Director Alex Gibney knows a thing or two about cults and powerful men, having taken on Enron, Scientology and James Brown. Now, with "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine," the prolific documentary director continues his myth-busting look into figures who transform our culture.
Although Steve Jobs acolytes might disagree, the visionary founder of Apple who revolutionized the tech industry and the way we connect with one another gets the documentary he deserves in "The Man in the Machine."
The film starts with YouTube clips of children expressing their grief over Jobs' death. "I've been crying. I expected him to be around a little longer," says one teenager to the camera. "He made the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad," says one tween in another clip. "He's made everything."
The love evident in these expressions of grief -- "iSad" and "I love you, Steve" were messages surrounding Jobs shrines around the world -- were the result, in part, of the branding and marketing of Apple that had its origins in Jobs' vision that Apple was going to be the anti-IBM, upending the idea, as one person says, that "computers were faceless and something to be afraid of." His legendary "1984" commercial directed by Ridley Scott positioned Apple as the anti-IBM that would save consumers from themselves turning into faceless drones.
But Gibney and some of the tech journalists and authors he interviews suggest that slavishly falling in love with a tech product -- no matter how empowering, cool or "loveable" it is -- comes with its own dangers. One of the many ironies of the Apple brand and its products that Gibney reveals is the drone-like devotion and even obsession many consumers had with his seductive technologies that were easy to use, helped unleash creativity, and created a kind of intimacy between human and machine that one could argue were unprecedented.
"It wasn't just for you, it was you," says tech philosopher Sherry Turkel of Apple's products, suggesting they prompted a Narcissus-like danger of falling in love with what's reflected back in a mirror-like object. The titles of two seminal Turkel books show the arc of the impact Apple products had on culture and how we relate to one another as a result. In 1984, soon after Apple burst on the scene, she wrote "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit." And in 2012, when Apple was one of the most lucrative brands on the planet, she published "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other."
Gibney insinuates that the man who helped people to connect through technology -- but who himself could not connect -- has somehow passed that onto the "alone together" generation of people staring at their phones while with other people.
"The Man in the Machine" also suggests that what propelled Jobs forward and helped him make seemingly impossible things happen, inspiring cult-like devotion among employees and consumers, was the same source that could make him ruthless and some would argue, even sociopathic.
Although Jobs was a visionary, he could be a rotten person to friends, family and employees. On this front, Gibney covers ground well-trodden in books like Walter Isaacson's authorized biography such as when Jobs hired grade-school friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to work on an Atari project, only to have Jobs pocket nearly the entire payment. Not only did ex-girlfriend Chris-Ann Brennan, who was the mother of his first child, Lisa, recount the verbal abuse she suffered while with Jobs, she describes the feeling of having him deny that Lisa was his child, which allowed the multimillionaire to evade child support to the young mother on welfare. While a DNA test would eventually reveal he was the father and they eventually reconnected, it was not an entirely unproblematic relationship.
And evidence of Jobs and Apple's villain-like behavior piles up, from the shoddy conditions at Chinese iPhone factories that prompted so many worker suicides that the plant had to put up netting to catch their falls, to Apple's pollution of Chinese rivers from the chemicals used to manufacture iPhones, to the corporation's Irish tax havens and stock backdating scandals.
Unlike Bill Gates, whose philanthropy has been well-publicized, Jobs thought philanthropy was a waste of time, and under his second tenure at Apple, all philanthropic activity ceased.
"Jobs purported to advance the values of the counterculture, but he functioned more like Ayn Rand," Gibney said in a Q&A after the film about Jobs, whose heroes were Bob Dylan and who wanted Apple products to reveal the spirit of Zen Buddhists and poets more than corporations and bankers. "It became an ideology, redolent in the liberatarian aspect of Silicon Valley."
But there's no doubt that Gibney feels an admiration for Jobs, Apple and its products. "Be like Steve Jobs" Gibney said on Thursday, was simply something he wanted to question in his documentary.
"His genius was showmanship, wrapping his products in secrecy and then revealing it in the big show: 'We just got the latest fire from Prometheus,' " Gibney said.
Fire is bright, but it also burns. In an interview with Bob Belleville, one of Apple's earliest developers, he talks about how he lost his wife and kids while devoting his life to the earliest Mac, as he often bore the brunt of Jobs' wrath and expectations. But it's clear he adored the man -- or maybe his products.
Tellingly, Belleville's eulogy for Jobs slides into an ode to an object: "They’re so personal. They’re warm in your hand. They sing to you when you’re alone. They’re caressed. He did everything he wanted. And all on his own terms. Even if it was a bit expensive for those of us who were close.”
Magnolia Pictures will release "Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine" in theaters, on iTunes and VOD on Friday, September 4th.