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  1. Science & Tech
13 November 2015

All hail Steve Jobs – the first film that’s really about tech

Some parts are sensationalised - but at last, here's a film that can break down barriers between techies and the uninitiated. 

By Chi Onwurah

I have two contradictory interests to declare in the movie Steve Jobs. The first is that the cinematographer is married to my sister.

The second is that I have boycotted Apple for nearly twenty years now.    

My first job after graduating as an Electrical Engineer from Imperial was with Nortel, a Canadian telecoms equipment manufacturer. In order to monitor call routing I was asked to design a “PC Interface card”. The very name highlights a longstanding, ongoing, totemic divide, the tech equivalent of Europe in the Conservative Party, which is brilliantly brought to life in the film.

There could never be an Apple interface card because its architecture and interfaces are proprietary. Indeed as the film shows, the Macintosh was designed so it could not be opened with a screwdriver.

Apple wants to curate your experience end-to-end, put the technology behind an unbreachable wall and control your   interface with it. And that works – for some people. Android wants to enable diversity and collaboration as its slogan “Be Together, Not the Same” tries to celebrate, and that works – for some. Microsoft wants to standardise your world with apps they make and you pay for, and that works – for some.

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Google will follow you from device to device as its “One Account All of Google” tag trumpets – and that works, for some people, even if it chills the blood in my veins.

We have reached a point in the tech wars where there is genuine choice, even if not always the information to make it. We have got here after half a century of battles  –  open versus closed architectures, standardised versus proprietary interfaces, interoperable versus stand-alone applications and now EU platform regulation. These battles have marked the rise and fall of empires from IBM to Amazon to Facebook. But unlike historical empires there have been no wandering minstrels to laud their achievements and foresee their downfall. As a consequence they are not part of our culture in the way Homer brought us the Trojan War or Shakespeare the War of the Roses.

I am not comparing Danny Boyle to either Shakespeare or Homer but for me Steve Jobs is the first film about tech. Star Wars is the Odyssey with space travel, it is not about tech. Even the Social Network’s representation of technology was no more than a couple of equations on a whiteboard, unintelligible code scrolling by on a screen and that lazy classic – lots of multi-coloured wires.

Steve Jobs both shows and talks about technology from how to get to the insides of a Macintosh to my personal favourite, the relatives merits of the 68000 family of micro-processors. Whilst Game of Thrones is known for using sexposition – having characters give background to the plot whilst taking part in a sexual act to keep the viewer engaged, Steve Jobs introduces e-moting – characters repeat technical facts whilst digesting  emotional challenging experiences.

I know the film has been criticised for being inaccurate and/or exaggerated, and having been a bit player in some of these battles, I know it is. But that is a necessary part of telling stories that people find believable.

As shadow minister for culture and the digital economy one of my big concerns – after the slashing cuts to culture, the growing digital divide,  lack of decent digital infrastructure and departmental data chaos – is the divide between culture and technology highlighted by CP Snow over fifty years ago. At the time the example he gave was how few “cultured” people could recite Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics. Today I could equally ask how many could put a name to the beating heart of their iPhone?[1].

The reason therefore that I am enthusiastic about Steve Jobs the film is it demonstrates, for me at least, that the creative industries can tell a tech story for non-techies, just as they make Westerns for non-cowboys and murder mysteries for non murderers. Luvvies, if you like can do tech – integrating into our culture. And if that happens then my constituents are more likely to be interested in tech, more likely to seek out the tech skills which lead to well paid, satisfying jobs.

But that leaves the question of whether techies can do luvv – not the air-kissing stereotypes but the communicating and engagement with the rest of the world. Can the tech community for example reflect our social interface, tech with a humane face as well a brilliant HCI (Human Computer Interface)? Can tech reach out and engage with people, ensure that tech empowers rather than devours people?

Digital technology can change the power relationships between Government and citizen, company and consumer, employer and employee. We need a truly digital culture that welcomes and inspires techies and non-techies alike.


[1]Answer – a microprocessor, currently made by TMSC although in keeping with their closed platform philosophy Apple prefer not to say

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