Wired on Bill and Steve: Part Two

A particularly curmudgeony opinion piece by Tony Long revisits the Leander Kahney article from last week. For those that are just tuning in, both authors write for Wired. Kahney's article suggested that Bill Gates deserved more admiration than Steve Jobs because Gates gives large amounts of money away publicly.

The short and simple summary of what I wrote last week is that the appreciation that Jobs receives for leading Apple and Pixar is different than appreciating charity work.

Jobs and Wozniak created Apple's culture of artists and renaissance men and women. This culture is responsible for products that appeal on an intellectual and sometimes visceral level. Consumers and columnists may simply think of Apple's products as "user friendly" and "attractive", but the technical elite can look at Mac OS X or an iMac and see how much thought went into them. As a result, Apple has broad and sweeping influence over all sorts of design, which brings attention to Apple's CEO.

Street Cred Cast as 'Hero Worship'

Now, to step back and put this in perspective, the Gates Foundation does nothing even remotely similar to what Apple and Pixar do. Only when Gates takes on the persona of Microsoft chairman does the comparison make sense.

In that context, Jobs rightfully gets more cultural credit. One only has to look at Vista screenshots to see who's following who. Pixar has obviously done something right as well since Disney has handed over creative control of feature animation and theme parks to Pixar. That's without touching on the cultural cues that companies like Google took from Apple.

In any case, Long contends that he doesn't even care about the relative merits of Gates and Jobs. He's concerned about giving them too much credit at all:

The issue for me is you, dear reader, and your blind hero worship. What gives with that, anyway?

You know who you are. You're the guy who shows up faithfully at every Macworld convention, camping out to be first in line for Jobs' keynote. You hang on every syllable the great man utters, as words like 'genius' and 'God' fall from your lips. Jeez, the Deadheads weren't that servile when they were following Jerry Garcia around.

Unfortunately, Long has twisted Macworld into something that it isn't. People are there for the excitement of the event and the fact that whatever Apple announces will likely influence their work and recreation. For most people, Macworld is fun. They're not there because they need to know what the CEO ate for breakfast. There are playful comments about Jobs's iconic status, but it's not at all as serious as Long makes it out to be.

The whole rock star persona strikes me as a very subtle running joke (even if it does fit well when other executives walk onstage and exude about as much charisma as cardboard). If there's anything about Jobs's personality that earns respect, it's the anti-executive identity that shows up from time to time.

Blame the Computers

Long then takes an unexpected turn into blaming microchips for the world's problems (does he know he works for Wired?):

What I want to know is why guys who manufacture computers or make software are worthy of being elevated to near-deity status by you techno-utopians. Technology, this manna from heaven that was supposed to free us from our chains, has done nothing of the sort. On the contrary, while computer technology may increase personal productivity, it's only complicated the nature of class struggle by eliminating jobs, weakening labor unions and dispersing workers.

A very black-and-white view of the world. I actually think you'd have a hard time arguing against the idea that personal computers and the internet has given individuals a voice or tools they wouldn't otherwise have. Would I be reading Long's column if the internet didn't exist? Would Penny Arcade have an audience? Would I know people in at least 16 different countries?

The fact that computers are complicated than we'd like is a bit beside the point. This is the case with cars, taxes, assembling furniture, legal agreements and so on. It's not specific to technology, it's just that most of use computers more frequently than we dive into law books.

I'll save my admiration for the guy making minimum wage who still finds the time and a few bucks to help someone less fortunate than he is. Or the schoolmarm who teaches your children how to read. Or the doctor who provides affordable medical care to a needy community instead of setting up a lucrative practice in Beverly Hills.

Those are all good silhouettes to praise, but there's no need to save admiration for specific purposes. It's not as if I have a jar of admiration sitting on the shelf. I can admire a artist for a painting a mural or a programmer for making a piece of software without running out of admiration for selfless acts.

Then again, maybe he's just pushing buttons.
Design Element
Wired on Bill and Steve: Part Two
Posted Feb 3, 2006 — 8 comments below


Chris — Feb 03, 06 737

>I can admire a artist for a painting a mural or a programmer for making a piece of software without running out of admiration for selfless acts.

Precisely, sir. Ship it.

However, I must argue with one point. There are actually problems with those strawman Hollywood-flavored silhouettes, like affordable medical care for a needy community? Can a doctor magically decrease pharmaceutical prices? What planet is the author living on?

Andy Lee — Feb 03, 06 738

"Street Cred Cast as 'Hero Worship'" -- I like that.

I saw this over on ValleyWag too, in a posting titled "When will journalists decide Jobs isn't God?" Upon reflection, the whole thing seems to me to be more of the time-honored tradition of trying to pass off cheap shots as insights.

As for the "rock star" persona, here's the comment I posted at ValleyWag:

Why is *any* celebrity worshipped? Jobs is often described as a rock star, and that's what he is within the computer industry. He's highly creative, driven, and charismatic, and he knows how to work his fans. He's treated as a saint by some, but he also has a reputation for being a major asshole -- as do some rock stars.

If you think it's all about some sterile notion of business competence (or ruthlessness or luck) and nothing else, you're missing the real phenomenon. Yes, he "revived a for-profit, stockholder-beholden company"; but I'd hardly say "That's all." He did it by generating excitement in elegant products, and by applying his talents as a showman and as a negotiator.

MJ — Feb 04, 06 739

Bill and Melinda may be enjoying the benefits of tax writeoffs with their foundation but let's not forget MS is aggressively attacking Negroponte's $100 laptop plan. And when Jobs was asked, a couple of years ago, about his opinion about the digital divide? I don't have the link but his reply was along the lines of "There are people starving out there"

From their actions, I understand that giving publicly in a foundation a fraction of your billions is a PR stunt for the company. Not wanting to talk about why homeless people don't have internet access when you point out they don't have homes shows that you must care on some level.

Kahney and Long need a good shake.

Jon H — Feb 04, 06 741

"Can a doctor magically decrease pharmaceutical prices?"

Well, if he gets and distributes lots of free sample packs, that helps a lot.

Jon H — Feb 04, 06 742

I think Wired is flailing out in a bid for controversy and relevance.

The fitting response to Kahney et al is "Those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones".

Wired is mired in materialism and consumerism. Wired's whole existence and raison d'etre has been to put technocrats on pedestals and stoke the hype.

It's a bit much for anyone connected with the magazine to be preaching like this.

Abhi Beckert — Feb 06, 06 744

"Can a doctor magically decrease pharmaceutical prices?"

An experienced doctor can make a huge difference by just giving advice. Even simple things like changing to your diet can have a huge impact on your health, some people don't handle dairy products very well for example.

But without a doctor, they'll probably never find out .

Anon — Feb 12, 06 762

Ahh... where to begin.

Profit is good. It motivates people. It provides capital resources to invest in doing more good stuff. Communistic ideas, while they sound good on the surface, are in fact quite bad because they disincentives people from doing much of anything other than the absolute minimum to survive. Consequently, deriding folks for making a profit is to contribute to the problem, not help solve it.

Technology is fundamental to being human. It's what separates us from the amoebas (I would have said animals, but there are some that use tools). To turn one's back on it is to de-evolve (actually, I'm reasonably confident that he's become so dependent on it, so inculturated to the system of technologies that permeate modern life, that if he were to suddenly withdraw from it, he would literally die, most likely of dehydration, or disease from eating or drinking unprocessed food or water). Additionally, there is no period in human history that is better than the one we live in now, and I fully expect the trend to continue. Anyone who doubts this need only to visit a major hospital, and watch the fruits of technology in action...

Anon — Feb 12, 06 763

Oh, and one other thing... how about that hypothetical doctor starting the high-profit Beverly-hills clinic, and using the profit (see, there's that word again!) to finance good works in less affluent areas?


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