Steve Jobs and the Third Wave: 'Jobs' Reminds Us of the Limits of Techno-Determinism

Steve Jobs and the Third Wave: 'Jobs' Reminds Us of the Limits of Techno-Determinism

Jobs, the new movie about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, has received middling reviews from the critics, yet it’s still a worthy and important film.

Why is that? Because the events depicted in the movie–events that make Jobs look technologically brilliant and commercially visionary, professionally ruthless and personally nasty–were all part of perhaps the most important worldwide narrative of the 20th century: the coming of the Information Age.

Back in 1980, Alvin Toffler published The Third Wave, in which he argued that human history could be summed up in three waves of technological innovation. The first wave, reaching back to the dawn of human civilization, was agriculture. The second, starting about 1700, was industry. The third, beginning in the 1950s, was computers and information technology.

Each of these waves, Toffler argued, brought with it new kinds of social organization. Agricultural societies, for example, were characterized by tradition, hierarchy, and slow economic growth. Industrial societies tended toward centralization, a new mass society, and fast economic growth.

The Information Age, Toffler wrote, would be about decentralization, individualization, and much more rapid economic growth.

In other words, Toffler was optimistic about this third wave. Optimism was in short supply, of course, back in 1980; under the hapless leadership of Jimmy Carter in the White House, America seemed adrift in “stagflation,” “malaise,” permanent energy shortages, and relentless international decline.

Yet even before Ronald Reagan was elected on November 4, 1980, to change all that, Toffler had argued that the new forces of information technology were already transforming America and the world:

This book… contends that the world has not swerved into lunacy, and that, in fact, beneath the clatter and jangle of seemingly senseless events there lies a startling and potentially hopeful pattern… The Third Wave is for those who think the human story, far from ending, has only just begun.

It would be computers and information, Toffler prophesied, that would drive progress–no matter who was running Washington, D.C.

Indeed, far from politics, out in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties–the South Bay region was not yet known as Silicon Valley–the rumbles of the information revolution were already being felt.

In particular, an informal meeting of techies, calling themselves the Homebrew Computer Club, held their first meeting in the Valley in 1975. Jobs’ co-founder of Apple, “the other Steve,” Steve Wozniak, has written about the inspiration he gained from his first brush with Homebrew.

It’s worth noting that 1975 was one of the bleakest years of a bleak decade for America. At home, unemployment averaged 8.5 percent; the US seemed to have fallen into chronically slow growth. Meanwhile, overseas, South Vietnam and Cambodia fell to local communist forces. And at the same time, Cuba and the Soviet Union were advancing in Central America and Africa.

Yet in the Valley, the mood was cheerier. Nerdy engineers and tripping hippies–Steve Jobs was both–were mostly oblivious to the larger news. Instead they hung out at Homebrew and other places in and around Stanford University, dreaming fresh dreams of liberation and transcendence through computing.

Indeed, as Jobs makes clear, to the extent that the Homebrew crowd had any politics, their allegiances were decidedly on the left. The enemy was “The System,” epitomized by “Big Blue,” that is, IBM. And beyond IBM were other enemies, including, as the Homebrewers saw it, the military-industrial complex, not to mention the federal government’s overall machinery of social conformity. So one might quickly note that even if the Homebrew types saw themselves as liberal or left, they were, at the same time, libertarians. They were, in fact, left-libertarians, much warmer to, say, the ACLU than to the AFL-CIO.

The irony, of course, is that the economy of Silicon Valley was substantially empowered by that same military industrial complex and that same federal government. The first computers, back in the 40s, were made for the military; into the 60s, the biggest customer for transistors and integrated circuits was the Department of Defense. Many student loans and fellowships were issued as part of Cold War-instigated education programs, such as the National Defense Education Act of 1958. And of course, the Internet itself got its start as the Pentagon’s ARPANET in 1961.

Yet at the same time, the contribution of the Homebrew crowd was decisive. It was Jobs and company who turned military computing into personal computing. Yes, the government had laid the groundwork, but the new generation of geeks made it all into their own unique thing. In other words, it was the weird combination of DOD and LSD that turned the South Bay into Silicon Valley.

Did the Reagan Revolution, beginning in 1981, help the process along? Did it help by cutting taxes and generally encouraging entrepreneurship? Sure, it did. And so did the proto-Reaganomics Steiger Amendment, a cut in the capital gains rate enacted over Jimmy Carter’s objections in 1978.

Yet tax rates were not the central variable in the flowering of the Valley; Jobs and Wozniak founded Apple in 1976, when the Reagan tax cuts were a mere gleam in the Gipper’s eye. And elsewhere in the US, Microsoft had been founded in that even bleaker year of 1975. Those were the years when the top income tax rate was 70 percent, and the top capital gains tax rate was 49 percent. The lesson seems to be that entrepreneurship and startups owe more to the “internals” of the specific individuals involved as opposed to the “externals” of the business climate. Or, as Toffler would say, when the Third Wave was ready to come, it came.

Not surprisingly, Jobs focuses more on the personalities and motivations of the key characters, starting, of course, with Steve Jobs. They are motivated by greed, to be sure, but also by a desire to do new things, to defy the Man–to be, as Jobs says, “insanely great.”

So that’s why the story told here is so important: the story of how the techie counterculturalists of four decades ago became the moguls and powerbrokers of today. The film’s loving reconstruction of Jobs’ parents’ garage–the first Apple factory–is worth the price of a ticket for anyone interested in how Silicon Valley emerged.

Indeed, this film takes such pride in its depiction of real-life characters that the ending credits show pictures of the film’s characters alongside actual photos of the historical figures; the filmmakers want you to see how successful they were in getting everything right.

Nevertheless, perhaps because the stakes in Silicon Valley are now so high–everybody now sees the value and prestige of being present at the creation of this epoch–the historical accuracy of the movie has been challenged.

Steve Wozniak, for example, complained recently of a particular scene in the film: “Steve is lecturing me about where computers could go, when it was the other way around.” Wozniak added, “Steve never created a great computer. In that period, he had failure after failure after failure. He had an incredible vision, but he didn’t have the ability to execute on it.”

On the other hand, Wozniak is attached to another Steve Jobs movie, this one to be written by Aaron Sorkin. Thus the battle for the correct history of the 70s–and the ego issues that have smoldered over the decades–might also be the battle for the biggest box office in the 10s.

Still, Jobs has plenty of unreserved champions who knew him well and who speak from the heart. As Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle said of Jobs just a few days ago, “He was our Edison, he was our Picasso.”

Of course, Edison and Picasso had plenty of enemies, too–embittered rivals, disgruntled ex-employees, jilted lovers. So when a character in the movie says to Jobs: “You’re good, you’re darn good, but you’re an asshole”–well, that’s the story of many creative geniuses.

Jobs takes the Apple story all the way from that humble garage to a sleek corporate headquarters where Jobs unveiled the iPod in 2001. Thus the film gives us plenty of occasion to reflect on the changes in Jobs–and the changes in the country.

Yes, it’s been a long, strange trip for the Valley over these past 40 years. The geeks have gotten rich, and the backwater is now front-and-center in American culture.

Moreover, now, in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, which showed how Silicon Valley was an accomplice–willing or unwilling, in the end it doesn’t much matter–to the National Security Agency, we see that what was once an anti-government tech counterculture is now a loyal tool of Uncle Sam’s massive domestic snooping schemes. Yes, of course, the techsters have become very rich tools, and they are as plugged into DC and politics (especially Democratic politics) as any railroad robber baron of yore.

In the words of Joel Kotkin, a centrist author and economic development expert:

For a generation, most Americans, whatever their politics, have largely admired Silicon Valley as an exemplar of enlightened free-market capitalism. Yet, increasingly, the one-time folk heroes are beginning to appear more like a digital version of President George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil.’ In terms of threats to freedom and privacy, we now may have more to fear from techies in Palo Alto than the infinitely less-competent retro-Reds in North Korea.

Alvin Toffler might have foreseen the Third Wave, and that it was coming, no matter what. Yet still, as Jobs shows us, even big-picture techno-determinism must allow for quirks of personality and the ironies of history.

Yes, Jobs was as quirky as they come. And yes, the irony of the Valley counterculturalists becoming tool of the surveillance state–that’s as big as it gets.