As I See It: The Artist And The Pragmatist
December 5, 2011 Victor Rozek
Gather around, boys and girls, Uncle Victor is going to tell you a story. And what a story it is, full of greed and generosity, cooperation and betrayal, respect and disdain, and even death. Scheherazade would be envious. OK, maybe not, but the stakes were higher for her.
In any event, once upon a time, there were two little boys, and for a long time that’s about all they had in common. One was abandoned at birth and became a college dropout who collected Coke bottles for food money. The other was very much wanted, went to exclusive schools (which, boys and girls, is a rich person’s way of saying they were very, very expensive without actually mentioning money), and never missed a meal.
When Coke bottles were scarce, the first boy would eat yummy, yummy rice cakes at the local Hare Krishna temple that offered free food and chanting. Chanting, boys and girls, is like being in a room full of people with stomach aches all moaning at the same time. The second boy devised an algorithm for pancake sorting, which actually has nothing to do with food and is only understood by people with large brains and little social life.
Those rice cakes must have been exceptionally tasty because the boy, now a young man, traveled to India to live in an ashram. That, boys and girls, is a place where you are forced to sit in silence for long periods of time and sleep on the floor and it’s not considered punishment. But he went because he wanted to study with a great guru. Gurus are people who say things that mean both everything and nothing. Things like: “Real growth is possible when you are divinely contented and divinely discontented together.” You can see why a young man searching for clarity would crave that kind of insight.
Well, timing is everything boys and girls and, unfortunately, the guru’s time had run out. He was dead, dead, dead; deader than an Obama legislative proposal, and the ashram was all but deserted since the guru had apparently not yet reincarnated.
Still, the lad would not be deterred, so he stayed in India for seven months searching for more dependable guidance. Happily, he found a guru with a strange name that had no vowels but offered uncommon insights nonetheless: Guru LSD. And, oh, what great fun he had. Fun, fun, fun. (Many of your parents, boys and girls, also studied with this great master, which is why they sometimes still wear tie-dye and say profound things like “Far Out!”)
The other lad also had paranormal experiences. But he went to a far different place; a place full of bombast and delusion, full of sound and fury signifying nothing more substantial than the desire for re-election. He served as a congressional page in the House of Representatives. It was not nearly as much fun as taking LSD, but it was no less surreal for that.
Now, most people would think that the lives of these boys with so little in common would not intersect in any meaningful way. But they would be wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But not you, boys and girls. Uncle Victor knows that you kids are smarter than an above-average bear and have already figured out that this is a story about two of your favorite nerds: little Stevie Jobs and his doppelganger, the slightly larger Billy Gates.
Both lads had good minds, but like other people with good minds, they were bored, bored, bored with what life was presenting and found refuge in machines. (Just like you kids do every night.) Computers rewarded intelligence. They didn’t care where you came from, or who you studied with, or how much money you had. If you could find a better way, they would reward you as surely as failed banks reward their CEOs.
Soon, the trajectories of their lives were plotted. Stevie, perhaps because of his apprenticeship with the Guru LSD, wanted to create beautiful things. Billy, perhaps because of his exposure to greedy, power-mad politicians, wanted to build an empire. Both got their wish. Which is a good reminder, boys and girls, to be careful what you wish for.
Now you’d think that art and empire could coexist. But things came to a head when Stevie created his artistic operating system. You see, Stevie developed an inordinate liking for Apples. He liked them shiny and pretty, and wanted them easy to bite. He gave new meaning to words like point, and click, and drag, and especially windows. But that’s what artists can do. They see things others can’t see, use things others discard, and create something really special.
Billy thought an artistic operating system could help his empire grow bigger. But he did not have one. Billy had a command line. It was dull, dull, dull, boys and girls. But Billy was a pragmatist. What’s a pragmatist, you ask? Well, if an artist is someone who creates something new and beautiful, a pragmatist is someone who waits for someone else to create something special, and then markets it as his own.
Can you say “lawsuits,” boys and girls? Yes, there were many, many lawsuits, but the legal system is dominated by pragmatists too, and the courts ruled that operating systems are like fashion: change one button on a garment, and it is not the same garment any more, and you can sell it to your heart’s content and keep all the money for yourself. At least according to the law. But it didn’t seem to matter. There was so much money in gadgets and operating systems that both men grew rich, rich, rich. Stevie kept making useful and beautiful things, and Billy kept growing his empire.
Like many artists, Stevie indulged in magical thinking. There was nothing, he believed, that he couldn’t do. He once bought a cartoon company for $10 million and sold it 20 years later for $7.4 billion. Now, that’s real magic, boys and girls. But magical thinking often has unintended consequences. Stevie was so good at what he did that he demanded the same laser-like focus from all of his employees. But all of that focus created an ADD world where no one can focus on anything for longer than a few minutes. Which is why many of you can barely finish reading a single article without fidgeting. Can you say “irony,” boys and girls?
But the saddest part of his magical thinking came when he got sick. Unlike your parents, Stevie could actually afford real health care, but he chose a psychic and fruit juice instead. And Stevie got so sick that finally no doctor could help him, and he died, and all the people who owned his pretty gadgets were very, very sad.
And that’s where the story of Stevie and Billy could have ended, but even after death Stevie had a surprise left for his old chum. He had something else that Billy didn’t have. He had a biographer. Biographers, boys and girls, are people who write about dead people and tell all their secrets. Kind of like Twitter, but with no character limit. Apparently, Stevie told his biographer that Billy was “fundamentally odd” and “weirdly flawed as a human being.” Flawed, flawed, flawed. And what’s more, Billy was “basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, he just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.” Ouch.
Billy must have been deeply hurt, although he pretended he wasn’t. Over the years he had discovered that even though he was very successful and had a large empire, people thought he was mean and didn’t like him very much. So being a pragmatist, Billy had done the pragmatic thing long ago: he became a philanthropist. Philanthropists, boys and girls, are people who give away lots of money they don’t need and have libraries named after them.
So the moral of the story is this, boys and girls. If you’re an artist, don’t wait too long to listen to your doctor. And if you’re a pragmatist, don’t wait to be nice until you have enough money, and that failing, shop around for a good biographer.