What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve
~ October 7, 2011
In the days after Steve Jobs' death, friends and colleagues have, in
customary fashion, been sharing their fondest memories of the Apple co-founder.
He's been hailed as "a genius" and "the greatest CEO of his generation"
by pundits and tech journalists. But a great man's reputation can withstand
a full accounting. And, truth be told, Jobs could be terrible to people,
and his impact on the world was not uniformly positive.
We mentioned much of the good Jobs did during his career earlier. His
accomplishments were far-reaching and impossible to easily summarize. But
here's one way of looking at the scope of his achievement: It's the dream
of any entrepreneur to effect change in one industry. Jobs transformed
half a dozen of them forever, from personal computers to phones to animation
to music to publishing to video games. He was a polymath, a skilled motivator,
a decisive judge, a farsighted tastemaker, an excellent showman, and a
One thing he wasn't, though, was perfect. Indeed there were things Jobs
did while at Apple that were deeply disturbing. Rude, dismissive, hostile,
spiteful: Apple employees—the ones not bound by confidentiality agreements—have
had a different story to tell over the years about Jobs and the bullying,
manipulation and fear that followed him around Apple. Jobs contributed
to global problems, too. Apple's success has been built literally on the
backs of Chinese workers, many of them children and all of them enduring
long shifts and the specter of brutal penalties for mistakes. And, for
all his talk of enabling individual expression, Jobs imposed paranoid rules
that centralized control of who could say what on his devices and in his
It's particularly important to take stock of Jobs' flaws right now.
His successor, Tim Cook, has the opportunity to set a new course for the
company, and to establish his own style of leadership. And, thanks to Apple's
success, students of Jobs' approach to leadership have never been so numerous
in Silicon Valley. He was worshipped and emulated plenty when he was alive;
in death, Jobs will be even more of an icon.
After celebrating Jobs' achievements, we should talk freely about the
dark side of Jobs and the company he co-founded. Here, then, is a catalog
Censorship and Authoritarianism
What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve JobsThe internet allowed
people around the world to express themselves more freely and more easily.
With the App Store, Apple reversed that progress. The iPhone and iPad constitute
the most popular platform for handheld computerizing in America, key venues
for media and software. But to put anything on the devices, you need Apple's
permission. And the company wields its power aggressively.
In the name of protecting children from the evils of erotica — "freedom
from porn" — and adults from one another, Jobs has banned from being installed
on his devices gay art, gay travel guides, political cartoons, sexy pictures,
Congressional candidate pamphlets, political caricature, Vogue fashion
spreads, systems invented by the opposition, and other things considered
Apple's devices have connected us to a world of information. But they
don't permit a full expression of ideas. Indeed, the people Apple supposedly
serves — "the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers" — have been particularly
put out by Jobs' lockdown. That America's most admired company has followed
such an un-American path, and imposed centralized restrictions typical
of the companies it once mocked, is deeply disturbing.
But then Jobs never seemed comfortable with the idea of fully empowered
workers or a truly free press. Inside Apple, there is a culture of fear
and control around communication; Apple's "Worldwide Loyalty Team" specializes
in hunting down leakers, confiscating mobile phones and searching computers.
Apple applies coercive tactics to the press, as well. Its first response
to stories it doesn't like is typically manipulation and badgering, for
example, threatening to withhold access to events and executives. Next,
it might leak a contradictory story.
What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve JobsBut Apple doesn't
stop there. It has a fearsome legal team that is not above annihilating
smaller prey. In 2005, for example, the company sued 19-year-old blogger
Nick Ciarelli for correctly reporting, prior to launch, the existence of
the Mac Mini. The company did not back down until Ciarelli agreed to close
his blog ThinkSecret forever. Last year, after our sister blog Gizmodo
ran a video of a prototype iPhone 4, Apple complained to law enforcement,
who promptly raided an editor's home.
And just last month, in the creepiest example of Apple's fascist tendencies,
two of Apple's private security agents searched the home of a San Francisco
man and threatened him and his family with immigration trouble as part
of an scramble for a missing iPhone prototype. The man said the security
agents were accompanied by plainclothes police and did not identify themselves
as private citizens, lending the impression they were law enforcement officers.
Sweatshops, Child Labor and Human Rights
Apple's factories in China have regularly employed young teenagers and
people below the legal work age of 16, made people work grueling hours,
and have tried to cover all this up. That's according to Apple's own 2010
report about its factories in China. In 2011, Apple reported that its child
labor problem had worsened.
In 2010, the Daily Mail managed to get a reporter inside a facility
in China that manufactures products for Apple and the paper shared a bit
about what life is like:
With the complex at peak production, operating 24
hours a day, seven days a week to meet the global demand for Apple phones
and computers, a typical day begins with the Chinese national anthem being
played over loudspeakers, with the words: 'Arise, arise, arise, millions
of hearts with one mind.'
As part of this Orwellian control, the public address
system constantly relays propaganda, such as how many products have been
made; how a new basketball court has been built for the workers; and why
workers should 'value efficiency every minute, every second'.
With other company slogans painted on workshop walls
- including exhortations to 'achieve goals unless the sun no longer rises'
and to 'gather all of the elite and Foxconn will get stronger and stronger'
- the employees work up to 15-hour shifts.
Down narrow, prison-like corridors, they sleep in
cramped rooms in triple-decked bunk beds to save space, with simple bamboo
mats for mattresses.
Despite summer temperatures hitting 35 degrees, with
90 per cent humidity, there is no air-conditioning. Workers say some dormitories
house more than 40 people and are infested with ants and cockroaches, with
the noise and stench making it difficult to sleep.
A company can be judged by how it treats its lowliest workers. It sets
an example for the rest of the company or in Apple's case, the world.
In Person and At Home
Before he was deposed from Apple the first time around, Jobs already
had a reputation internally for acting like a tyrant. Jobs regularly belittled
people, swore at them, and pressured them until they reached their breaking
point. In the pursuit of greatness he cast aside politeness and empathy.
His verbal abuse never stopped. Just last month Fortune reported about
a half-hour "public humiliation" Jobs doled out to one Apple team:
"Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to
do?" Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, "So why the fuck
doesn't it do that?"
"You've tarnished Apple's reputation," he told them.
"You should hate each other for having let each other down."
Jobs ended by replacing the head of the group, on the spot.
In his book about Jobs' time at NeXT and return to Apple, The Second
Coming of Steve Jobs, Alan Deutschman described Jobs' rough treatment of
He would praise and inspire them, often in very creative
ways, but he would also resort to intimidating, goading, berating, belittling,
and even humiliating them... When he was Bad Steve, he didn't seem to care
about the severe damage he caused to egos or emotions... suddenly and unexpectedly,
he would look at something they were working on say that it "sucked," it
Jobs had his share of personal shortcomings, too. He has no public record
of giving to charity over the years, despite the fact he became wealthy
after Apple's 1980 IPO and had accumulated an estimated $7 billion net
worth by the time of his death. After closing Apple's philanthropic programs
on his return to Apple in 1997, he never reinstated them, despite the company's
gusher of profits.
It's possible Jobs has given to charity anonymously, or that he will
posthumously, but he has hardly embraced or encouraged philanthropy in
the manner of, say, Bill Gates, who pledged $60 billion to charity and
who joined with Warren Buffet to push fellow billionaires to give even
What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs"He clearly didn't
have the time," is what the director of Jobs' short-lived charitable foundation
told the New York Times. That sounds about right. Jobs did not lead a balanced
life. He was professionally relentless. He worked long hours, and remained
CEO of Apple through his illness until six weeks before he died. The result
was amazing products the world appreciates. But that doesn't mean Jobs'
workaholic regimen is one to emulate.
There was a time when Jobs actively fought the idea of becoming a family
man. He had his daughter Lisa out of wedlock at age 23 and, according to
Fortune, spent two years denying paternity, even declaring in court papers
"that he couldn't be Lisa's father because he was 'sterile and infertile,
and as a result thereof, did not have the physical capacity to procreate
a child.'" Jobs eventually acknowledged paternity, met and married his
wife, now widow, Laurene Powell, and had three more children. Lisa went
to Harvard and is now a writer.
Steve Jobs created many beautiful objects. He made digital devices more
elegant and easier to use. He made a lot of money for Apple Inc. after
people wrote it off for dead. He will undoubtedly serve as a role model
for generations of entrepreneurs and business leaders. Whether that's a
good thing or a bad thing depends on how honestly his life is appraised.