Alex Gibney on Steve Jobs: "He was ruthless when it came to a beveled edge for the iPhone -- but paying workers more in China? No way"

A new documentary probes the contradictions of Apple's beloved founder: "Think different" and buy the same stuff

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 4, 2015 2:13PM (EDT)

  (Magnolia Pictures)
(Magnolia Pictures)

Oscar-winning documentary director Alex Gibney got considerable media attention earlier this year for his HBO film “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” which threw open the doors on the bizarre and abusive internal world of L. Ron Hubbard’s celebrity-centric religious denomination. Now Gibney is back with another newsworthy film, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” -- and in case you were wondering, yes, he does see some parallels. But despite some negative pushback from Apple loyalists, this documentary is far from being a hit-piece on the company’s legendary founder, the most beloved entrepreneur of the information age. (In fairness, Jobs was also the only beloved entrepreneur of the information age. Will people light candles in the street when Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg departs this mortal coil?)

I recently had lunch in New York with Gibney and Fortune investigative reporter Peter Elkind, who collaborated on this film (after covering Jobs and Apple for years) and first worked with Gibney a decade ago on his breakthrough exposé “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Almost everything I have to say about the film and my own perception of Steve Jobs becomes clear in our conversation, so I don’t want to clutter things up by throwing in a truncated review here. But I think we can say that “Steve Jobs” is a surprisingly quiet and reflective film that seeks to take the measure of an exceptionally complicated public figure who was idolized by different people for different reasons.

Drawing extensively on Jobs’ own public utterances, and through interviews with many people who knew him or worked with him, Gibney seeks to penetrate the shroud of mystery and mystification around this driven and single-minded man. First and most obviously, Jobs was an undoubted design and marketing genius with an unparalleled gift for creating technological gizmos that were not merely useful or fun but that people loved. Despite his well-known lack of modesty, Jobs himself would never have claimed that technological innovation in itself was his great strength. He understood how to make machines that appealed to people, or perhaps the other way around, and how to sell them.

“Steve Jobs” is also a portrait of someone whose sense of mission, and perhaps of world-historical purpose, was so strong that he didn’t let anything get in the way. Not his personal life, not his oldest friends and longtime co-workers, not the working conditions of his direct employees at Apple or the labor and environmental practices of his subcontractors in China. He defined himself as a new kind of CEO running a new kind of company. But beyond ingenious sloganeering and advertising campaigns that invoked Gandhi and Einstein and Picasso and Martin Luther King Jr., the content of that “newness,” and the precise nature of the values that Apple supposedly embodied, remained frustratingly and deliberately vague.

Gibney and Elkind and I started by talking about Jobs’ well known aversion to philanthropy, which he perceived as a distraction, and perhaps – in the case of his great rival and sometime partner, Bill Gates – even as a sign of weakness.

Alex, what was the actual phrase Jobs used, when he talked about why he didn’t devote himself to philanthropy?

Alex Gibney: He said it was a waste of time.

Right. So my premise is this: Jobs was a revolutionary, or at least he saw himself that way. He was someone devoted to transforming human society and human consciousness, as he understood it, and he could not afford to get distracted by lesser concerns. And as with so many revolutionaries, the effects of his revolution are both good and bad.

A.G.: I'm not sure I can go with the idea that he was a revolutionary. But certainly changing the world was what he had in mind. He thought that his contribution was to make people comfortable with machines. That would change everything, and he should only focus on that. Anything else really was a waste of time, and you only fuck yourself up by trying to do all these different things. That's what everybody else does, that’s for other people. If you focus on the one big thing, that's how you change the world.

Peter Elkind: Do you think that was a rationalization? Or that was what he really believed?

A.G.: Well, I don't know. But I think it was what he really believed. Whether or not he came to believe it -- so many people, when they have a mission, come to believe something in a way that may have started out as a slogan. You know, L. Ron Hubbard, not to make a random comparison, started Scientology as a scam.

And as you have said previously, he came to believe it. He got seduced by his own creation.

A.G.: That’s right. Now, I don't think Steve started Apple as a scam. But he understood early on the power of marketing. The idea of the computer as a bicycle for the human mind -- I think that was something he believed. He believed in making people comfortable with these machines, which is why he spent so much time thinking about how to design them a certain way, how to make them so user-friendly and interactive, and why he spent so much time studying the Zeitgeist. What do people like? He thought about that an awful lot.

Well, I remember when the iPad came out and a lot of the initial reaction in the tech press and the business press was somewhat negative. "What is this device for? It doesn't perform any useful function that we can't already do with other things!" And that was entirely missing the point. Jobs created machines that people liked, whether or not they offered something brand-new in terms of usefulness or applications.

P.E.: Yeah, it was getting them closer to the boost in technology. It was bigger than a phone and easier to manipulate than a PC or a laptop. So it was deeply consistent with his operating philosophy.

A.G.: There's a clip in the movie where he's demonstrating the iPad and he says, "It feels so good in your hand." He gave a lot of thought to stuff like that: How does it feel in your hands? How does it look?

So whether or not we use the term “revolutionary,” you agree that Jobs would have understood giving away money to end hunger in Africa or whatever, on the Gates model, as a distraction from his central mission, from his history-changing life purpose.

A.G.: Yeah, stuff like that was a bullshit, feelgood distraction. It's not really changing anything, and it's more important to focus on the mission. That's where real change happens.

P.E.: At one point, he did start a foundation. He hired a guy to run it and he spent a lot of money designing a logo on it – and that was pretty much the sum total of what he put into it. [Laughter.] He just wasn't interested. It didn't intrigue him.

How much of his mocking attitude toward Gates was about that? Oh, Bill is going around the world giving money away or whatever. He's clearly not serious about the mission of advancing technology.

P.E.: Oh, I don't think Jobs would ever have asserted that Bill Gates was not serious about technology. He was a huge pioneer in that world, albeit doing something quite different in approach from what Steve did. I think he was dismissive of Gates' foundation work as something he did to make himself feel better. I think it's a fascinating counterpoint to Steve's approach. Here's a guy, Bill Gates, who is the classic computer nerd, as opposed to Steve who is, like the coolest guy in the world. And who is really doing things to make the world a better place?

A.G.: I mean, Gates was seen as the corporate shill. That's how Jobs always presented him: The company man.

P.E. Yeah, the corporate shill who saved Apple at one point! They had such a weird relationship.

A.G.: I think an interesting angle on Steve is his whole relationship to the counterculture. It's like the lawyers I know who work on corporate mergers and acquisitions, and then go out on the weekends and bong up and go to music festivals in tie-dyed T-shirts or whatever. Steve took what he wanted and left the rest. That's what he did with Zen and what he did with the counterculture. So this stuff about being communitarian, worrying about disparities between rich and poor, concern for the environment -- he was like, fuck all that. The focus is great machines that will become an extension of people. You focus on that. He got the focus part of Zen without any of the other stuff. And to some degree that did account for the success of Apple, because he was so focused.

Well, and he brought from the counterculture this suggestion of alternative values and cultural transformation, without ever defining what that meant. But he clearly believed that this wasn't about the office or the business world or "productivity" or whatever. It was something much larger.

A.G.: I think he became ever more convinced that he was changing society. He did not think of himself as a businessman who was just making money.

His metaphor of the computer as a bicycle for the human mind is so striking. Because the bicycle was more than a technological innovation. It used existing human power to transform the human relationship to the physical world.

A.G.: It amplifies human power so extraordinarily, and the computer, in Steve's analogy, amplifies the power of the human mind.

Yeah. Notice that he does not compare it to the automobile, which is powered by an external source of energy. He's trying to make the point that he saw technology as powered by human intellect and ingenuity, not by the chips and the circuits and the electrical current.

A.G.: There's an interview in the film that he did with NHK in Japan, where he talks about the relationship between the computer and the humanities, and that his goal was to explore and release creativity. It's certainly true that a lot of people in the film business migrated to Apple very quickly. Macs were great with images in a way that PCs weren't in the beginning. I think that was true with writers and artists too. The creative types were early Apple adopters, even when Apple had a very small proportion of the market. I had a PC for many years, and then I joined a company that was using Apple machines and I switched over reluctantly. But then I really did start to feel that by using this computer I was taking on the man. I was "thinking different." How brilliant is that?

So here’s the reason that I brought up that idea of Jobs as a revolutionary. You’ll see why I didn’t want to explain it earlier. After I saw the film I knew that his attitude about philanthropy reminded me of some dim and distant parallel. It took me a while to figure out what it was. There's a famous anecdote about Lenin telling the writer Maxim Gorky that he loved to listen to Beethoven’s "Appassionata" sonata but thought it was dangerous, because beautiful music might make you soft and feel love for other people, when the task of the revolutionary is to “strike without pity.” And I see that in Steve Jobs. You have to stick to the plan, because the purpose here is to transform human consciousness and human society, and that's more important than being nice. To extend the metaphor even more outrageously, I would argue that the reason people were grief-stricken when Steve Jobs died is pretty much the same reason why people lined up for hours in Red Square when Lenin died. Revolutionary zeal and commitment is tremendously seductive, whether we think the revolution is good or bad.

A.G.: Well, I would take a different view about why they lined up for Steve as opposed to Lenin! [Laughter.] But I do think there's something interesting there about the revolutionary quality of Steve Jobs, and the ideological quality of Steve Jobs, whether that was inchoate or totally thought through. He really had ingested the libertarian ideology of Silicon Valley, which is like: You have to be ruthless! You have to thin the herd! I remember hearing the electricity traders at Enron talking about that, when Peter and I made that movie. If you didn't thin the herd, bad things would happen. You had to be lean, you had to be mean, you had to be tough. You kick ass, and you don't worry about that other shit, because that other shit is what makes you soft. I think he did believe that.

That's why people in Silicon Valley idolized him, but the reason most people turned out when he died was because he was Daddy. We grew up with him, and he was the singular personality you could attach to technology. We saw him grow old with those devices, even as he kept introducing us to new ones. We worried that we were going to lose those devices when he was gone, and when somebody has been with you through all that, the blue boxes and the Apple II all these clunky devices going up to the iPhone and the iPad -- he was there for that whole ride, and he was the face of it.

He was the human face of technology and he was also the badass who got a kick out of parking his Mercedes with no license plates in a handicapped spot. When you're tough and you're mean, you get shit done. You go through life with your elbows out. So there are the business people who idolize Steve for being a tough, ruthless motherfucker, And then there are the consumers who idolize him because he's this soft and gentle guy, the humanities guy who makes you feel happy about these machines.

Yes, absolutely. I don’t need to belabor the point, but I will continue to insist that all of that is more closely akin to the relationship between the revolutionary dictators of the Soviet Union and the public than you might think.

A.G.: You may be right. Because the public is saying, this is all gonna be beautiful, everybody's gonna be equal, there's not gonna be the rich and the poor anymore ...

Yes, while the political class understands what’s really going on. They admired the leadership for their ruthlessness, and for the fact that if they were standing there that meant they hadn't gotten shot yet. [Laughter.]

Peter, you have made a very detailed and granular case in your reporting about Apple's questionable compensation packages, especially the back-dating of stock purchases. You have also written about the Silicon Valley industry-wide practice of corporate collusion in the employment market, in which Apple was instrumental. Did Steve Jobs commit crimes?

P.E.: I think what they did with back-dating was illegal. Steve was not charged and other people took the fall for that, but I think he knew what was going on.

A.G.: If you look carefully at the answer that he gives in the SEC deposition and he's talking about how the Apple board should have just come to him and offered him more money, he says something like, "I wish they had come to me. Then I would not have had to go and do things." I took that as pretty close to an admission of guilt. I think the collusion thing was illegal too. There was a column by Jim Stewart in the New York Times where he basically called Steve out for being a criminal. He said that we have to revise our idea of him, and that if you look back at the trail of emails, you have to conclude that Steve Jobs was a criminal.

Peter, reporters for Fortune magazine do not typically get asked to expound on morality. [Laughter.] But I want to offer you that chance, because one of the ways that capitalism is under the microscope a bit these days is because of questions about what kinds of moral behavior it enables and rewards. You have covered a lot of CEOs and executives. When you look at Steve Jobs, how do you evaluate him as a moral agent in that context? Was he typical? Was he better? Was he worse?

P.E.: Wow. I mean, you gave me an out there at the beginning! How do I judge Steve as a moral businessman? I don't think he set out to be evil or to do evil. I think he had his eye on a singular purpose and singular goals, and didn't care a lot about the rules in getting there. That's what the stock option back-dating episode was all about. That's what his concealment of his illness from shareholders was all about, and what lying about it subsequently was all about. He wanted to accomplish certain specific goals, and was willing to do whatever it took to get there. That was a pattern, and I don't think there was a compensating impulse, be it conscience or guilt or noblesse oblige, that led him to do charitable work or to pay people in China more than he had to.

A.G.: You know, Robert Reich makes a compelling case that there used to be a tacit understanding that corporations were supposed to take care of their employees, they were supposed to look out for their customers. There was a social role that you had, as a company.

P.E.: That's right. There are a lot of stakeholders involved with any company. It's not just the investors.

A.G.: One of the things about Steve Jobs is that he gives us an opportunity to look at the disjuncture between that world and the world he claimed that Apple represented, the "Think different" world of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Gandhi.

Seeing that ad campaign in your movie, it just looks completely shameless, I have to say. What the hell does this computer company have to do with Rosa Parks?

A.G.: Because the rap that most people give in the corporate world, including people who defend Steve’s practices at Apple, is that we have no choice but to pursue profit as relentlessly and aggressively as possible. It's out of our hands. That's a far cry from "Think different," which ought to involve making choices. What should workers get paid? How should the environment be treated? Yet the funny thing about Jobs is that he was idolized for refusing to accept that they couldn't make better product. He was ruthless when it came to insisting on a beveled edge for the iPhone, right? But when it came to paying workers 10 cents more an hour in China -- no way. That's outside my pay grade.

P.E.: Well, ruthlessness was not what he articulated, and that's an important distinction. The ruthlessness was reflected in the behavior, not in what he said. He would never have said that the only purpose of a corporation was to generate profits.

A.G.: Yeah, I think he really believed he had humanistic values, and that's the part I think is so weird. When he's talking to [tech journalists] Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg about the Gizmodo incident [when reporters got hold of an iPhone prototype left behind in a bar], he says that people were telling him to let it go. "I couldn't let it go. Just because we became a big company doesn't mean we give up on our values." And I'm thinking, if your values lead you to pull strings with the cops and get them to kick down a reporter’s door and seize all his computers, what is so great about those values?

No one ever challenges him on that, not then or any of the other times he brings that up. What in Christ’s name are you talking about, Steve? What values? Can you explain what they are?

A.G.: Right. People ask me all the time what question I would love to have asked Steve, and that’s it: "Please define your values."

Just as the ads with Gandhi and King look worse and worse the more you think about them, “Think different” starts to take on a weird new significance. Here's this guy who created a turning point in his career and his company's history with an ad attacking his competition by using George Orwell's "1984" as a touchstone. But what is "Think different" if not a profoundly Orwellian statement -- a form of Newspeak? Because what it really means is entirely the opposite. It means “think the same.” It means embrace a new kind of conformity in which we congratulate each other for our individuality, and express it by all buying the same gadgets.

A.G.: Peter's former colleague Joe Nocera, who wrote about Jobs and Apple many times over the years, talks about how that new conformity expresses itself in the reader mail on his articles: How dare you attack Steve Jobs? How dare you associate him with terrible labor conditions in China?

Alex, you have flirted with a more personal style, or a personal mode of expression, in other films. But this one is not just personal but introspective. What was it about this subject matter that drove you in that direction?

A.G.: When I originally approached Peter to help me out on this, I think he was properly skeptical. How many books and movies do we have to have on Steve Jobs? So instead of doing "the Steve Jobs story," I felt I needed to create a reflection of Steve Jobs, and a reflection on Steve Jobs. As we made the film, there were two parts of it pulling against each other, and the only way to bring them into alignment was in the first person. The first part was: What do we think of this technology? And the other one was: Who was Steve Jobs? At the end of the day, the only way of getting at that was to be somewhat personal about it.

The fun of doing this was that instead of doing a straight narrative you could tell a discursive tale that moves around in unexpected ways. Even though it's roughly chronological, all along the way you are seeing images of Steve as an older man juxtaposed with him as a young man. So it just seemed right. The movie is about him, but it's also about us. We were along for the ride he took us on. You can't blame Steve for everything that's right or wrong about the smartphone. He was willing to take so much credit for it, so it's fair to examine that. But we have to examine the way we are.

Sure. All three of us were adults and working journalists or filmmakers long before this technology emerged. But how many times a day do we check those devices in our pockets? We are as addicted to Steve's gizmos as anybody.

A.G.: I like the line I put in the film about how it feels like the Ring in Frodo's pocket. In uncomfortable situations, we're like: Oh, maybe I got an email! Maybe there's a text I can look at!

P.E.: Here’s how I feel about this movie. There have been a lot of facts put out there about Steve Jobs. There are more than a dozen books about Steve, and all of them either focus on the facts or they take some deliberately provocative angle on some aspect of his history. But there hasn't been a lot of complexity or understanding or rumination about Steve. People tended to see him in black-and-white terms, and he was a very complicated guy. One thing the film does is to look in the mirror, as Alex describes, and explore what our role is in this brave new world.

You know, the moment in this film when I saw some vulnerability or uncertainty in Steve Jobs was when he is asked about all the suicides at Foxconn, the Chinese supplier where iPhones are made. I mean, his answer is terrible. He just says that the number of suicides is not statistically more than you would expect. But he actually looks troubled, as if he kind of understands that he should be saying or doing something else.

A.G.: I think he was troubled, but I also find it interesting that his immediate response was that it was no big deal. What he says is true, statistically. But you've got to wonder -- if you build a huge factory and people there are committing suicide …

P.E.: You want the reaction to be, "I'm going to do something about this." Whether it is systemic or endemic or part of the culture or statistically understandable, you want the reaction to be, "This is terrible and I'm going to do something about it. I have power, I have money, I can help change this."

A.G.: I think the more instructive thing is -- yeah, he is taken aback at that moment. But he never went to China. He never saw that factory or any of Apple's other suppliers. He never, ever, ever went there. The Chinese activist in our film who specifically took on Apple, both on labor and environmental issues, could not get anybody at Apple to talk to him until Steve Jobs resigned. Now he's quite happy with the ways Apple has changed. He says they have made a lot of positive changes, in terms of both labor and the environment. He was able to talk to all the other companies who had manufacturers and subcontractors in that region. But he couldn't even get a hearing at Apple until Steve Jobs was gone.

To go back to my original wacko thesis, if you say: "Who gives a shit if we are pouring poison into the rivers and people are jumping out of our buildings? We are transforming the world!" Well, that is a Leninist position to its core. You have to break eggs to make the omelet, and the omelet is the world we have now, where everybody stares at these tiny screens all day long.

A.G.: I think Steve saw it this way: He wanted to make those beautiful products, and he wasn't going to be able to make them and make money unless they did it in China. And he didn't want the undertow on the bottom line from doing anything more than other companies were doing about environmental damage or labor conditions. When it came to the beauty of the product, no effort was spared. When it came to challenging standard corporate practices, he didn't really give a shit. And in that sense your theory is correct, because even when this stuff got pointed out to Steve, he intensely believed that those were peripheral issues. Funny things happen to people when their sense of mission clouds their view of the world.

“Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” opens nationwide this week, and is also available on-demand from cable, satellite and online providers.

Director Alex Gibney Compares Steve Jobs to James Brown


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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