Last night I attended a press screening for Alex Gibney’s documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” that opens in theaters and VOD on Friday, September 4th. The film is a brilliant analysis of both the man and the company he built. Since Gibney’s last documentary was on Scientology, it was natural to wonder whether he decided to take on another cult. When Jobs died, Gibney was struck by the mass grief that poured out for the CEO after the fashion of Princess Di. What explained such devotion? Since Gibney owned and treasured his IPhone, this was a question that provoked him into making this film. As someone who likes but does not exactly love his Macbook, and who spent 44 years working as a systems analyst and a programmer, the question of Apple’s place in the American economy and society is also of great interest to me.
There’s another connection. Back in 1967 I met Rod Holt in the New York branch of the Socialist Workers Party, a wiry fellow with close-cropped hair who I found more interesting than most party veterans since he was an engineer and had raced motorcycles—not the typical resume for a Trotskyist. Years later I learned that Holt would become one of the five founding members of Apple. As such I was spurred to watch the 2013 narrative film “Jobs” on Amazon streaming that includes Holt as a minor character. This review will take up both films as a prelude to the new film about Steve Jobs by Danny Boyle that will premiere in the Lincoln Center Film Festival next month. It is understandable why three films will have taken up the Steve Jobs story. Apple now enjoys the highest capitalization of any American corporation at 724 billion dollars, twice that of ExxonMobil. If a film like “There Will be Blood” or “Citizen Kane” documented the ugly character of previous generations of the bourgeoisie, the three films about Steve Jobs bring us up to date on how the computer revolution turns entrepreneurs into monsters—the latest report on Amazon’s treatment of white collar workers bears this out. In many ways, Jobs was the prototypical Silicon Valley terror anticipating Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin. Unlike these more recent avatars of the computer ruling class, the 1960s counter-culture shaped Steve Jobs as both Gibney and Joshua Michael Stern, the director of “Jobs”, make clear. Devotee of Eastern religion and Bob Dylan, wearing long hair, and with a background in phone phreaking escapades, Jobs seemed the least likely candidate for building a corporation twice as big as ExxonMobil—itself the product of a merger of two behemoths. Figuring out how that took place was exactly what drove Alex Gibney into making the most important documentary of 2015.
Born in 1955, Steve Jobs was in his late teens during the biggest shake-up in American society since the 1930s. Unlike me, ten years his senior and ten years Rod Holt’s junior, Jobs was far more interested in Enlightenment than socialism. You have to remember that the thirst for spiritual transcendence was very deep at the time, powerful enough to turn antiwar leaders Rennie Davis and Jerry Rubin into searchers after Transcendence either in the form of a Hindu guru’s cult and EST respectively. EST was a training program that was founded by Werner Erhard designed to help yuppies solve problems after the fashion of Scientology. Erhard cobbled together some techniques that he had picked up from Zen Buddhism. and psychotherapy The CEO of the consulting company I worked for in the 1980s was an EST follower although he never foisted his beliefs on me. The idea that Zen Buddhism could be a guide to business success for both Steve Jobs and my boss might seem strange at first but one must never forget that Zen Buddhists were gung-ho for Japanese imperialism in WWII as I mentioned to Gibney in the Q&A.
Like so many others from his generation, Jobs went to India on a pilgrimage to seek Wisdom with his friend Daniel Kottke who would become one of Apple’s founders. As both films point out, Jobs decided to allocate zero shares to Kottke when Apple was incorporated. He was very good at throwing people under the bus. When Jobs was at Atari in his first real job, the boss offered him a $5000 bonus if he could come up with a really great game. Needing hardware assistance, he recruited Steve Wozniak who was told that he could get half the bonus if they succeeded. But Jobs lied and told Woz that the bonus was only for $750.
That’s not the half of it. When Jobs’s girlfriend became pregnant, he retained a lawyer to help him avoid paying child support, claiming that she had screwed around so much that nobody could tell who the father was. Eventually a DNA test proved that he was the father. Even if he wasn’t, his millions could have easily helped to support the child of someone with whom he had been intimate.
Gibney gives the devil his due. In capturing Jobs’s single-minded devotion to crafting user-friendly and beautiful machines, you are reminded of why Apple became dominant. Unlike Detroit, Silicon Valley was always much more sensitive to marketing trends since so much of personal computing was driven by taste. And once Apple embarked on making products like the IPod, the IPhone, and the IPad, it was possible for consumers to really feel like the computer was an extension of their self. Gibney wonders, however, whether this is at the expense of the social bonding that was so important in the 1960s. If you go into a restaurant nowadays, you will often find a family of four fixated on their IPhone as each course is delivered, with conversation going by the wayside. The phone becomes worry beads that you can’t keep your hands off of.
The final fifteen minutes or so of Gibney’s film is a rather scathing summary of Jobs’s misdeeds from avoiding taxes to screwing Chinese workers out of a living wage as he polluted their rivers with industrial waste. Of particular interest is how Steve Jobs used a special task force of Silicon Valley police to go after a reporter for Gizmodo who had reported on an early release of an IPhone that a drunken Apple employee had left behind in a bar and that had come into his hands. Even after the phone had been returned, the cops raided the reporter’s home and carted off computers and other valuables. When asked by a TV interviewer why he had resorted to such repressive measures, Jobs replied that he was trying to uphold Apple “values”. In the Q&A, someone asked Gibney what question he would have asked Jobs if he had had the opportunity to interview him. He replied that he would have asked him to define what are his “values”.
I can’t recommend “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” highly enough. For my money, Alex Gibney is the best documentary filmmaker working today, an equal to Werner Herzog. With 35 credits to his name, including “Taxi to the Dark Side” about the American torture regime, Gibney combines acute social analysis with fluid documentary techniques. As is always the case with documentaries, there is a need to tell a story just as much as there is with narrative films. Since Gibney described Jobs as someone who excelled in telling a story, this is a film that was a perfect match of filmmaker and subject matter.
Despite the fact that only 27 percent of critics found it “fresh” on rottentomatoes.com, I consider “Jobs” to be a compelling film with a remarkable fidelity to the facts, at least based on its close parallels with Gibney’s documentary. Of course, since 98 percent of critics found the wretched “Mad Max: Fury Road” to be “fresh”, there’s no accounting for aesthetic judgments among my peers.
Although I am by no means an Aston Kutcher fan, he captured the essence of Jobs as a brilliant martinet who had about as much warmth as a lamprey eel. Since the film does not try to deal with Apple Corporation’s disgusting behavior overseas, most of the negative side of the Jobs ledger is devoted to his treatment of his girlfriend and workmates including Daniel Kottke.
Much of the drama is centered on fights in the boardroom with former CEO John Scully who is depicted as a hidebound bureaucrat who cares more about the quarterly earnings than Apple’s mission as a corporation that “thinks different”. The most interesting scenes, however, involve Jobs’s interaction with his fellow designers and engineers who are on his wavelength. No matter how much of a prick he was, he appeared to be a very good judge of talent and an inspirer of those who chose to walk the same road with him.
One aspect of the narrative film that is passed over in the documentary is how Jobs and Wozniak presented their first computer to the Homebrew Computer Club in the Bay Area, which was nothing but a circuit board and barely worthy of notice by those in attendance.
In my very first article on the Internet, which was a review of a book about the personal computer industry called “Hackers”, I referred to Homebrew:
So enamored of the idea of personal computing were Felsenstein and Halbrecht that they then launched something called the Homebrew Computer Club. The club drew together the initial corps of engineers and programmers who would launch the personal computer revolution. Among the participants were a couple of adolescents named Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak who went on to form the Apple Corporation.
The hacker ethic that prevailed at the Homebrew Computer Club was decidedly anticapitalist, but not consciously pro-socialist. Software was freely exchanged at the club and the idea of proprietary software was anathema to the club members. There were 2 hackers who didn’t share these altruistic beliefs, namely Paul Allen and Bill Gates. When Allen and Gates discovered that their version of Basic that was written for the Altair was being distributed freely at the club, they raised hell. The 19-year-old Gates stated in a letter to the club: “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?”
For those who have followed the personal computer and Internet revolution for the past 25 years or so, you are aware of the tension between private and public that remains unresolved. For every scumbag like Zuckerberg anxious to enjoy the kind of monopoly that IBM once had in the mainframe business, there are others willing to work for free on Wikipedia, Open Source journals, free software, and the like. If capitalism creates the technology that allows the instant communication links that make runaway shops feasible, it also creates the networks that allow activists to build solidarity across national boundaries that will oppose capitalist exploitation. This is the contradiction that marks late capitalism more than any other in some ways.
Nobody better represents the intersection between public and private than Rod Holt who was the lead engineer on the Apple II and who worked on the Macintosh as well. In the Q&A I told Gibney that Holt paid tribute to Jobs not long after he died even if his values clashed with his former Apple pioneer. Here is what he told Marxmail subscribers:
Just a remark here:
Concerning Steve Jobs:
I worked with Steve from the Summer of 1976 to his ouster. I was responsible for the Apple II hardware design and its manufacture. I was in charge of the Macintosh group until its launch in 1984. I was twice anointed with the title “Apple Fellow”. I’m sick and tired of people making judgements without the slightest idea of what they are talking about. They buy the official myths fabricated by various individuals around Apple (including the 2 Steves themselves). I have in my possession enough original documents to back up what I am saying.
There were 5 (five) founders of Apple Computer:
Mike Markkula, Chairman of the board of directors
Mike Scott, CEO and President
Steve Jobs, V.P. of Marketing
Steve Wozniak, V.P. Software
Rod Holt, V.P. Engineering
We were incorporated in the state of California effective Jan. 1, 1977 with the above 5 officers. Apple Computer had never been incorporated earlier.
I will just say here that the history of Apple in Wikipedia is seriously incorrect. Most other histories are also wildly wrong. Some of this was deliberately done by Steve Jobs, but most can be attributed to sloppy journalism. Some is due to bad memories.
Steve Jobs wanted products that he would buy and use. For the rest of Apple, the creators produced what they wanted to buy. The success stemmed from this simple set of motives.
Marxists should understand that the Apple products grew from the social environment of these times in silicon valley. There was a confluence here of what we, the designers, wanted and what the world wanted. I could go into more detail if there were room and time, but really, that’s the story.
Jobs was very, very bright, a genius perhaps. So was Woz. And Scotty too. We never lacked for brains. One of Steve’s remarkable abilities was that he listened. I would get into a fierce argument with him, go into the executive staff meeting and be floored when he would take my position exactly, understanding every bit of my arguments, re-phrase them and then convince everyone. I’ve never to this day met anyone that could dispute and at the same time listen so well.
But, for heavens sake, let’s remember that leaders of corporations have to make profits or else they are on the street looking for a job. Steve Jobs wanted a billion happy customers, a goal he could reach only as a super-capitalist. So that’s what he became. It wasn’t where he started, but that’s what happened. The fact that so much ink is expended by the press is embarrassing, but that’s just the byproduct. I’m sure he would be as embarrassed as I am now.
If anyone wants particulars from me, he can ask.
Recent photo of Steve Wozniak and Rod Holt
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From Walter Isaacson’s biography:
Posted by Rod Holt to Marxmail on August 29th:
Remarks on Steve Jobs as a Phenomenon
[The producers of the first Jobs movie, “Jobs” kindly loaned a preprint to the Roxie Theater in San Francisco so that my old friends and Apple co-workers could have a party—which we did, wall to wall.
After the showing that Thursday afternoon, here and there, I offered my opinion on the movie and its social meaning. That raised a few eyebrows and more questions. I have since been asked to explain myself, a reasonable request. Since my outlook differs a lot from that of many of us, I thought it proper to clarify what I meant when I talked about Steve as being intrinsically anti-capitalist. By that I meant that Steve was opposed to the “alienation of labor”, while the alienation of labor is intrinsic to capitalist production.
The term “alienation of labor” is a technical term, and like many in philosophy and economics, doesn’t quite mean what one would think. The shortest explanation of the concept is found in Wikipedia. Of course, the concept is not the property of Marx but has been part of the thinking of many thinkers since the rise of capitalism.
In the Wikipedia article, there is a quotation where Marx imagines production with non-alienated labor:
“… In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. . . . Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.”
Steve Jobs wanted his products enjoyed as expressing his essential nature, and therefore in the general sense, he was an artist with the development team and its laboratories as his studio.
In the capitalist system, products are produced by workers paid in money and with tools owned by the capitalist. The sole purpose of the product is to be sold to realize a profit. This process eliminates the artist altogether. Wikipedia sums this up:
In a capitalist society, the worker’s alienation from his and her humanity occurs because the worker can only express labour — a fundamental social aspect of personal individuality — through a privately-owned system of industrial production in which each worker is an instrument, a thing, not a person.
So the product of labor under capitalism, the commodity, is not what Steve Jobs intended to sell. He was selling something better, something more. As far as he was concerned, profit was just fine, but not at the expense of that “something more.”
I wrote the few paragraphs below without a discussion of the alienation of labor, which is an unusual social-philosophical concept. As a result of this omission, there were some misunderstandings. For example, the alienation of labor does not mean the alienation of workers.
The fact that Steve was driven by his vision of beautiful products, “insanely great” as he would say, didn’t prevent us from glorying in our own contribution of non-alienated labor.
I do not believe Steve grasped the notion of alienated labor in and of itself. It is impossible to imagine the tens of thousands of Chinese laborers getting any whiff of the intoxicating perfume in the air we enjoyed in the early years at Apple.
Let me take on the task of explaining my view of Steve and the “First Five Years of Apple Computer.” Over the years, I’ve listened to lots of people with theories of how Apple succeeded, what was the magic ingredient, and whether the life of Steve Jobs verified the Great Man theory of history or not. I believe that the overwhelming majority of commentators miss the point completely. This is not surprising not only because they weren’t there, but also because what actually went on at Apple completely contradicts some central myths of Modern Capitalism.
I will state my thesis here as briefly as I can. I will not be writing a book proving every jot and tittle on the way to a grand conclusion. However, I feel competent to defend the thesis against any opponent. The first few years of Apple Computer were remarkable because labor was not alienated labor in the Marxist sense. We were not producing commodities for the sake of profit. In many respects, even as the company grew beyond all expectations, inertia carried this extraordinary characteristic forward until the Scully era.
The first three years at Apple were marked by a strong bond between all the participants, and between all of us and the product. We were building a product for ourselves and everybody throughout the world who were like us. (People tend to think everybody except the Other are like themselves in fundamental ways.) This was a product we wanted. And that was why we stayed up nights solving problems as they cropped up. Nobody in the early days was doing their job with the pay envelope in mind. Nobody. Even the production people putting Apples into boxes believed (correctly) they were sending their product to someone like themselves who would appreciate it, and more, marvel over it.
We made no shortcuts whatsoever. Not one. For example, Steve had the boxes carefully marked with our name and logo in red on the cleanest of clean white cardboard. Later, we got a shipment where the ink had smeared and the boxes “looked like shit,” as Jobs put it. So without regard for the fact that nearly 200 Apples were sitting in production ready to go, Steve shipped the boxes back. Both Markkula [Chairman of the Board] and Scotty [Mike Scott, President and CEO] screamed, but they were too late; the bad boxes were gone. And the whole factory silently applauded.
Again: We were in agony when the paint showed signs of peeling off the first cases, which (it turned out) were contaminated by the release compound from the molds. While orders piled up, we didn’t ship until we had stripped the paint, found a method for cleaning the cases and then repainted them. Everything that went wrong met a concentrated corrective effort. When it was clear that the cases made by the RIM (Reaction Injection Molding) method were not ever going to meet our standard, Steve and I took an airplane to Portland, Oregon to start an intensive program to make a new set of molds for an altogether new process that promised perfection (high pressure injection-molded foamed Noryl). Fortunately, our case design was suited to both the material and the process, and without dawdling we jumped right in and Steve wrote some big checks for the tooling. When quality of the product was considered, manufacturing cost was always second.
I worked with Steve (cheek to jowl at times) for the first 7 years and I think I came to know him at least as well as anybody. We never had a conflict over product quality as such. I did have arguments on “features.” Take for example one dispute over the Macintosh; Steve wanted stereo sound, and for Burrell Smith who was doing the logic board design, it would take some major design changes to accommodate stereo (adding an extra shift register, another D-A converter, and making changes in the ROMs and software). So I said No. Enough was enough. The engineering department had to stop changing things; we had to wrap up the design and go to production. I convinced Burrell Smith. I convinced Andy Hertzfeld, and demobilized Steve Jobs. Then I went home late, leaving the usual half dozen perfectionists (including Burrell) working away. But Steve wouldn’t leave well enough alone. He came back to the lab late that night and convinced Burrell that stereo was essential. So, the next morning, Burrell went home exhausted with the prototype boasting stereo, and me shaking my head in disgust. But so it came to be that the Macintosh had stereo even though there was no application program of any sort that could use it and only one speaker — at that time.
This sort of thing I understood, but it conflicted with my desire to get the product to the user promptly. Sometimes I could move things forward, and sometimes I couldn’t. However reluctantly I say this, more often than not, Steve’s last minute changes were the best thing for the customer.
I believe that Steve was dedicated to his audience, an imaginary audience who he would simply will into existence. He wanted commodities to be more than commodities. This desire was the base for the conflicts with Apple’s Board, etc. that forced the Board to fire Steve. But somehow, the vast millions of customers understood and applauded and Steve basked in the glow.
I talked with Ashton Kutcher [who played the part of Steve in the movie] at some length about Steve as the self-appointed representative of the customer, representing the people who could appreciate the quality, the thoughtfulness, and the product; that is, the product as the crystallization of what they wanted. Jobs’s perfectionism was not just a quirk, it was central; he wanted to be the leader of a new wave of products—products that were more than commodities. Products, I imagine, as we might have under socialism. To my surprise, Kutcher had come to roughly the same conclusion. He had read all available speeches by Steve, read memos and listened to those who had direct experience. He was the only one in the organization, which produced “Jobs”, who had thought through the story to the point of understanding it. This is key to his remarkable portrayal of Steve.
The movie clearly shows this conflict between a product made solely to be sold for a profit and a product made to “change the world”. At one point, the movie shows Art Rock, the dark side venture capitalist, explaining to Steve that the company had to make a profit, even at the expense of everything else. When Steve refuses to adapt to this edict, Scully, Rock and Markkula dethrone him and the Early Apple years end. In startling contrast, when Steve returns to Apple, the movie shows him with great intensity telling the new young designer (Ivy) “Design something beautiful that you love. I don’t care what it is.” (I believe one of Ivy’s designs became the iPod.) So Steve wins; we are left to imagine the evil capitalists slinking away.
Jobs’s failure to come to terms with capitalism (at least up through the first Macintosh) was due, I believe, to his willful ignorance of politics. His all-consuming idea of himself as a visionary made it impossible for him to see the contradictions. The failure of his own enterprise NEXT must have been a humbling experience. That, followed by the success of Pixar, which made him rich again, certainly must have changed him.
I have no direct experience of his last 25 years, but I suspect at least his obsession with his audience (the customers) stayed with him.