I have to say, if the clip is a reasonable representation of the entire film, this looks pretty horrible:


Putting aside the performance of Ashton Kutcher–and as this guy says, he’s a known quantity at this point–I feel like people still aren’t willing to face what Jobs did with any sort of accuracy or honesty. He did “innovate” in the sense that innovation is often a word big companies use to mean “earn profits”, but his particular genius was in public relations and user interfaces. Jobs didn’t invent a single one of the products that he’s known for. He packaged them with enormous style and accessibility, which is not a skill to be scoffed at, but it’s not consonant with a “revolutionary” image. I had MP3 players years before the iPod came to be, but none were quite as nice to look at or interact with. It was great once there was one like that. There are plenty of words for that, but revolutionary isn’t one.

Again, I’m not condemning the man’s gifts, which were real and abundant. But America has a hard time making distinctions in things like this. There’s a great space in the national culture for innovators, creators, people who made something that “changed the world.” Not so much the people who take that bolt of inspiration and turn it into something that actually does change the world, whose stories are often just as interesting, if not more so. It’s why you’ve heard about the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk a couple hundred times, but who were the people who helped birth the aviation industry after that? You know, the thing that actually changed peoples’ lives? One of Gore Vidal’s best essays, “Flying”, is so great because it connects those dots between Kitty Hawk all the way to TWA, and it has a lot to do with military contracts to transport mail and Vidal’s own father, who was a government official and aviation entrepreneur. It’s a story that proceeds in fits and starts, sometimes something works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Businesses fold, others rise. Unless I’d read that essay, I would be completely unaware of any of that history. And it’s a pretty interesting history.

Needless to say, the Steve Jobs story is more like that story than like the Wright Brothers. Jobs  didn’t invent the personal computer, didn’t really invent the mouse or the graphic user interface. Some faceless engineers at Xerox did. What he did was take some rough ideas and impractical inventions and tie them all together in a nice, easy to use package. Typically, this sort of thing is thankless work that doesn’t make one glamorous, but Jobs had enough charisma and savvy to get people to mistake him for that kind of figure. Admittedly, he’s more worthy of being celebrated than Bill Gates, who is also not an innovator but combines that with being a notably poor synthesizer. Gates really only had the business side, while at least Jobs could run a successful business and make products people liked. I suppose the style of it all was revolutionary, but that’s a whole different discussion.

The tech industry is definitely one of the greatest success stories of our economy in the past few decades. I wouldn’t bet on it remaining so, as between patent trolls and big corporations there’s huge money to be leeched out via rent-seeking, and after a certain point the “guy with an idea” model becomes unsustainable when you have to spend so much on lawyers to ensure you don’t run afoul of patent laws. As with much of America over the past thirty years, I fully expect the technology industry to founder eventually because of unquenchable greed, and for us to get left behind as other countries willing to leave just a little piece of the pie pass us by. As for Jobs, Hollywood doesn’t seem to want to tell a story about a supremely competent (and supremely flawed) man whose management style has been described to me as “terrifying” and “vindictive” from people who had contact with him, but who nonetheless spurred technology forward in a number of ways. Print the legend, I suppose.

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  1. Metavirus says:

    heretic! blasphemer! ;-)

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