The other night we were out to see Clint Eastwood’sSully. A friend—a real movie guy—had said he had seen Brace For Impact and probably on this account found the movie slow. At Rotten Tomatoes, it does over 80 percent on both sides. We didn’t let my friend’s remark dampen our enthusiasm and thoroughly enjoyed the movie. As I am a romantic case about the human race, there’s no surprise here. My detractors often say that humans on the whole will not be reasonable and feed on self-destruction. My retort—always the same—even if in the end, we don’t make it, we came down from the trees and built skyscrapers. It’s a wonderful accomplishment for a humble two-legged mammal. We kicked out the monkey in us (almost completely) and learned to love, not just in the small tribes where we evolved, but even today, given the right prerequisites: human rights, democracy, religious tolerance, property, law and order and so forth. Here are some other stories; examples of why a large percentage of humans are as heroic as Sully.
On Thursday, just days before Halloween, 2011, a small charter plane crashed on a busy highway 900 meters from the Vancouver International Airport. People hurried over from their homes or passersbys on bicycles raced to the scene; they left their cars in the middle of the road and scurried into the flaming wreck. All to rescue the 9 passengers and crew, to carry them to safety. Intense heat radiated and thick black plumes billowed. People went right up to the fuselage and pulled the unfortunates out, taking great risks with their lives, not knowing if it was about to explode. They had an exceedingly brief time to get them out of a fiery hulk. Three minutes tops! The thing is, eight of the nine were saved, all but the pilot. He burned to death; he had struggled valiantly with his copilot to make it to the airport with a crippled plane, and in aviation terms, missed by an inch. (The co-pilot since this time, has also died of his injuries and burns). This is a little slice of life: so many people came to help that you should be proud to be in this subclass of mammal, homo sapiens.
Another example? Back some years ago, the Toronto Star took 20 wallets, each with about $43, photo ID, baby pictures, a grocery list, receipts, a contact number, an ATM card, a fancy hankie and a handwritten love note and placed them in high-traffic areas across Greater Toronto. Of the 20 wallets dropped, 17 were returned, only one had the money missing.
One could go on in this vein for days. Story after story would fill the pages of many a good news book, and I want to speak to this impulse that most people develop in their lives: it’s called human reciprocity: do onto others as you would like done to you and yours.
I know that you are asking yourself,
“Nice; what the f—k does this have to do with either Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?”
I want to bring together a link between the concept of general human decency and the other of elite human excellence, between technology and freedom. Not to be overly optimistic, but the pioneering work in the digital world of Gates and Jobs (and many others) which ended in some amazing social media devices for the working middle class have allowed for the growing of human decency around the globe. The civilized rational side of human nature in us has been enabled because of this technology. People of like values and desires have been able to make contact with one another throughout the world. All to prove that middle class democratic values will reign supreme given the chance and the times, and on the whole, these general standards outstrip all others, especially elitist platonic ones. Generally, the new amazing possibilities brought forward by these technologies by far and large have outweighed the negative impact of them on our lives. Turns out that the most important side-benefit of being connected for individuals around the globe may be political freedom; certainly the Arab Spring speaks to this phenomena. But perhaps I am reaching. I’m not saying that when some idiot-wind who occupies Wall Street pulls out a cell phone that the world is a better place. You can’t be an anti-capitalist on a technology whose existence you would refuse: it’s just too much hypocrisy. Go running naked in the forest until the insects, birds and other mammals eat you alive, then you’ll know the true meaning of dog eat dog. You might as well be Michael Moore making millions on everyone else’s misery and claiming you’re perpetually sympathetic to us helpless fools of the Third Estate, (see, The New Ancien Regime), while keeping your money tucked safely out of reach of the masses. (I wonder if he buys gold as a hedge?) To the Left, individual liberty is always a nuisance to their imperial design of feeding, insuring, nursing and housing the huddled helpless masses. Thank goodness the socialists and theists are always available to look after our sorry asses.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs represent a certain paradigm I want to explore with these technologies in mind, just as the Feynman and Dyson model did for me around the question of supernaturalism, see, Richard Feynman Versus Freeman Dyson. First Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were, as all of us are, works in progress. As giant egos, both have had the humility to publicly admit their mistakes in regards to the treatment of others and their vision of technology. More importantly they were individuals with enough visionary testosterone to get the result we needed to get from back there (wherever that was in the eighties and nineties) to here (wherever that is twenty or thirty years later). They fed off each others successes and helped bring the world into its current electronic stage. Life without a PC for most of us is unimaginable, certainly it would be less of a life for us as it would be without music or friendship or some other important aspect of life; it would be doable – we all have to get by – but it would be a lesser event. There are well over seven billion cell phone users in the world today, maybe even as much as 90 percent of the entire population; that’s a goddamn miracle in an anti-miraculous sort of way. So to Leonard Kleinrock who first helped conceive of the internet onto JCR Licklider and all the many other less known contributors, good for you. And to the more famous folks like Alan Kay, Stephen Wozniak, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt, Jimmy Wales, Larry Sager and the numerous other brains who facilitate the opportunity to do so much with so little effort, good for you too. I don’t begrudge you a penny you’ve earned.
One of the ways Steve Jobs was able to leap frog over Sony, Nokia and other competitors in his second stint as CEO of Apple was an intensity which bordered on viciousness but with enough self-control not to lose it like the first time around. He had true passion to create perfect devices. He was fiercely tough on his employees. He managed by charisma but not by charm. He was often rude and confrontational. He had a mixture of contradictory traits that aren’t to be admired in people. He was this genius-technology guy who halfheartedly practiced a variant of Indian spiritualism. It’s true that if you are doing a great thing, whatever works is a mantra hard to refute but it makes him a bit dim. Laptop for mystic gurus just like cell phones for anti-capitalist-occupiers of Wall Street seems like a Nietzschean decadence.
Bill Gates did coding, and unlike Steve Jobs, probably was the ultimate IT geek. He was down to earth, self-controlled and had a rational analytic mind. He was not like Steve Jobs in important ways: neither romantic about technology or intuitive about good taste, but he was systematic and had a most important quality, tenacity. They both stole wholesale from others, often without due credit, but Bill Gates and Microsoft plodded through the different version of computer interface until Windows 95; after that the versions became clearer and easier to use. This was not so true with Steve Jobs: it was an intuitive vision of the iPhone which put Apple on the road to fame and solvency. He didn’t plod, he revolutionized. The danger is, and it goes I suppose without saying, that without Steve Jobs, Apple is eventually just another Sony or IBM.
What you may not know is that in the beginning, Microsoft was primarily a collaborator with Apple and not its competitor as it is now. “We had more people working on the Mac than he did,” Bill Gates said, reminiscing on this point, “He had about fourteen or fifteen people. We had like twenty people. We really bet our life on it.”
Like Richard Feynman and Freeman Dyson, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs knew each other well. From the beginning of their relationship, there was rudeness and friction. We see this in another famous pairing, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The similarities are pretty fascinating. John the cool, risk-taker, mesmerizing rock’n’roller and Paul the dedicated musician who was staid, loyal, uncontroversial and polite. I want to make the point that without the love and tension between Paul and John, the Beatles' music, though still grand, would not have been as great or lasting as it has been. And I want to make a similar point about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates’ relationship. How it led to Windows and Steve Job’s wonderful, almost magical devices. Bill Gates early on saw Steve Jobs’ compelling and even seductive effect on people. He was mildly put off by what he thought of as a certain oddness about him, and though both have been reported to be rude, Jobs’ offensiveness is now legendary. When John met Paul, Lennon was so rude that the first meeting ended in embarrassment all around. Steve Jobs thought Bill Gates was unimaginative and once famously said, “He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.” Doesn’t this sound familiar? Another time, he quipped, “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”
What Can You Say to That?
“He really never knew much about technology,” Bill Gates once said of Steve, “but he had an amazing instinct for what works.” Another time, he said, “It was like anybody who ever thought that there would be a manual for any Mac application was the greatest idiot, and we [Microsoft] were like, ‘Does he really mean it? Should we not tell him that we have people who are actually working on manuals’?”
When Microsoft and Apple had a falling out, Steve and Bill met about it. Steve felt that Microsoft had completely ripped Apple off. “Well, Steve,” Bill Gates returned so cleverly, (and now famously), “I think it is more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.” Later when they collaborated again when Steve returned to Apple, Bill said, “Some of the most exciting work that I’ve done in my career has been the work that I’ve done with Steve.”
It is important to note as Malcolm Gladwell points out in the Outliers, that the reason the Beatles sounded so brilliant when they returned to England from Germany in 1963 was all the months they spent in Hamburg playing often seven days a week and with multiple sets at clubs like the KaiserKeller. It is about practice: such as working endless hours on the earliest computers as Bill Gates did as a teenager. It was the years of failure first time around at Apple which allowed Steve Jobs to do it successfully the second time around. Ends up that good CEOism and technological innovation, like every thing else human, is learned behavior.
“The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter,” Steve Jobs once said, “the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we [at Apple] do. We won because we personally love music. We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out. If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much.”
One night in a joint interview with Bill Gates, Steve also admitted, “I started the company based on doing the whole banana, we weren’t so good at partnering with people, and I think if Apple could have had a little more of that in its DNA, it would have served it extremely well.”
“At various times, he felt beleaguered,” Bill Gates has said of him, “He felt like he was the good guy and we were the bad guys. You know, very understandable. I respect Steve, we got to work together. We spurred each other on, even as competitors. None of that bothers me at all.”
At a Stanford University Commencement in 2008, Steve Jobs said, “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something . . . almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”
People are wonderful. What deficits these two men (and others like them) had or have, their contribution to the world is powerful and worthy; they extended humanness to the realm of the ethereal unlike any mystic could ever hope. Sometimes the encroachment of meaninglessness caused by the chaos of the universe and the randomness of existence is offset by certain human endeavors, like people who rush into danger to help others. Those brave heroes who give us hope and geniuses like Gates and Jobs who gave us new tools, have come together and empowered a great romantic impulse in humanity: that given a chance, goodness trumps indifference, banality and outright evil.