The story of Apple is the story of Steve Jobs. Driven by a lifelong monomaniacal urge, Jobs gave his life to the pursuit of perfection with remarkable results. But as Oscar winning Irish American director Alex Gibney shows us in his remarkable new documentary "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine," that same relentless pursuit often cost him and those around him dearly. Cahir O’Doherty reports.
Ireland and Irish America play more of a role in Apple’s global success story than you might be aware. Sometimes it's a bit part and sometimes it's a major one, at the center of Apple’s multibillion dollar global enterprise.
Twenty-one year old college student Brian Hogan played a bit part in the company's story, but it ended up saying a very big thing about the company that claims it likes to think different.
One night in 2010 Hogan was out drinking with his buddies at a beer garden in Silicon Valley when he noticed something left behind on a bar stool beside him. It was the prototype of the unreleased iPhone 4, which had still not even been officially announced.
The phone had been left behind accidentally by an Apple employee named Gray Powell. Hogan had a global scoop in his hands and he knew it.
If anyone were to write a screenplay of the story of Apple, this should be the opening scene says Oscar winning Irish American director Alex Gibney in his brilliant and often scathing new documentary on Apple and its charismatic founder Steve Jobs, "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine."
Hogan claimed he got in touch with Apple about the find right away but said they “blew him off.” Instead he took his find to the tech blog Gizmodo, which immediately offered to pay him $5,000 for the world exclusive story.
Determining it was an authentic new prototype iPhone 4, which meant it was one of the biggest scoops in tech history, Gizmodo published the leaked iPhone story in April 2010, infuriating the notoriously secretive Jobs.
Hogan was threatened with lawsuits but never actually sued, although he was fined $125 by the courts after being charged with “misdemeanor misappropriation of lost property.” He also had to do 40 hours of community service and served one year of informal probation.
He paid the $5,000 back in lawyers’ fees and later felt burned by Gizmodo, which he felt had taken advantage of him, paying him a pittance for a story that had put them on the global map. Almost immediately Hogan regretted the entire incident. But soon he and the others involved in the story would learn the true cost of taking on the world's most successful computer corporation.
“It was extremely tough on my family. There were news vans in front of my house and we ended up staying at a hotel in the East Bay for a week until they left,” Hogan told the press. “My name got out in the media because my girlfriend at the time made a Facebook post about it.”
The writers at Gizmodo also quickly learned that taking a bite out of Apple would not go without censure. While he was away from his home Gizmodo editor Jason Chen had four of his computers and other devices confiscated by California’s Rapid Enforcement department, which broke open the door of his house with a search warrant.
Remember that the controversial iPhone 4 had been found, not stolen. It's an important distinction. Chen had not received stolen property the authorities found. He was a journalist writing a story.
So many observers were dismayed by the shocking invasion of his home, saying that it was not the first time Jobs had shown his bullying side. Critics then asked if law enforcement had become the muscle for one of the largest corporations in the world?
“If someone had taken your baby you'd be very upset,” says Chris Feasel, the deputy district attorney on the case. “That's how Mr. Jobs felt. Someone had taken his baby.”
That sense of propriety and that deep and personal identification with Apple's product line was what made Jobs special, but it also made him vindictive.
Another illustrative Irish aspect of Apple's story of global domination is in its liberal use of what its critics call a tax avoidance scheme they drolly referred to as the Double Irish. The strategy allows corporations to shift income from a higher-tax country like the U.S. to lower-tax countries like Ireland, allowing corporations to take advantage of the fact that Irish tax law does not include U.S. transfer pricing rules.
Ireland has territorial taxation, which means it does not levy taxes on income booked in subsidiaries of Irish companies that are outside the state. That sweetheart deal drew the attention of Jobs in the eighties, and it’s a relationship that endures to this day.
Gibney is the first to admit that, like most of us, he loves his iPhone. But he was still stunned by the global outpouring of grief after Jobs' death in 2011.
Why were so many people so moved by the passing of a man at the head of what had become another giant American corporation? What was human sized or special about this company that was not shared by IBM or Microsoft?
Setting about answering that question is the goal of "Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine," and it ends up saying more about who we are and how we live now than almost any other documentary released in years.
But Gibney is not interested in cheap biopic revelations about the man and the machines he inspired. Instead he asks us deep and often unsettling questions about Jobs and his legacy that linger in the mind long after the final frame.
“The film is not a slam,” Gibney told the press recently. “The film is a meditation on this guy’s life and what it meant to us. It’s not so simple.”
It certainly is not. For most people a Mac means an iPhone or a Macbook, an iPad or and iPod, a compact digital device that has revolutionized how we work, think and even interact.
But for Jobs they were much more. They were part of his life's work, which was to create new ways of being and interacting, a new computerized ecosystem in fact, a new Eden of clarity and beauty to which he of course held the keys.
If you're the creator then everyone else is potentially your creation, and Gibney is not the first to note the Messianic aspect of Job's tale. The implication, of which Jobs supplied abundant proof, is that you may find yourself above mere mortals and their imprisoning laws and morals.
We know that Jobs threw collaborators who had given their all to him under the bus. We also know he felt a deep contempt for people (including SEC investigators) who didn't appreciate the importance of his world transforming mission.
By focusing on one thing and doing it really well, Jobs showed himself to be ruthless about cutting out every other complicating factor he encountered. That made him a world changing figurehead, but it also often made him a tyrant, as Gibney's documentary reminds us.
Ambivalence is everywhere in Gibney's portrait. He reminds us of the conditions at Foxconn, the Chinese factory where the iPhone is built. After a shocking spate of suicides attributed by some to the rate of production, nets have been installed to catch the fall of suicidal workers, determined to jump to their deaths.
These conditions and their implications are the shadow behind the Apple that no one wants to talk about, Gibney contends. Just give me my shiny new iPhone and I won't ask questions about the compensation paid to those who built it, or the pollution that the process of creating them makes.
Getting to grips with Jobs’s legacy will mean reconciling these contradictory strands, but until now only Gibney has shown an appetite for the job.
("Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine" is playing in select theaters now.)