Thursday, August 25, 2011

Working toward Steve Jobs

[[updated below]]

I have nothing against Steve Jobs, he's obviously done a lot of good in the world and I wish him the best of luck dealing with his medical problems.

But the tone of the headlines today really grate on my nerves. Is Apple Doomed? Well, if they are, that sucks, because it means a collectivity of thousands of people and enormous wealth and creativity is nothing more than the manifestation of the will of a single individual. Or more likely, it's just that the press and popular imagination can't envision the nature of a collective so have to project everything onto a single person. That sucks in a slightly different way.

Of course the work of many has gone into making Apple's products what they are, from the original inventors of important tools that Apple popularized (eg Doug Englebart (mouse, hypertext) and Alan Kay (windows UI, object-oriented programming)) to the lead Apple engineers (Bill Atkinson and Jef Raskin are two names who come to mind), through the thousands of lesser engineers who sweated the details to the anonymous Chinese drones who put the stuff together. Everyone knows this, but something in our cognitive structure can't handle large networks, so we fixate on a single person as the metonymic embodiment of the hundreds of thousands, and write glowing articles about him and his quirks rather than the organization he sits on top of.

Maybe this is just how things work. Maybe it's the case that any really great organization has to be led by a single individual who combines exceptional vision, charisma, and organizational capabilities, and can serve as the human embodiment of the organization. Maybe that's what makes "genius" or "leadership" and we should be thankful to have it on occasion. But it pisses me off. I want a more democratic world, where everybody's judgement and talent and contributions matter, not just that of a few dictator/leaders. Even supposedly decentralized, cooperative organizations like Wikipedia seem to coalesce around a leader and take on his personality and preferences. Having spent a few times in groups that tried to work on leaderless principles, I'd say that it very rarely works, people being what they are.

I am genuinely torn, because I find my values in conflict. On the one hand, the dictatorship of Steve Jobs is what elevates Apple above the level of other corporations. On the other hand, I don't like authority. But if you have to work in a hierarchical organization, I guess it's good if the leader is a man of both vision and taste. It is damn rare to have someone who can both lead a large organization and at the same time pursue a great personal vision. More often those who ascend to the apex of the pyramid do so by leaving any socially positive values behind. So until we solve the problem of anarchist organization, we need more Steve Jobs.

[[update: Here's another opinion:
It turns out that it is possible for ad hoc, loosely affiliated, impermanent groups of humans to, without direction or governance, collaborate on extremely complex and sophisticated tasks and achieve exceedingly specific ends.
Well, call me a bourgeois sellout, but (a) I didn't see anything all that objectionable about the NPR reporter's tone -- she's bemused but hardly as befuddled as IOZ paints her, and (b) yes, it is possible for loosely affiliated groups to accomplish things. But the kinds of things that anonymous does (destructive hacking and espionage) are for the most part not creative endeavors and are parasitical on the complex systems that have been created by others. In other words, not all that "complex and sophisticated". Can a loose affiliation create a computer or a network? Networks are distributed but their protocols are designed through centralizing processes, that's why the distributed nodes are able to talk to each other. IOZ would have been on better ground if he cited something like Linux or Apache or Wikipedia as an example, but even those examples draw on energy and ideas from centralized organizations and of course they do have "direction and governance".

The simpleminded opposition of distributed and centralized systems is a plague on the land; these are important issues and it's very rare to see them treated with any degree of critical realism. Speaking of Leviathan, I have Yochai Benkler's new book on order, maybe it does a better job, but I'm afraid it looks a bit too much like a cheerleading business book. We'll see.]]

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