Jobs the Movie — A Meditation

VNMby Vonda N. McIntyre

I didn’t particularly enjoy the movie Jobs, a biopic about Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers. The only likeable character in the entire thing was Steve Wozniak. The movie was filmed in Extreme Jumpycam, which I thoroughly dislike. I’m susceptible to neither motion sickness nor (since I fled screaming from grad school more than forty years ago) migraines, but at the moment I feel like I might develop both, and I’m sure I would have if I hadn’t closed my eyes during most of the movie and pretended it was a radio play.

Come to think of it, it was written like a radio play: “Bla bla bla STEVE,” “Yes, MIKE, bla bla bla,” “I don’t want to talk to you now, WOZ.” “STEVE, dude!” “Awesome, STEVE!” (By the way, nobody said “dude” or “awesome” in 1980.)

We’ll skip right over the fact that no amount of instantly-recognizeable Dylan music can make soldering interesting.

But what really struck me about the movie was that it completely missed the excitement of having and working with a personal computer in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I wrote recently about my first computer, the Osborne I, and I can still remember how amazing it was to type a few words and see them appear on the Osborne’s tiny little screen, and find that I could backspace over them, or overtype them, correct errors, rearrange sentences and paragraphs and chapters, check the spelling, without having to retype the whole page or the whole manuscript.

And I already had a Correcting Selectric, which up till then was the epitome of typing, and am a pretty good typist and an excellent speller. Nevertheless, getting a computer was world-changing for my writing life.

I wrote in the Osborne essay about the reaction of the clerks at The Phone Company when they realized how much drudgery SuperCalc would overcome in their jobs.

There’s nothing about this in the movie. You see nothing of what the personal computer could do — you see a few lines of random alphanumeric type on a CRT. Several times. Windows gets as much screen time (a few seconds) as the Apple interface. People play games, but not on an Apple computer.

If you lived in a world without personal computers, you would have no idea what anybody would do with them or why anyone would want them.

If you grew up with computers, you would have no idea, from this movie, why they made such an incredible difference.

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Jobs the Movie — A Meditation — 16 Comments

    • Hi Stephanie — I remember hanging out with you and a friend a few years later and mentioning that I’d had an Osborne and it ran on CP/M. And he said, “What’s CP/M?”

      (And I’ve gone back and forth a couple times dithering about whether it’s CP/M or C/PM. If I remember right, that was a fairly common dither.)

      V.

  1. I was a freelance graphic designer right out of college in 1976. When I began working with a computer to teach students how to layout a yearbook in 1990 and used a Mac, first with Word and then with PageMaker, it completely blew my mind. I used to tell my students: There is nothing you can do on these computers that you cannot do by hand with considerably more time and effort.

    Putting words anywhere I wanted them, changing font and style and size! Amazing!

    Even now for my writing and English classes, I raise the image of the guy sitting on his stool plucking letters out and setting type, one letter at a time, upside down and backwards.

  2. Getting my first computer (a lot later than the Osborne) was like having a wizard come by and saying, “Here – have a magic toy! Oh, and you’ll never have to use Letraset or a waxer or Chartpak again”.

    We have whole classes of jobs and businesses and recreation that didn’t exist when I graduated high school. Words that didn’t exist because the concept didn’t exist. The world changed, like magic.

    I’m not sure you can explain it to someone who didn’t live through it. But —
    That was the point of the whole thing! How could the movie makers miss it?

  3. I used to tell my students: There is nothing you can do on these computers that you cannot do by hand with considerably more time and effort.

    I remember the thrill of being able to produce a whole sales catalog without actually touching the page (or hot wax, or X-acto knives, or Letraset). On the other hand, only yesterday I had an issue at work regarding review of packaging that was instantly solved with a pair of scissors (rather than going into InDesign and mucking about trying to remove a segment of the package that should not have been there…). Occasionally doing it analog is still the best way.

    • Jan, Margaret, Madeleine —

      Mad, I love your “scissors” story. I do occasionally spend a bunch of time trying to accomplish something on the computer only to realize it would have been easier with a pencil and a piece of paper.

      Jan, over at Centrum when Copper Canyon Press was still in Port Townsend, I spent sometime doing lead typesetting. I really enjoyed it! I don’t suppose I’d like it if I had to do it 8 hours/day, but who knows. It might fill my “fiddly activity” need that currently is filled by creating ebooks and bead creatures.

      Margaret — exactly! Also, my handwriting is so awful that there were times I really appreciated Letraset and Chartpak. In pre-computer days. Sometimes I see layouts that would be very much improved if the designer had to stick to a particular typeface or two.

      –V.

      • The only time I have mourned the ongoing march of computers for writing and publishing was working in the desktop publishing program in my old day job, which had not been well-designed for leading things out. In the days of paste-up, you could fix that with an exacto knife, and, of course, in the hot type days you fixed it by adding or removing bits of lead.

  4. Very good points, Vonda! I was disappointed that the movie made no mention of things like Pixar, the iPhone, the iPad, or Jobs’ cancer, and only a passing reference to NeXT. These were all huge parts of his life.

    But that excitement you were referring to is hard to express to someone who wasn’t there. I remember the excitement the first time I managed to write a program that drew a squiggly line on the screen, or display text in *gasp* color! I was doing some consulting for Apple (production software for the Lisa), and seeing that interface for the first time was amazing. I could go on. I should go on. I think I need to do some blogging!

    • Gary, let us know if you do blog on the subject, OK?

      A friend of mine, an artist, had a NEXT. I believe he still mourns it.

      I almost bought a LISA. I had completely forgotten about it. The reason I never bought any Apple machines when I was still using desktops was that I didn’t like the keyboard. I’ve kind of gotten over that, as there isn’t, as far as I know, a laptop in existence with a keyboard that feels like that of an IBM Selectric.

      V.

  5. What this says to me is that the movie was not about computers. It was about Jobs and the other people around him. In other words, Hollywood made the easy choice — a movie about computers would be much more difficult.

  6. But I still liked my Commodore–you could play “Rags to Riches” or “M.U.L.E.” on it, too, as well as put out the Greatest Ditto Masters on Earth (for my apa), given that the Star Micronics printer was an impact one. There for a while, Commodore really did have better graphics than the Mac.

    But I did like doing layout on the primitive programs back then–I actually did Real Live Paste Up galley layout for a newsletter in 1976 (for the AFROTC program at Oregon State, with the title of THE FLYING BEAVER, and there were no volunteers to explain to the colonel in charge why that was such a very bad idea. I was the first editor, the beaver is the Oregon State mascot, and oh, well…). Once I could figure out word wrap for my graphics, I was extremely happy.

  7. My Apple IIe was life-changing. I was saving for an IBM dedicated Word Processor (remember those?) and was up to $5k of the $6k when I met and married my ex. He said, “Trust me, we’ll get an AppleIIe” and I bought a used RX7 with the $5k.

    They should have shown me wrestling with the electric typewriter, and Cor-Rec-Type sheets, or eventually whiteout, and then presenting someone with the miracle of correcting one file. We hadn’t yet messed things up with people asking for constant tiny changes to make your life nuts.

    Maybe I have a My First Computer post, too…

  8. Yes, yes, and yes. You nailed it, Vonda. A #fail to capture a world-changing moment in time. The tale of two Steves deserved better.