The gears on the Steve Jobs legacy train are grinding.
Over the last four years we've had a Walter Isaacson biography about Jobs hit bookshelves nearly two weeks after the Apple co-founder's death, an Ashton Kutcher flick two years later—which, at that point, was already the second time Jobs had been portrayed on the big screen—and classics such as The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, Inside Steve’s Brain, The 66 Secrets of Steve Jobs, and The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, sprinkled in between. When the Sony email leaks happened, we found out about the drama behind the Aaron Sorkin film that's based on Isaacson's book, and is supposed to be the "good" Jobs movie. Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale were both attached to play Jobs, but both dropped out. Now we have Danny Boyle directing, Seth Rogen playing Steve Wozniak, and Michael Fassbender as Jobs—even if Fassbender looks just as much like Jobs as Robert Durst looks innocent. It comes out this fall.
Overwhelmed? Too bad, because we’re getting two more Jobs examinations this year, each with their own spin on his legacy. There's Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine, a documentary loaded with criticisms of Jobs, Apple, and fanboy culture; and Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader, a biography that drops today which shows him as a considerate boss and friend in the prime of his career—themes that Apple says weren't highlighted enough in Isaacson's biography.
So was he a genius worthy of praise? Or just a menacing leader who rolled over family and employees to get what he desired? And you thought people were divided over Apple and Android—the debate with Jobs is just as heated.
Man in the Machine is Oscar-winner Alex Gibney's take on how "ruthless, deceitful, and cruel" Jobs could be, as he says himself early on in the film. In a much talked about scene that illustrates the polarizing affect Jobs had on people, Bob Belleville—the former Director of Engineering of Apple from 1982 to 1985—talks about Jobs’ demands, and how his commitment to the company ended up costing him his family and marriage. Surprisingly, he seems thankful for it. He even tears up, though there's a mixture of both resentment and adoration in his quivering voice.
Gibney describes how Jobs chewed out an employee for screwing up a product when the employee came to him with a resignation. The film also reportedly spends a good chunk of time on Jobs and Apple's questionable financial dealings. Then there's Foxconn, the factory in China where workers riot and commit suicide partly due to long hours spent building iPhones and other Apple products for low pay.
Much of this isn't really "new" information, and was already covered by Isaacson. But Man in the Machine is one of the first major projects to target criticisms of Jobs' so directly, instead of passing over them to focus on the inspirational themes of his story. It's a film that, in some ways, seems to have been made just for the sake of bringing balance to the worshipful portraits of Jobs (and Apple) over the last few years—even if that damages its credibility. "By the end I think you see that Apple actually was a company that—particularly under Jobs—was pretty ruthless in the way it dealt with its workers, with the environment, with local laws," Gibney says. "Both are representative of who Steve was."
Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services, called Gibney's documentary “inaccurate and mean-spirited" in a recent tweet. Apple itself declined to participate, and Jobs' widow pulled out after initially agreeing to an interview. And Cue's not alone. The company has gone out of its way to bash the film, but have tossed their support behind Rick Tetzeli and Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs.
Excerpts of the book so far play up Jobs’ more personable side, and his transition from an arrogant teenager to a leader. One recent Fast Company article written by the authors was even titled, “The Steve Jobs You Didn’t Know: Kind, Patient, and Human.” Unlike Gibney, Tetzeli and Schlender were able to get access to Apple executives, like Jony Ive and CEO Tim Cook, though it took the authors more than a year to convince them. The book devotes chapters to Jobs' friendships with his execs, and with Disney CEO Bob Iger.
One of Cook's stories tries to illustate Jobs' selflessness (a word you don't see very much in the same sentence with "Jobs"). In it, Cook explains how Jobs refused to have Cook donate part of his liver to him, even though Jobs was suffering through the cancer that would eventually take his life. "Somebody that’s selfish doesn’t reply like that," Cook said. "This picture of him isn’t understood." Though, to that, someone might look at Bill Gates, who has given a ton of his wealth to philanthropy and asked Jobs to join his efforts. Jobs ended Apple’s philanthropic programs when he returned in 1997 and declined Gates' invitation. Still, Jobs captures our attention more than Gates.
A big part of this "picture" Cook mentions was crafted from Isaacson's heavily researched biography, Steve Jobs—which, evidently, Apple employees seem to hate. "I thought the Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice," Cook said. "It was just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written, and focused on small parts of his personality. You get the feeling that [Steve’s] a greedy, selfish egomaniac. It didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I would never have wanted to work with over all this time. Life is too short."
Ive, even though he only read parts of Isaacon's book, said that his "regard couldn’t be any lower" for it. Is it a coincidence that Apple execs are just now expressing their opinions on a four-year-old book? Not really. If Apple wanted to polish up Jobs' image, Becoming Steve Jobs is its best chance to date, and making sure it's received as the "definitive" book is important. The official Apple iBooks Twitter account even tweeted a recommendation:
Becoming Steve Jobs and Man in the Machine sway in two different directions, each trying to counter the other—one digging up dirt, the other trying to water the seeds. Both will still be devoured by audiences, because even if we already know the major plot points of his life, there's still an unrelenting fascination with Jobs—which, in itself, is interesting.
This is the era of anti-heroes—Walter White, Don Draper, Tony Soprano—and Jobs' life fits right in with the stories that appeal to us right now. He's handsome, successful, and intelligent, an asshole who's Draper-esque in his ability to seduce and intimidate. He's also tragic, like these characters, in his hubris (he opted not to use life-saving treatment for his cancer so that he could use natural treatment instead). But Jobs was a real person, with real hardships and sacrifices, like being put up for adoption and dropping out of college, that he overcame to become successful. His ruthlessness and selfishness, coupled with his smarts, makes him all the more intriguing. Jobs is still the closest Silicon Valley has had to a rock star in the land of geeks.
While Jobs was a dick, unless you met him in real life, it didn't affect you directly. The stories about his firing or embarrassing employees are just that, stories. What did have an affect on us was the technology he helped create, so we venerate him like we do Kanye West or Bill Murray because we like how his products make us feel. We project our love for the devices onto the person whose face we associate with creating them—even if the story of Apple in the post-Jobs era is largely about correcting some of the decisions Jobs got wrong, like not making iPhones bigger.
If you don't think Jobs could be inspirational and honest, just watch his commencement speech to the Stanford class of 2005. Whereas we lacked any type of personal interaction with Jobs, this was the one time it felt like he was talking to us, and not just to unveil a product. His ability to inspire is the key reason why we still have so many books and films coming out about him, and we aren't just satisfied with our devices.
We like to analyze successful people to seek inspiration, for any type of blueprint to live our lives by, so that we can tap into their secrets and we, too, can hope to have a chance at that success. We want guidance, anything that can tell us what to do to leave a mark on the world—to be more than what we are. Just look at four of the books I mentioned earlier: The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, Inside Steve’s Brain, The 66 Secrets of Steve Jobs, and The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Isaacson's Steve Jobs has sold more than three million copies. This especially resonates with the tech crowd—many founders have said that Jobs is an inspiration to them, an example of how to run their business. Perhaps that's why it's easy to look past the murkier things about him, like not accepting his first child as his own.
Will Jobs' legacy fade if Apple fails in the coming years? I don't think so. Even while Apple is now comfortable voicing their opinions on Jobs-criticism so that he'll seem friendlier, that's not why people are interested in Jobs. The positive spin to his legacy will already outlast the negative, if only because it inspires us.
During his product presentations, Jobs liked to tease the audience. Just when it seemed like the presentation was over, he'd say said, "One more thing." This is how the colored iMac was first unveiled. And the iPod Shuffle. You expected surprises while he was up on stage, and even though you knew it was coming, you worried that it—just maybe—wouldn't. Even after his death, people are still searching for one final thing, the last secret that'll unlock the mystery of Jobs—even if it's something we'll never find.
"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad,” Oscar Wilde said. “People are either charming or tedious." If Jobs was around today to see all of this attention around his life, he wouldn’t give a shit what you thought of him either way. What he would care about is what you thought of his work: charming, or tedious?