and career, especially Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography? (Becoming Steve Jobs, a subsequent biography, has been criticized for its uncritical veneration of the late Apple CEO.) The short answer is that the basic facts in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine film are in line with Isaacson’s research, even though Gibney, unlike Isaacson, is far more skeptical of this now “iconic” businessman’s legacy and is not hesitant to polemicize against a beloved figure whose death startled and upset millions of Americans. 

Here are some of the salient points touched upon in Gibney’s less than adulatory documentary:

Why did the death of a businessman, known mainly for creating innovative products, move many members of the general public to tears?

Gibney, although he admits to loving his iPhone, is baffled by the cult status Jobs achieved, especially after the Apple impresario’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2011. Early in the film, a pre-teen boy, the pint-sized version of the prototypical “man in the street,” gushes about Jobs and proclaims that “he made the iPod, he made the iPhone, he made the iPad, he made everything.” This paean to Jobs sets the stage for Gibney’s extended critique of the Apple mythos. Throughout the documentary, interviews with MIT’s Sherry Turkle, a skeptical chronicler of the contemporary infatuation with computer technology and the author of, among other books, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, reiterate her contention that, while Jobs “was not a nice guy,” the public was seduced by a conviction that his products did not merely reflect their personalities but were in fact almost inextricable from their needs and desires. 

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A memorial tribute to Steve Jobs outside of an Apple Store in New York City following his death in 2011.

For better or worse (and Turkle definitely thinks it’s not positive), i-Pods and i-Phones are, to invoke Marshall McLuhan, the premier communications theorist of the pre-Macintosh era, “extensions of ourselves.” During a Q and A following an advance screening of the documentary, Gibney was asked if he saw any affinities between the Jobs film and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, his recent HBO evisceration of the Church of Scientology. Gibney conceded that there are indeed some similarities between Scientology and the—admittedly more benign—cult surrounding Jobs and Apple products. 

How does one deal with the contradiction that a product of the counterculture of the 1960s and its communal ethos, ended up being something of an avatar of self-involved individualism?

As is well known, Jobs regaled friends with stories of taking LSD as a young man, was intrigued with Zen Buddhism, and worshipped iconoclastic pop stars such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Yet, even though widely accepted assumptions, shared by Gibney, that Jobs never made charitable contributions on the scale of his longtime rival Bill Gates might be false (there are claims, for example, that he was responsible for large anonymous donations to various philanthropies), it’s difficult to dispute the film’s implication that Job’s countercultural façade concealed a sensibility that was closer to Ayn Rand than many of his admirers seem ready to admit. 

Although Jobs’s cavalier response to reports of abuses at China’s Foxconn plant, one of Apple’s main overseas suppliers, has been discussed at length in various publications over the years, Gibney makes the labor abuses and environmental devastation associated with this factory one of the cornerstones of his indictment of Jobs, still a secular saint for many Americans. Gibney also maintains that Jobs could well have gone to jail for backdating Apple stock options—if the government didn’t conclude that aggressive prosecution would have resulted in dire economic consequences for the country as well as a single, albeit powerful, corporation. The general tone of the film is congruent with the conclusions of Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s influential essay on the so-called “Californian Ideology”: Silicon Valley fused a veneer of neo-hippie idealism with a cutthroat competitiveness that resembles the idealization of selfishness espoused in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Why was the guru of the computer age so nasty to a large number of his friends and employees?

To be fair, there’s evidence that Jobs could be both remarkably generous, as well as cruel, to friends, family members, and employees. For example, although Jobs more or less abandoned his, and Chrisann Brennan’s, daughter Lisa, for the first ten years of her life and only reluctantly paid child support, he eventually made amends for his neglectful ways and proved an intermittently doting dad. Still, the film lays out the evidence that even friends and lovers frequently deemed Jobs an “asshole.” 

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Steve Jobs waves to the crowd after unveiling the new iPad 2 on March 2, 2011 in San Francisco, California. He passed away on October 5, 2011. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s impossible for a film to answer an existential question that remains something of an imponderable. But Gibney intimates that, despite Jobs’s youthful preoccupation with Zen, he could never find inner peace since his entrepreneurial zeal and innate narcissism surpassed his superficial desire for spiritual transcendence. As the journalist Joe Nocera remarks near the end of Gibney’s film, when he attacked Jobs in print, “people didn’t want to hear any criticism” of their idol and irate letters poured in. It will be instructive to see if Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine elicits similarly angry responses from Jobs groupies. 

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine opens in theaters and is available On Demand and iTunes this Friday.