Steven Johnson’s early The Ghost Map is a wondrous story of a courageous medical entrepreneur who fairly single-handedly changes accepted wisdom on a hugely important issue (what causes disease). Steven Johnson’s recent Where Ideas Come From provides a mechanical account that attributes new ideas to the inevitable exploration of “the adjacent possible,” leaving little room for the great innovative entrepreneur.
It takes guts to contradict one’s most recent book, and to contradict it so eloquently. So please join me in welcoming back the Steven Johnson of The Ghost Map:
(p. C3) In the fall of 1986, during the first week of my freshman year of college, my cousin took me to the university computer store to help me buy my first Macintosh. The Mac platform was two years old at that point, and Apple had just released a new machine called the Mac Plus that featured a then-staggering 1 megabyte of RAM. (In today’s mileage, that would be just enough memory to store the first few verses of a Katy Perry song.) But the Mac did not yet offer a hard drive, and so my more tech-savvy cousin told me to buy a 10-pack of floppy disks as well.
I looked at him with astonishment. I was an art kid, not a techie. I needed a computer to write plays and short stories and term papers. The computer was just a tool, nothing more. “Why would I ever need 10 floppy disks?” I asked. “I just need one disk for my Microsoft Word files.” My cousin smiled, knowing full well where I was headed. “Just buy the disks. Trust me.”
He was right, of course, and to this day whenever I call him up to tell him about my latest computer purchase, with its terabytes of storage and gigabytes of memory, he laughs and says, “Just one disk. That’s all I need.”
. . .
The genius of famous innovators and CEOs is often exaggerated: Most fortunes are built on good fortune as much as sheer brilliance, and invention is a collaborative art. But there is no contesting the fact of Steve Jobs’s genius–just a debate about its defining qualities.
I worry that we miss something in hailing him as either a master salesman or a master designer, though he is clearly both. His real gift, from an early age, has been the ability to see that these two worlds could, and should, productively collide. It isn’t just that he made computers cool or put them in pretty boxes. It’s that he put those computers in new conceptual boxes. A machine originally designed for processing equations and building bombs turned out to have a wonderful hidden potential: for song, laughter, poetry, community, family.
. . .
When I heard the news that he was stepping down from Apple, the image that flashed in my head was of a kid in a computer store trying to save a few bucks by skimping on floppy disks. I suspect my own story is not so unusual. There is, on the one hand, the simple, factual accounting of it: Steve Jobs persuaded me to buy a lot more than 10 disks over the years. But the other hand is so much more interesting: all the wonderful, unexpected things that he got me to put on those disks.
For the full commentary, see:
STEVEN JOHNSON. “THE GENIUS OF JOBS; Marrying Tech and Art; Steven Johnson on the magic of his first Mac–and how it changed his life.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., August 27, 2011): C3.
(Note: ellipses added.)