How Steve Jobs Drew on Myth to Build the Cult of Apple

A new documentary spotlights the spiritualism at work in Jobs's tech empire.
September 2, 2015, 4:38pm
Image: Magnolia Pictures

At a release party for the video app Vine last week, director of UX Jason Mante took the stage with his dreadlocks and charisma to announce the app's latest feature. Following a call-and-response moment in his presentation, my friend whispered, "he's like a cult leader."

It's a familiar posture to strike in a post-Steve Jobs world, but Alex Gibney's latest documentary Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine reminds us that when Jobs first attached his personality to a tech company in the early days of Apple, it was an entirely novel approach. That choice made computers seem intimate rather than impersonal and contributed to Apple becoming one of the richest corporations on the planet—and when Jobs died in 2011, millions of people worldwide mourned.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Jobs's story is, of course, out there in many forms already, from his official biography to the Ashton Kutcher biopic to a book by the mother of his child Chrisann Brennan (who is also heavily featured in the documentary) to a graphic novel focusing on the late CEO's interest in Zen Buddhism. There's another narrative feature film slated for release this fall starring Michael Fassbender.

To be reductive, Gibney's asking why so many people around the world cried when such a total asshole died

While Gibney returns to familiar subject matter at times, his film is valuable in its analysis of how myth-building and magic, storytelling and speculation played a role in the rise of Jobs and Apple.

Throughout the film, Gibney explores Job's many contradictions: he revered counter-culture but exploited corporate power; he connected so many with his products but had difficulty connecting himself; he named a line of computers after his daughter but in court claimed she wasn't his kid to avoid paying child support. His sins catalogued through the movie include ripping Steve Wozniak off for a couple grand back in their Atari days, renting the same car every six months to avoid having a license plate to therefore speed and drive in the car-pool lane, and indifference to complaints of human rights abuses and environmental devastation related to iPhone production in China. To be reductive, Gibney's asking why so many people around the world cried when such a total asshole died. The answer seems to be that Jobs created something of a religion with Apple.

One of the more interesting threads in the film is the brand of tech spiritualism Jobs adopted early on, a subject that feels particularly relevant today as networked new-ageism trends in the form of online natal charts and young people with crystals in one hand and a smartphone in the other. The documentary pays considerable attention to Jobs as a young person being obsessed with Be Here Now, a book by Western-yogi Ram Dass, and his early and sustained interest in Zen Buddhism. Zen monk Kobun Chino, Jobs's spiritual advisor, tells an anecdote of a young Jobs showing up at his house with a computer chip he made (or at least helped Woz make) as proof he was enlightened.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

That technology and spiritualism can be complementary rather than paradoxical comes in many iterations from beliefs that cyberspace can provide God-like omnipresence to those that digital transhumanism can achieve immortality. The version that Jobs believed in was more simple and less sci-fi, just that tech products could be embedded with the same qualities as Zen garden. Gibney suggests that the spirit of minimalism Jobs aimed to imbue in the iPhone and iPad might have made them more beloved than competitor smartphones and tablets. Or maybe it was the narrative Jobs sold in their advertising ("Think Different") that helped create the cult of Apple products.

The near-religious devotion Apple achieved, perhaps has less to do with the magical qualities of the technologies it sold and more to do with mythic qualities of the brand. One fact stood out in the film for me: if Jobs had gone to prison for a financial scandal involving back-dating options (allegedly a real possibility considering the circumstances, though, Apple instead let two other executives take the fall), analysts suggested the company would have immediately been worth billions less. Our financial system is perhaps the best example in contemporary society of faith in action, where what is believed becomes what is real. And it's maybe that understanding which made Jobs a cult figure more than anything to do with the tech he was selling.

Man in the Machine will be in select theaters, video on demand, and iTunes on Friday, September 4.