Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Steve Jobs myth

Full disclosure: I have not seen Sorkin's new movie, Steve Jobs. And chances are, I probably won't, until it makes its way to Netflix or HBO.

The movie is getting some mixed early reviews, though most seem to be positive. Like this one, from Peter Travers at Rolling Stone:
Steve Jobs the movie aims to catch the man at three public points when people who defined their lives in relation to his showed up at the last minute to give him holy hell. Harsh? Yes. But essential to a film about a pioneer who created products with a slick, spotless veneer to hide all the tangled circuits inside. In Steve Jobs, sure to rank with the year's very best films, we see the circuits without ever diminishing the renegade whose vision is still changing our digital lives.
That's some seriously high praise. And there's more in the rest of the piece, for screenplay writer Aaron Sorkin, for director Danny Boyle, and most especially for lead actor Michael Fassbender. Judging by reviews like this, one can't help but assume the movie is Patton-esque in nature, that it perfectly captures the essence of Steve Jobs and relates the reality of the portion of his life it is built around. But not everyone is singing this same tune. Consider this review from Joe Nocera at the New York Times:
And although “Steve Jobs,” the movie, which opened in a handful of theaters on Friday, is highly entertaining, what struck me most was how little it had to do with the flesh and blood Steve Jobs...

In ways both large and small, Sorkin — as well as Michael Fassbender, the actor who plays Jobs — has failed to capture him in any meaningful sense.
Hmmm. There's more going on here than just individual preference, I think. These two reviews can't both be accurate, can they?

No, they can't. The movie's factual accuracy aside, Steve Jobs was a significant pioneer in computing and information technology whose presence was significant enough, whose impact was significant enough to not only allow a myriad of individual opinions on the man, but also to spawn any number of myths about him and the things he did (or didn't) do. But Steve Jobs was also just a person who only somewhat recently passed away. And as the head of a large company, he was a very public person, as well. So his "fundamental nature," as it were, his general disposition and mannerisms aren't really an unknown, aren't subject to myth-making. Or at least I don't think that they should be.

Steve Wozniak, for his part, had this to say about the movie:
Even though the real-world events didn’t happen as they do in the movie, Wozniak said Steve Jobs is the best depiction of Apple yet, and he has already seen it three times. Wozniak said that Michael Fassbender, whose performance has made him an Oscar favorite, showed the “brilliance” he loved about Jobs, as well as the flaws. “But it is not how Jobs acted in any way,” Wozniak said. “The movie is not about reality. It’s about personalities.”
I guess Wozniak would know better than anyone how accurate this movie is. If we take him at his word, the movie does a good job depicting the company, yet depicts Jobs wholly wrong. And yet, that's somehow okay and not a problem. Of course, Wozniak has a stake in this, insofar as he had a role in its production, but I don't think that's necessarily coloring his opinion. Rather, I think Wozniak is just a good guy and appreciative of where he is, where he came from, and what he's been able to do.

Wozniak had sung the praises of a previous film about Jobs, Gates, and himself: 1999's made for TV movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley. Of that effort, he said:
One of the things is, yes, it not only captures inside of Steve Jobs. It’s the events that occurred and what was their meaning in the development of computers and 'Pirates of Silicon Valley' was intriguing, interesting. I loved watching it.
When the film first came out in 1999, Wozniak was quite effusive then, as well. And obviously, 1999 was a lot closer to all of these events than 2015.

But I don't mean this to be about Wozniak's opinions. As I said. I think he comes across as a good guy, an honest guy (something not true of either Jobs or Gates in Pirates). I note his take mostly as a means of establishing the apparent acceptability of intentional myth-making. Because it's very obvious, based on both positive and negative reviews, that myth-making is what is going on in Steve Jobs, the movie.

I don't know how events are presented in this new movie, but for those interested in some reality, it's worth looking back to Pirates, because it perfectly captures just how cutthroat and underhanded Jobs and Gates were in the early days of Apple and Microsoft, even as both looked to the supposed enemy, IBM.

Fast forward past the PC/Apple wars, ultimately won by Gates and Microsoft, and it is Microsoft that became the Real Enemy for many hardcore computer-types. It walked through the front door of IBM and—almost instantly—assumed control of much of the computing world. Apple went from being a cutting edge titan to dominating a niche market defined by itself, alone. Mac people versus PC people, the latter outnumbered the former by huge margins for decades, oddly following the launch of the Macintosh, probably the best computer on the market in that moment.

And from this conflict, the figure of Jobs became something of a modern-day David, fighting the Goliath of Gates and Microsoft (which is funny, given how much wealth Gates accumulated and how he thought he had positioned Apple to be that Goliath). These were the seeds of the mythical Jobs, the one who slowly assumed a permanent place in the public conscience. Who he really was, what he really did or didn't do became largely superfluous. Because he was, fist and foremost, Steve Jobs the Visionary.

I have a hunch that this is the figure this new film is trying to capture. And maybe it does that effectively, which is why Wozniak is okay with it, as he knows the role the myth has played within the actual industry. I don't think I like it, treating people as the myths others see, rather than as the people they really are or were. But I guess it's a curse of our celebrity-obsessed culture to need such myths, to prefer them to reality, to use them for the purposed of self definition and identification.

Still, I don't think I'll see the new movie. I'll stick with actual history and Pirates, because I like seeing the stories of men, not gods.

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