Every few years, my husband makes the suggestion (threat?) to turn my original 1984 Macintosh into a techno-aquarium. Yes, one with real fish swimming in it. At one time it was the cool thing to do. My response is always to staunchly scream, “No way!” And my Macintosh travels with us every time we move. It seems to me that the recent film Jobs (2013) had the opportunity to explore why it is that many of us who lived in Silicon Valley at the time might feel, not just techno-nostalgia for a device, but also excitement to have participated in a significant technological sea change.
Sadly, the film never really provides insight about these emotions; instead it falls back on pathetic clichés. For instance, when the Jobs character (this is not a documentary) is speaking to a future designer of the iPod, the designer says that people view the world in black and white, but we “dream in color.” This is meant to illustrate a “philosophy” or feeling-tone for approaching the design of new and cool things. Aside from the potential cognitive fallacy of that statement, it is a tired and vacuous way to account for why people like me hang on to their original Macintosh computers.
Jobs goes the way of the “great men of history” route, depicting Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as a visionary with ultimately bad business acumen. From beginning to end he is the same character—a jerk with some good ideas who cannot work well with people. Usually, the message of such a film is that great visionaries need to push people beyond their sad little boundaries to accomplish something great. But the caricature of Jobs leaves audiences wondering what exactly he brought to the table. He is depicted as tech-oriented but not a technologist and as a person who ultimately threatens the success of his company due to lack of business savvy and myopic devotion to his interpretation of good design. This character does seem to have some good intuitions but is even better at exploiting friends or pilfering others’ ideas. At one point in the film, the Jobs character becomes apoplectically angry that Apple’s ideas are stolen by Microsoft, but the film ignores influences from other places like (then) Xerox PARC or SRI International and their contributions to Apple’s desktop computer interfaces, which were used in creating the Macintosh.
Although he is good at putting technologist friends to work, the film does not depict Jobs as particularly technical. The beginning of the film shows a loose montage of his interests in Eastern philosophies and calligraphy, images which become a kind of visual, techno-primordial soup that somehow gives rise to a great series of products and techno-philosophies. However, most people who are interested in “things Apple” knew of these influences, and so they learn nothing. Because they are presented in casual montage, people who are unaware of these influences, I believe, also learn very little or might not even understand the connections the film is making.
Criticizing the “great men of history” narrative as portrayed in this film is rather like shooting fish in a barrel for STS scholars, who are quite aware that good ideas take teams of people and historical forces to produce significant change. But it is nevertheless important to track how techno-histories and leaders are portrayed in public ways. Notably, the film itself provides clues that Jobs was tapping into a zeitgeist of events in computer history rather than single-handedly creating change. But the film does not answer the question of what his role really was. Visionary? Great marketer? Failed businessman? Guru? Or just a jerk.
It is said that characters’ first appearances in a film speak volumes about their core. The earliest images we see of Jobs are the back of his head as he strides in his particular way to an Apple Town Meeting where he will introduce the iPod. Forcing the audience to follow Jobs is perhaps a heavy-handed way of saying that one never quite walked with Jobs, but only behind him, at least from his point of view. Sometimes the audience follows him into a meeting where he unveils something truly interesting. At another time, we follow him into a Romanesque secret meeting in which he is ousted form his own company.
I have to say I didn’t really appreciate the way Steve Wozniak was simplistically portrayed as a technologist who couldn’t explain technology and was always eating. I found the scene where he is presenting to the Homebrew Computer Club at Stanford University to be particularly suspicious. Most likely in his element at such a technical gathering, I would imagine that such an elite group would reject the ooh/aah Jobsian presentation style that later develops for the general public. The Homebrew audience would quite likely be focused on what Wozniak was presenting from a technical point of view.
The Wozniak character is portrayed in the film as having a much higher emotional intelligence quotient than that of the character of Jobs, which is not difficult to achieve. Although the film opens with the Jobs character saying, “When you touch someone’s heart, it’s limitless,” this quote quickly becomes ironic and sad for the character personally. This character exploits, betrays, brow beats, wreaks revenge, and ultimately only “touches” people in mostly negative ways.
Still, the film awkwardly suggests that somehow by plugging into a zeitgeist, Jobs did touch people’s hearts through the design of cool and useful things—they were just people he didn’t know or care about. Going in, I had a suspicion that I would not like this film. I expected Apple enthusiasts to be portrayed as I have seen in other films—as mindless devotees who were mesmerized by their great guru and techno-spiritual advisor. In the opening scene where the iPod is introduced at Apple, I was not surprised to see employees depicted as looking up in rapt ways at this brand new and amazing technical object that will change their worldview. But perhaps it is wrong to judge the message of this scene or the film in this way. The fact is that many of us did feel a sense of excitement about the increased abilities and possibilities that these devices represented.
The film struggles, even on its own terms, because the character of Jobs is not appealing and never changes. People throughout the film keep observing that Jobs has “changed.” But this is never true. From the earliest scenes he cheats on his girlfriend, is rude and exploitative to people who help him, and staunchly maintains a misplaced arrogance. At the end of the film, the coda of his life’s work (*SPOILER ALERT?*) is to achieve the same level of successful Romanesque back-stabbing and corporate revenge that was done unto him. Somehow, even when he rights what he sees as egregious wrongs, the audience can never get behind this character.
I think, though, that the film does depict some interesting nuggets of truth that are worth exploring further. Having had friends work on start-ups, it does seem that there is a moment in which a new technology’s developers and the business team hired to nurture it begin to change focus. Talented technologists may find themselves shut out of the very companies they worked hard to create. It is too simplistic to say that these are binary positions; obviously cooperation is possible and necessary. But it can be a painful process to find the very executives you have hired to help you ultimately showing you the door.
Another nugget I found interesting was that the Jobs character arrogantly eschews higher education as a productive means to techno-enlightenment. In a sadly throw-away role, James Woods portrays a professor who urges Jobs to stay in school and take electronics courses, given the field’s emerging importance. The Jobs character initially rejects this suggestion, equating electronics with low-level technical repair. Such a vignette eloquently illustrates the concept of performing technical affiliation that I have previously discussed, in which people espouse ideas or values assumed to be associated with technical groups. Technologists often perform affiliation to the idea (whether or not they actually believe it, or believe it in varying degrees) that one cannot learn the rapidly changing field of technology through didactic, institutional means, but rather should learn on their own. What is of course ironic about the vignette is that the Jobs character is depicted as learning things through taking courses, such as taking a calligraphy class, or even hanging out in an institutional environment where he has accesses to other technologists and can exchange ideas.
Certainly at that time, a techno-cultural movement was brewing in Silicon Valley. Something interesting really did emerge and forged a path to new territory that many of us appreciated. It’s just a shame that Jobs didn’t really show us how we got there.
Perhaps the coolest thing about this film was, ultimately, the music.