Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
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August 27, 2011
Nerd Merch

I read an article somewhere the other day that predicted a takeover of economies and society by software houses. The argument was that they are getting bigger and richer while the old economy of physical things was moving off shore at an accelerated pace, and old industry was going broke.

It was one of a number of fawning articles written about the retirement of Steve Jobs. The chattering classes are wetting themselves in excitement about the celebration of, well, themselves, their values, their world view. Like children of every generation they think that they invented life and that before them all was grey and drab. They invented music, sex, celebrity and beauty. Again.

To understand the cultural significance of Steve Jobs, you have to go back in time: to before the iPad or iPhone or iTunes, before Apple Inc.ís comeback products made candy-colored plastics and iAnything cool, before Jobs got kicked out of Apple, even before the Macintosh hurled a sledgehammer at Big Brother.

Itís 1981. Most people have never heard of Silicon Valley. The countryís most famous businessman is Lee Iacocca, the head of Chrysler Corp. Heís famous because in 1979 he engineered a government bailout -- loan guarantees -- that saved the company. Heís also famous because, unlike his peers, Iacocca is colorful. He seems to believe in what heís doing.

In 1981, business executives arenít known for either personality or passion. The general public sees business as a boring, impersonal, possibly suspect activity. Its significance seems purely financial.

There were technologies of personal liberation Before personal computing devices. It's hard for naive boosters of current technologies to understand the significance of technologies that today we take for granted, such as automobiles, broadcast media, and household labor saving appliances. And it's perhaps difficult for such boosters of twen-cen culture to grasp that their time has passed too.

We've always had nerd merchants tinkering up breakthrough devices in their garages or the shops of progenitor businesses. The Wright brothers invented flying in a bicycle shop. Geeks and nerds obsessing about some hack are as old as humanity. Think of the paleo nerd sitting at the back of the cave obsessively chipping spear points out of flint until he managed to make a Clovis point.

Of course, the sponsorship of great works of enthralling beauty has always conferred glamour and authority upon wealth and power, no matter how well- or ill-gotten. But Mr Jobs has not been like the de Medicis, who grew rich through trade, banking, and politics and then commissioned works from Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo to add lustre and legitimacy to their power. Mr Jobs got really stinking rich, in his second tenure as Apple CEO, by adding a dash of elegance to the lives of consumers by selling them gorgeously refined devices at a premium. The average American's life is not overfull with gracefully sleek design, to say the least, and in many ways our standards of living have not improved upon that of our parents. But Apple under Mr Jobs has offered the mass market dazzling technical progress with the sort of tastefully luxurious sheen usually reserved for the seriously well-to-do. For this many of us are grateful.
Bullshit. Sleek design is not novel, these are just the new automobiles and appliances, the new spear points. There has been some levelling, some homogenization of society as there is less division, less dimorphism. Men were more enthralled by power tools and the like that eased their labor, while women were enchanted by the power tools of their domestic reality. Now, those realities are more similar and there the tools have converged too.

One of the threads running through the Jobs celebrity geek-gasm is that he is not Bill Gates.

Bill Gates used to get plenty of heat from the class warriors, but some time after the world's wealthiest nerd devoted a huge portion of his fortune to his charitable foundation, he ascended to a sort of philanthropic secular sainthood a few notches short of Warrenus Buffetus of Omaha, his partner in spectacular beneficence. ...

I endorse Mr Altucher's point that charity very often does rather less to improve quality of life than selling people ever better products at ever lower prices. But this line of reasoning hasn't convinced very many of us that, say, Charles and David Koch's vast wealth is proof of their successful service to humankind. Mr Jobs's relative immunity from the scorn of those otherwise keen to stick it to billionaires is due, I think, to the admiring pleasure wordsmiths takes in the elegance of the Apple devices they use for work, play, and status-signaling.

Gates is a more complete geek, he is Jobs and Wozniak (who?) combined. It is useful to understand that to real geeks, rather than just the glib chattering classes, Woz was the hero and Jobs was just a suit. It is also useful to grasp that Apple's closed and proprietary approach to appliance manufacture is not loved by those who are more interested in a participatory and open technology system that advances at a more rapid pace with greater diversity and invention.

Robin speculates that Jobs is easier to celebrate precisely because he is trivial.

Consider: what elites did foragers worry most about? Foragers worried most about elite capacity for violence, and an inclination to use it. They also worried lots about unequal access to food and shelter, and to tools useful for all these things. So foragers enforced strong norms against giving orders or doing violence, and norms favoring sharing of food, shelter, and tools. In these senses foragers were egalitarian.

However, foragers worried far less about unequal capacities for art, music, conversation, charm, social popularity, or sex appeal. After all, in a forager world unequal capacities of these sort just couldnít go anywhere near as horribly wrong as unequal violence or food. Because of this humans seem evolved to tolerate, and even celebrate, unequal abilities in art, popularity, or sex appeal.

Fast forward to today, and consider which billionaires are liked versus disliked. Iíd bet that artistic billionaires like, Steve Jobs and J.K. Rowling, are among the most liked, even after one controls for how well know they are. Same for rich actors and talk show hosts. In contrast, billionaires who are merely associated with an ordinary non-celebrity business are probably the least popular.

Note that while it was pretty functional for foragers to tolerate artistic inequality more, an added tolerance today for artistic billionaires over mere business billionaires has few functional benefits. Your added envy and hostility to mere business billionaires is just an arbitrary dysfunctional vestige of times long since past. Yes it might feel better to bash them, but is that really a good enough reason to do so?

No, and it is an illusion to some extent that we do bash them. Which "we"? The "admiring pleasure [of] wordsmiths" isn't the whole of life except for those who never step outside their echo chambers and smell the roses, or petroleum products. The feuilleton is not the whole of life, especially for those who are engaged with the world in a productive way.

The idea from neuroscience that we make up stories to tell ourselves that justify and explain ourselves to ourselves comes to mind. We do things, then we make up stories about how we meant to do that and decided to do so after reasoned cogitation: we are Maxwell Smart bumbling our way through life, not Sherlock Holmes coolly reasoning and efficiently acting.

Design and fashion are the stories that we make up to explain technology to ourselves. For example, one of the themes discussed here has been the industrial revolution: how to explain it? Ostrom's idea of Bourgeois Dignity, a change in the way that we thought and talked about manufacturers and merchants, was the fuel that ignited revolution is the feuilleton explanation. In a deeper sense it was about energy.

the best informed and most perspicacious of contemporaries were not merely unconscious of the implications of the changes which were taking place about them but firmly dismissed the possibility of such a transformation. The classical economists Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo advanced an excellent reason for dismissing the possibility of prolonged growth. ...

Access to energy that did not spring from the annual product of plant photosynthesis was a sine qua non for breaking free from the constraints afflicting all organic economies. By an intriguing paradox, this came about by gaining access to the products of photosynthesis stockpiled over a geological time span. It was the steadily increasing use of coal as an energy source which provided the escape route. ...

The great bulk of the literature about the industrial revolution has been devoted to explaining how it began. This has been to the neglect of the equally important question of why the growth did not grind to a halt as all previous experience suggested was inevitable. It is in this context that the history of energy usage is critical to the understanding of the changes which took place.

It's still about energy. The "admiring pleasure [of] wordsmiths" about design fails to engage with the massive energy requirements for production and operation of our appliances. They are getting smaller and more energy efficient, but there are many more of them. We no longer need a "computer room" sucking down huge amounts of energy to operate the devices, which generated huge amounts or waste heat and so required even more energy to cool things enough to avoid melt down, but we have lots and lots of little devices sucking down even more energy.

The Koch brothers may not be celebrated by the chattering classes - they are the Morlocks the allow the Eloi to live their lives of care free beauty - but they are more interesting and more significant than Jobs and the designers. How might our lives be improved if the feuilletons began paying attention to real geeks, especially those involved with next generation energy systems?

Posted by back40 at 07:28 AM | cognition

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