Alex Gibney, the director who exposed the dark secrets of Scientology with the documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and detailed the collapse of Enron with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, turns his attention to the late CEO of Apple in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. And what does he have to say about this much-worshipped visionary, whose death was a global event? That he was basically an asshole. He treated his family, his workers, and his society like shit. He cared more for his products than his children, he bullied employees who dared to challenge his authority, and he thought the kind of philanthropy that Bill Gates is known for was a complete waste of time and money. Take everything you can and give nothing back—that was the heart and soul of this man.
Jobs was also investigated as a criminal. Some of his executives were caught backdating Apple options and not informing Apple shareholders. Backdating, which involves changing the "strike dates" on options to an earlier, cheaper time and then selling them at their current higher value, is, amazingly, not illegal—if disclosed. Yet the doc claims that they did not disclose doing this, and in the process made Jobs and those close to him millions of dollars. And when the scam was exposed? The genius played dumb—one thing this film never accuses him of being. It is speculated that the officials at the US Securities and Exchange Commission bought Jobs's story because he was just too big to jail. If they had locked him up, the value of Apple might have collapsed, and with it, the whole of Silicon Valley and NASDAQ.
Gibney is sometimes prone to moralizing. He makes it clear that Jobs knew he had that kind of power in the world, and abused it at every level and opportunity. There is, for example, a moment in the movie when a person spots Jobs driving to work on the freeway and films it with a phone camera. The reason the world-historical CEO in the Mercedes SL55 is so recognizable is because he had a thing about not having license plates on his automobiles. We see a speeding car, we see the driver alone, we see him merge into the carpool lane. Jobs was also in the habit of parking his Mercedes in handicapped-only spots. Being rich and famous was for him about being above the law.
Yes, you might say, Jobs was one of the biggest assholes ever. And, yes, he was caught on many occasions outright lying and cheating. But recall what Harry Lime (Orson Welles) said in The Third Man about the cuckoo clock—Switzerland had 500 years of peace, love, and democracy, only to come up with that most stupid of inventions. Italy under the Borgias, on the other hand, had 30 years of bloody war and murder and yielded "Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance." If Jobs had been a nice guy, the most important consumer technology of our times, the smartphone, might not have come into existence.
Fair enough, the smartphone is amazing. But, first of all, Harry Lime was wrong about Switzerland: It does not just make cuckoo clocks and is in fact an industrial powerhouse.Secondly, look where Italy is today (broke and caught in the same debt whirlpool that has sucked in Greece). Thirdly, and this is a point made not only in the documentary but also by the economist Mariana Mazzucato in her groundbreaking book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths: A large amount of government-funded research went into the iPhone. The touch screen, the internet, the battery, and the GPS system were all publicly funded innovations. And what did Jobs do to thank taxpayers for all of their support? He moved massive amounts (billions upon billions!) of Apple's wealth to offshore accounts and subsidiaries to avoid paying US taxes. This loss of tax revenue, Mazzucato argues, has helped bring about big budget cuts that hit hard the very research programs that made technologies like the iPhone possible and marketable.
Jobs sold the world a great commodity—indeed, it might even be capitalism's last great commodity (what could surpass the usefulness of a smartphone?)—but he refused to give the society that made him rich and famous anything he could not sell. From the very beginning of his career, he was all about that bank, and this ugly truth cannot be corrected or veiled by the beauty of his products.