Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fundamentalism - Part 2

Yesterday, I talked about fundamentalism as a general human phenomenon, as people try to simplify the complex by reduction. The difficulty of grasping a situation is made simple by creating rules and stories. For market fundamentalists, the basic rule is, "The market will always, in the end, create the proper incentives for human behavior, we just have to let it do its work." For the globalization advocates, it's, "Free trade is always good, it always creates a larger storehouse of wealth."

Unsurprisingly (at least to me), these simplistic nostrums come up against the real world and are found lacking. (By the way, that doesn't mean that others are better - I'm certainly not advocating that the communists or the socialists or the any other -ists had a better handle on the world - I'm saying that the complexity of the world, be it spiritual or material, doesn't yield to slogans and axioms. Those are forever, at best, very rough approximations.)

Of course, there's an appeal to simplicity. If no one understands evil or Wall Street, then we feel rootless; of course we don't understand those things, we're just regular people, but we like to think somebody somewhere understands them. So we open a book that holds the literal word of God, or we listen to the obscure commentary of an Alan Greenspan, and we believe it, because we so much want to. It's disturbing to think that things just happen, so we find justifications, or believe those who say they get it.

No field may suffer from this more than what I will broadly call the "technical world." Americans, generally, understand so little about science and technology that anyone who does has a good chance of being anointed a guru. Even the most junior programmer gets credit by the laity for having knowledge beyond what is seemingly possible.

And the technical world has been so successful financially that the "gurus" are soon extended well beyond their areas of expertise. I might ask Bill Gates how to negotiate a strangling agreement with virtually every computer manufacturer - he knows how to do that - but I'd be unlikely to ask him about the details of immigration policy (that didn't stop the United States Congress, of course). He is a former CEO of a computer software company, so it is fair to ask him about CEO issues, and about computer software issues, but, for anything outside of that, like American education policy, it is grossly naive to think that he will have anything more to contribute than anyone else. (He might, he's a smart guy, but he should be evaluated on the content of what he says, not on the simple premise that he's Bill Gates.)

For no one is this a bigger issue than Apple's Steve Jobs. He's helped to create some very successful products, and that gives him a cachet that goes beyond reason. He, to be sure, is to be admired for his accomplishments; I consider him one of the great CEOs of our time.

But, given those accomplishments, it is incumbent on us not to think that he has some magical powers, that his significance is more than it could ever possibly be. However, that hasn't stopped Josh Quittner, in the current issue of TIME, from penning a hagiography to Jobs. Working off the premise that Apple may be in serious trouble if they lose Jobs to retirement or, worse yet, to the somewhat mysterious affliction that has been plaguing him, Quittner creates a man who, seemingly, has been single-handedly responsible for transforming the horse-and-buggy world of yesteryear to our new sleek digital existence.

I don't need to go through the article point by point. Apple computers are still a niche market, having settled into a solid position, but we know they haven't taken over the world. The iPod didn't change the music industry as much as did the Internet, it was just a very canny realization of the hardware needed to take advantage. The iPhone, yet again a remarkable design artifact, is not a new category on its own.

As a CEO, Jobs' record is mixed, something that is even more true if Quittner's article is close to reality. He has left the company before, and it struggled; Jobs didn't get the right team in place to maintain the place without him. If the same is true this time, then he once again has failed miserably in the creation of a succession plan, as Greg Glockner so ably points out in his An open letter to Steve Jobs.

Quittner is exposed for what he is, a tech fundamentalist, like so many others. It's Gates, or Jobs, or Ellison, or someone else who "gets" the tech world and can be trusted on any topic in and around it. But that world is far too multi-faceted for anyone to grasp it all; remember that Bill Gates completely missed the significance of the Internet. No one has a monoply on knowledge, even if they seem to have mastered one small part of it or have made massive amounts of money. That's as crazy as believing the world began on October 23, 4004 B.C.

1 comment:

Greg Glockner said...

Thanks for the link to my article.

As great as Steve Jobs is, he has not handled his succession plan correctly. If he has a succession plan, the customers and stockholders need to know about it. And if he hasn't got one, then they need to develop one immediately.

Either Jobs has failed to communicate the plan or - even worse - failed to groom his successors.

Perhaps some of the problem relates to the fact that he didn't leave in the 90s - Steve Jobs was forced out. Apple floundered badly; Steve Jobs went on to success at Pixar and limited success at NeXT, though NeXT was purchased by Apple and eventually became Mac OS X, which has been very successful.

2 out of 3 is better than nearly all other CEOs. Steve Jobs is a great CEO. But he's still human.

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