Technology and Turtlenecks

‘Oh wow.’ Those words have not been uttered by any critic who’s seen the new Steve Jobs biopic, imaginatively entitled “Jobs”.

According to his sister Mona Simpson, those were the last words of the late Apple supremo. After his passing in 2011, her eulogy painted the tech billionaire as a humble family man and loving brother, interfacing with death the way he went about life.

You can’t doubt the sincerity of the sentiment. Jobs was adopted as a baby and only met Mona in his late twenties. She records that she’d waited all her life to be loved by a man. She thought it would be her long-lost father, but it turned out to be her rich and famous brother. However, it’s hard not to see the novelist’s craft at work. Mona just happens to be an award-winning writer and Professor of Literature.

I don’t know much about the final stages of pancreatic cancer. But you have to doubt that, in such circumstances, any of us would be sentient enough to say something so snappy and seemingly positive. And, indeed, it turns out the words ‘oh wow, oh wow, oh wow’ were uttered by Jobs, not in his final moments, but some hours earlier – one assumes perhaps in pain or maybe as a morphine pump kicked in. So the story of Steve Jobs’ ‘last words’ is a marketing finale with a flourish which, while alive, he would have enjoyed.

The end of the Steve Jobs’ story isn’t in the movie which stars Ashton Kutcher. Like an early Mac, this version ‘hangs’ in 1997 as Apple began its ‘Think Different’ marketing onslaught. Seemingly, there won’t be an ending in the other Steve Jobs movie either, penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and due for release next year.

Nonetheless, both films are part of the mythologising of Jobs as a role model, and not just for wannabe tech entrepreneurs. Clad in his habitual black turtleneck, he stares from airport bookstalls as an inspirational figure for the modern world – a spiritual leader in the ghostless machine.


Of course, no-one wishes to speak ill of the dead. Indeed, many famous lives are often manicured in afterlife. And it seems churlish to challenge it now. But Jobs’ case is baffling – except as marketing hokum and an attempt to cash in. On second thoughts, that fits his legacy perfectly.


The astonishing success of the Apple founder has been the subject of several best-selling biographies. Perhaps the movie producers were inspired by the commercial and critical success of the “The Social Network”, the story of Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of facebook, also written by Aaron Sorkin. The 2010 hit movie garnered three Oscars and around $250 million in box office takings.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to broach the Jobs’ story without covering the less savoury parts of his life. One of the most common descriptions of Steve Jobs throughout his career was ’assh*le’.

The ’saviour’ of Apple may have mellowed over time but, for all his teenage enthusiasm for Buddhism, he hardly spread serenity. An early episode of Jobs’ ’reality distortion field’ – that’s lying to the rest of us – is instructive. While his girlfriend and first child lived on welfare, he dodged paternity payments by claiming to be sterile.

Never a designer or programmer, young Jobs also duped his friend and later Apple inventor, Steve Wozniak into solving a computer chip problem for Atari. The prize was $5000. As ever, he who steals credit steals cash. Jobs lied to Wozniak and gave him $375 for his efforts, keeping the rest of the money. He took more than 90% of the reward for doing almost none of the work.

At Apple first time round, Jobs’ combination of cohones and serious insensitivity to human decency led to a behavioural style that bordered on sociopath. In a painful boardroom battle, Jobs was ousted for being unfit by temperament and discipline to run the business.


In his next business venture NeXT, Jobs’ vision was to develop a new generation of graphics workstations. The computers looked cool. They were black when the tech world was beige, but they only sold 50,000 machines. NeXT was saved from going under by billionaire (and hopeless presidential hopeful) Ross Perot. Ironically, after the business was bought by Apple, its software became the backbone of the Mac operating system.


At Pixar too, Jobs’ vision was to build a company that would sell computer graphics hardware. You’ve watched Toy Story. You can see how little idea he had about the true potential of computer animation.

Back at Apple for his ‘second coming’, he didn’t fire that many people but instilled terror as well as respect. If you’ve ever been in business, you’ll recognise the behavioural style. Commanding and demanding; obstinate, ruthless, devious, aggressive, utterly selfish. Often such people don’t do much real work because their own self-interest is their life’s work.

Even if you’ve only witnessed an episode of The Apprentice, you’ll know that behavioural style is not correlated with brains or talent. We often assume that people who like to take charge know what they’re doing. Sometimes they do, but mostly they just like taking charge.

The ’high-D’ (for dominant) behavioural style is well-documented in people management. By the unwary, it’s often considered the ‘secret of success’. But the only real secret is that such individual triumph is usually achieved undeservedly, at the expense of others. As in the case of crazed Hollywood producer Don Simpson, you’re left wondering if their much-vaunted achievements would have been easier, smarter, cheaper, quicker – certainly less painful – without their input.

For all the fame, and the cash and credit Jobs took, it’s hard to say what he actually did. Steve Wozniak, the original Apple inventor, maintains that the business only became successful after Jobs was ousted. Despite getting himself named in 346 patents, Jobs didn’t code or design. He may have been insistent about ‘look and feel’, but all the products with which he is most closely associated were created by British designer Jonathan Ives. More to the point, for a man who wore a black turtleneck jumper every day, how strong could his aesthetic have been.

Like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs was blessed in beginning his career at a time when a boyish obsession with arcane new technology could flower into a world-changing multi-billion business. Upcoming lawsuits about stock fraud aside, Jobs got lucky to the tune of $8 billion.

For all the techno-hagiography that followed Jobs’ passing, you are left with a portrait – not of the patron saint of the iPod – but of a deeply flawed, driven man. You’d like to say he was just a mess of contradictions like the rest of us: every woman her own shadow; every man his own hollow. But even by his sister’s kind account, Jobs fired over 60 nurses till he found three he liked. That’s just not normal, or needed.

The real trouble with the Steve Jobs’ story is that it validates greed and deceit and cruelty. Worse still, it suggests that success stems from being an ‘assh*le’. It does happen – like an avaricious dictator clinging to power – but it’s an aberration. Sure, some get away with it for a while. Some get away with it literally, making off with the loot while they can. A few go to their graves getting away with it. But let’s not pretend it’s an example to be admired.


You suspect the putrid heart of the Jobs’ story is the real reason why audiences are staying away from the movie in droves. We may love any product beginning with ‘i’. But, for a life that’s all ‘me, me, me’? In the end, almost inevitably, the box office will be bad.


A version of this article previously appeared in ‘The Scotsman’