Steve Jobs Short Sainthood
- By ALEX WILLIAMS - The New York Times - November 2, 2011
The glowing obituaries appeared moments after Steve Jobs’s death was announced on Oct. 5. “Silicon Valley’s radiant Sun King,” eulogized The San Jose Mercury News. His name was floated for Time magazine’s Person of the Year, though the honor traditionally goes to the living. Even Gawker, the snarky media blog, adopted the sober tone of a state funeral.
“The scope of Jobs’s achievements is hard to put into words,” Gawker wrote in a respectful 1,200-word post simply titled “Steve Jobs Is Dead.”
That tone lasted 18 hours. By 2 p.m. the following day, Gawker posted another item, “Steve Jobs Was Not God.” It argued: “If you like Apple products, fine. They are products. They do not have souls. They are not heroes, and neither is their creator, no matter how skilled he may have been.”
It wasn’t just Gawker. The waters quickly muddied after the first wave of obituaries passed. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, anyone with a beef against Mr. Jobs or Apple found a platform to sound off about an industrialist who doubled as a pop star.
The Steve Jobs backlash began as quickly as the mythmaking had. Candlelight vigils were just starting to form outside Apple stores worldwide when bloggers began their assault.
“Was Steve Jobs a Good Man, or an Evil Corporate CEO and Wall Street Shill?” asked a contributor on the Occupy Wall Street Web site.
Then, on the Forbes site, David Coursey, a technology writer, wrote an article called “Steve Jobs Was a Jerk, You Shouldn’t Be,” in which he suggested that Mr. Jobs might have been “a borderline sociopath.”
There was a time when the gloves stayed put after the death of a legend. After John Lennon was murdered in 1980, news outlets generally painted him as a guitar-strumming prince of peace, and were loath to dwell on old tabloidish tales of him as a skirt-chasing druggie who was mean to Paul.
But the velocity with which Steve the Saint stories morphed into Steve the Sinner stories was striking, said Kurt Andersen, the novelist and former New York magazine editor. “It’s the speed of the news cycle writ large, in terms of legacy and existential worth,” he said.
On Twitter, while Apple cultists wrote 140-character homages, nonbelievers passed along snipes about Steve the Tyrant, Steve the Evil Boss, Steve the Micromanaging Perfectionist.
As for the mainstream press, it cleared its throat, straightened its tie and dived into the fray with the rest of them.
Five days after Mr. Jobs’s death, the British news magazine The Week published a roundup of “anti-Jobs” stories. It included an essay titled “In Praise of Bad Steve” by a writer named D. B. Grady in The Atlantic (“Apple wasn’t built by a saint. It was built by an iron-fisted visionary”); a 2010 investigation in The Mail in England into the “Chinese suicide sweatshop” where iPods are made; and an Op-Ed article in The New York Times by Mike Daisey, a monologist, who pounded Apple for what he saw as Orwellian tactics (“There is no tech company that looks more like the Big Brother from Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial than Apple itself”).
Mr. Daisey is no stranger to the Jobs backlash. He produced and stars in an extemporaneous one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” that, by coincidence, opened at the Public Theater on Oct. 17, making its New York debut after touring for 14 months. The play blasts Apple and other technology companies for alleged harsh conditions in their factories.
The fortuitous timing of his show’s opening in New York prompted a deluge of hate mail and a couple of death threats, Mr. Daisey said, but he was unfazed.
“Are we seriously going to read one more time he was a genius?” he said. “By not sharing anything of his dark side, the complexities of his life, you’re sort of shortchanging the true complexity and interestingness of the story.”
And, of course, there is the publication of Walter Isaacson’s 630-page authorized biography, “Steve Jobs.” While the book is hardly a hatchet job, bloggers looking for a fresh angle skimmed it for juicy bits, like how Mr. Jobs, in the early days of Apple, stiffed an original employee, who was a close friend, on stock options.
But Mr. Isaacson, who worked with Mr. Jobs on the book for two and a half years, said that it was not fair to Mr. Jobs, or the book, to cherry-pick the Bad Steve anecdotes.
“The way the book turns out, he developed a very loyal team who was very inspired by him, and he has a very loving family,” Mr. Isaacson said. “In the end, you have to judge him on the outcome.”