You’re probably going to hear a lot about Steve Jobs over the next several weeks. The Danny Boyle directed Steve Jobs comes out in October, and early reviews of the Aaron Sorkin penned film out of Telluride have been superb. The reviews I’ve read also hammer home a simple theme: Steve Jobs was an asshole.
Jobs’ assholery is not revelatory. It was mostly glossed over in the dreadful Ashton Kutcher film, Jobs, but ahead of Steve Jobs next month, there’s an Alex Gibney documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine that came out in theaters and VOD last week, and it paints a similar portrait of Jobs. In fact, The Man in the Machine goes to great lengths to illustrate that Jobs may have been a brilliant mind, but he was a lousy person. I saw plenty of footage and heard from enough talking heads in the Gibney documentary to take his word for it, too. Steve Jobs may have been a visionary, but he was also a visionary asshole.
There’s really no shortage of accounts on Jobs’ prickly personality online, either. He was a guy who screwed over his partner Steve Wozniak, he cut all philanthropy efforts at Apple when he took over as CEO in 1997, and he even refused to meet with Obama until the president personally invited him, only to turn around and shit-talk the President when they finally sat down together.
Here’s Steve Jobs on the failure of MobileMe in 2008, according to Forbes:
“Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” Jobs reportedly asked the MobileMe team after the fumbled launch. When he received an answer, he continued, “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?”
Jobs didn’t stop there.
“You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation,” he reportedly told the team. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.”
Even in public, he was a jackass, as you can see here when a man in a wheelchair who traveled 25 hours to meet Jobs was told to “sign it yourself” when he asked Jobs to autograph an original copy of a Macworld issue with Jobs on the cover. When the man persisted, Jobs says, “Oh, now lay on the guilt, start crying,” before finally relenting.
After spending two hours with Steve Jobs in the Gibney documentary, I felt a mild sense of revulsion for the man, who was so stubborn and narcissistic that he ultimately died, in part, because he thought he could cure his own cancer. He did not seem to be a particularly good father, especially to the illegitimate daughter he long denied; he was a lousy friend; and he seemed to motivate his employees with a toxic blend of shame and fear. He was so awful a man that he actually managed to make me feel sympathy for Gawker Media after Gibney relayed the lengths Steve Jobs went to in order to harass Gizmodo employees for reporting on a found iPhone.
For those of you who might not have known this about Jobs, you’ll almost certainly get a huge dose of it over the next month, as Steve Jobs’ release date grows closer. I guess the question is: Does it matter that Steve Jobs was an asshole? Will Steve Jobs diminish his legacy? Or will it grow his legend ever bigger? Will it suggest that the easiest path to success is through assholery? Or will it feel like an unnecessary character assassination on a man who has only been dead for four years?
I’m not sure, although I suspect his reputation will take a short-term hit that will be largely overtaken by his legacy in ten years’ time. Few remember the shortcomings of great leaders; they only remember they were great leaders. Besides, the biggest takeaway I got from The Man in the Machine was a depressing one, namely that Steve Jobs created a brilliant piece of technology in the iPhone/iPad that both connected the world together and turned us into lesser human beings: A detached collection of people who opt for the short bursts of adrenaline we get from checking our phones over listening to and responding to the people sitting in front of us. If Steve Jobs is our technology God, and we are made in the image of our maker, I guess that makes the rest of us assholes, too. We just aren’t visionary enough to have movies made about us.