Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview

Yesterday on a cross-country flight I had the opportunity to watch STEVE JOBS: THE LOST INTERVIEW, a documentary recorded in 1995 and released to theaters shortly after Jobs’s death in 2011. As its name implies, the film consists of an interview Robert X. Cringely conducted with Jobs for THE TRIUMPH OF THE NERDS, a PBS documentary about the development of the personal computer. Footage from the interview was lost for a while, but resurfaced after Jobs’s death.

The film shows Jobs at an interesting time in his life. This was before his triumphant return to Apple, which was then at its nadir. At this point, the company Jobs founded after leaving Apple (NeXT) had already transitioned from making computers to making software. It’s fascinating to see him frame this development; when talking about NeXT, he doesn’t mention the company’s computers at all. Instead, he talks about object-oriented programming as one of three major advances he witnessed in a visit to Xerox PARC in the late 1970s; the other two being ethernet networking and the graphical user interface. The latter of these, of course, is what led to the development of the Mac. In this way, Jobs ties his past success with his (then) current endeavor. Jobs is very clear on the lineage of these technologies; he doesn’t claim to have invented any of them. (At one point he even cites Picasso’s famous quote, “good artists copy; great artists steal.”)

So what is Jobs’s contribution? It’s turning these nerdy research projects into great products that add value to people’s lives. The idea of creating products that embody the best of our species is the main force that drove him. At one point Cringely asks Jobs if he sees himself as a nerd or a hippie. The answer is definite: Jobs is a hippie. But he doesn’t mean this in the “turn on, tune in, drop out” sense most people associate with hippiedom. Instead, he talks about infusing the values of liberal arts into the most important technological development of our age: the computer. He tells the oft-repeated story of how he ran across a magazine article comparing the relative power consumption of different species, and how it made him realize that the computer was a bicycle for the mind. Jobs speaks with passion and intelligence about these subjects.

Cringely asks for predictions about the future of technology. Jobs’s eyes brighten as he discusses the immense potential of the (then new) World Wide Web. He talks presciently about major societal changes we now take for granted, such as online shopping. The early- to mid-1990s was when I also pivoted my career to focus on the web. As I watched THE LOST INTERVIEW, I was reminded of how exciting and open-ended that time seemed. I also couldn’t help but wonder what Jobs would make of today’s highly polarizing information environments. The mission of infusing technology with the best our species has produced is very inspiring. How can we best carry this humanistic mission forward given the challenges we face today?

STEVE JOBS: THE LOST INTERVIEW is not just a great introduction to Jobs’s philosophy and approach to product development; it’s also a reminder that a humanistic approach to technology is not just possible, but can also lead to unimaginable success and riches. It’s easy to see how the values Jobs talks about here would go on to inform the design of the iPhone a decade later. That product would go on to democratize computing even more than the Apple II and Mac did in part because it was designed to do so. But Jobs makes it clear that doing this isn’t easy. Creating great things calls for a serious approach to design, development, and production that demands extraordinary effort, talent, and craft. It’s a rare treat to see somebody of Jobs’s stature and influence express his value system with such depth and clarity. Anyone tasked with managing or designing products (digital or otherwise) owes it to him or herself to see this movie. You can watch it on Netflix.