Who is Philo B. Farnsworth? That few know or care to find out illustrates the difference between a technology prophet and a marketing genius who happens to work in tech. Raised in a log cabin in Utah, Farnsworth, at age 14, read a bunch of early electronics magazines and sketched out the principles and design of television. By his 21st birthday he’d produced a working version. His inventions and patents are still used, but he never got rich and died destitute.
Steve Jobs, on the other hand, was raised in affluent Palo Alto, bicycling as a boy past the labs of such technology powerhouses as Stanford University, Hewlett-Packard, Fairchild and Shockley Semiconductor and Xerox PARC. As a teenager he visited all of them. In high school he worked in an electronics store, where he ordered a kit computer (the only kind then available to the consumer) and with a pal decided to assemble the kits and sell them. It took Jobs awhile to figure out that you needed a markup to make any money. Once he did, though, the legendary founder of Apple was on his way to fame and glory and, upon his death earlier this year, virtual deification.
The Lost Interview, so named because the master tape was lost after a single excerpt appeared on a local television screening in 1995, gives us Jobs explaining himself and his beliefs without mediation or talking-head translation. I approached it skeptically–why would the Doris Duke Theatre want to present what was basically an unadorned 72-minute TV show?–and came away provoked and unexpectedly touched. Here is the dethroned King, 10 years after being humiliated and forced out of Apple by the Pepsi-Cola CEO John Scully, whose boneheaded leadership has put the company 60 days away from bankruptcy. Nobody, including Jobs, has any idea that within a year he will return to Apple. The man speaking is Lear without his kingdom, Napoleon on Elba. Yet he’s not bitter (though his remarks about Scully are priceless examples of the gentle art of verbal murder). He’s inspired and wry and, as the show progresses, more and more mind-boggling. What drives him, even in exile, is not at all what you think–despite all the thousands of words and programs devoted to his life and achievements.
Jobs was not a coder, not an engineer, and, despite having his name on over 300 patents (all shared with engineers and designers), not a true inventor. And he’s okay with that. What drives him, what emerges again and again, in his life and his words in this film, is coolness. Not wearing-the-right-jeans coolness. Not even gotta-have-the-It-gadget coolness, though that is what makes Apple products so popular and profitable. Jobs (and his partner, Steve Wozniak) simply had a yen for the way things work, particularly if they could be used in subversive and daring ways. They liked making things happen–even if it took breaking the law (as in their earliest product, a phone hacking device), especially if it meant disrupting and destroying an entire industry that wasn’t in your purview (the iPod).
I won’t give away the single thing that Jobs says drives him, because it comes near the end of a very entertaining journey. If you want to start a company, create anything, raise kids for the 21st century, ponder where the future is taking us, you’ll want to take the trip. And when future generations ask the Philo Farnsworth question about Steve Jobs, the best answer will be found in these 72 minutes.