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Mac Planet: Two days, two tech philosophers

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Steve Wozniak freely calls himself a 'genius' for his work with Apple. Photo / File
Steve Wozniak freely calls himself a 'genius' for his work with Apple. Photo / File

On Sunday I had the fortune to attend a dinner at which Mark Pesce read extracts from his book, The Next Billion Seconds.

I've met Mark Pesce before and I have interviewed him on Mac Planet when he came to Wellington for Webstock a couple of years ago. Pesce went on to keynote the CreativeTech conference in Auckland in 2010. The American-born Pesce may have the gall to call himself a futurist, but it's justified.

The Apple connection is that Pesce did some work for Apple back in the 1990s (this is Mac Planet, after all). He is an inventor, writer, entrepreneur, educator and broadcaster - like Steve Wozniak. In 1994 Pesce co-invented VRML, a 3D interface for the World Wide Web, and he has written five books including VRML: Browsing and Building Cyberspace and The Playful World: How Technology is Transforming Our Imagination. In 2006, Pesce founded FutureSt in Sydney, the city he now calls home. This consultancy is dedicated to helping clients negotiate the challenges presented by our 'hyperconnected' future.

Pesce was in New Zealand to read (from an iPad) chapters from his latest book at a dinner organised by Zac Pullen, attended by a very diverse group of people all with a stake, one way or another, in what this self-styled futurist had to say, from an analogue artist with an active curiosity who nonetheless refuses to use a mobile phone, to one who works exclusively in mobile yet whose conversation swooped into deeply idealogical concerns.

In between readings, those at the table discussed points raised and this discussion almost immediately became far deeper and more philosophical than I would have imagined. It was an all-round, excellent evening with people I was very happy to listen to.

Pesce's latest book is evolving online, where you can read it for free. It's a wide-ranging work that covers many of the issues we face, even in distant New Zealand, thanks to the connectedness of the modern world.

Some gems: that we live in a world with incredible amounts of surveillance, but with mobile, those who would surveil are also under surveillance themselves, since we can almost all shoot video and upload it. Pesce detailed how in parts of Asia, people like fisher-folk skipped the telephonic-broadband (ie, wired) stage completely to combine their ancient practices with mobile phones. Suffice to say, I recommend The Next Billion Seconds.

But the real reason I am even talking about Mark Pesce is that, the very next day, I went to the Steve Wozniak presentation at the new Events Centre down on Auckland's waterfront. The contrast between the two engagements was quite pronounced. One cost the price of a good Thai meal, the other cost most attendees hundreds of dollars each.

Most ought to know who Steve Wozniak is by now - he cofounded Apple along with Steve Jobs, and although he hasn't had much to do with Apple for a couple of decades - he said he doesn't even enter the building - he still draws a small Apple salary and is the longest serving to do so continuously. Wozniak still refers to Apple as 'us' all these years later, although he hasn't designed anything for the company in many years and despite not sitting on the board.

Everyone, of course, knows who Jobs was: he of the autocratic single-mindedness who came back and saved Apple's bacon, and was the centre of all the crazy publicity since then, and who died after a long illness last year.

Wozniak was the 'genius' whose skills Jobs leveraged back in the nascent says of Apple to engineer the things that eventually led to the empire Apple represents today, and Wozniak's design and engineering acumen has as much to do with Apple's ongoing success as Job's marketing virtuosity. Both have contributed to the establishment of pattern that have paid off, big time, for the Californian tech giant.

I say 'genius' because that's how Wozniak describes himself. That's part of the contrast. Pesce is demonstrably a clever guy, yet he is self-effacing and a little reserved. I really appreciated the way he stuck to his guns on philosophical points, but after listening intently and politely to any contrary points raised.

With Wozniak, the discourse was all one-way. As it had to be, of course - everyone had paid to see him, and he was presenting - for several hours - from a stage, in the spotlight, amplified and enlarged on a screen.

Thus larger than life, resplendent in his own 'Woz' t-shirt, he regaled us with his early cleverness and successes while impressing upon us how shy he'd been. Which seemed ironic. Wozniak is clearly cashing in on top of his already impressive fortune, riding a crest of popularity after Jobs' passing - in his own words, by the way.

Woz may be a man who has completely bought his own legend, but that doesn't mean he has nothing interesting to say. There were, of course, anecdotes about the founding years of Apple, interesting enough if you haven't heard the stories before. Wozniak avoided criticising Jobs (he certainly deserved some for his treatment of Wozniak and others), but there were a couple I hadn't heard before (or that I'd forgotten, anyway). For example,

Wozniak is a big fan of the Segway, that crazy and expensive wheeled trundler thing. After enthusing about it to Steve Jobs, Jobs sanguinely pointed out "A Segway only does one thing. A computer does millions of things."

Wozniak also had some extremely valid points about education (covered elsewhere in these tech pages). In his critique of normalised, standardised education, for example, he noted that restrictiveness inhibits creativity, "like Singapore".

He said that in one class he taught, each student got to keep their computer afterwards. I was surprised at this, but it wasn't clear whether Apple contributed computers, or Wozniak himself - Apple sure as hell doesn't give anything away these days, that I know of. To anybody. Also, I thought it was funny when Wozniak said there was often terrible misinformation about Apple in the press: "Why didn't they just call us and ask us?" I laughed out loud at this. I honestly challenge anyone - anyone! - to try and get any information out of Apple at all that isn't in a press release.

Wozniak honourably mentioned interface designer Jeff Raskin from back in Apple's early days. He came up with another concept that has sustained Mac users: to put enough software into the computer from the get-go so they can work straight away. It also holds true for iDevices, nowadays.

Apple set the pattern for its devices already in the late 1970s. Jobs and Wozniak hit on the formula of repeated redesigns to lower component costs, perhaps most notably with the floppy drives that Apple originally used, putting the instruction sets into the software of the OS rather than into the components to reduce parts and costs.

The essential ingredients were always to start with a 'better' product, then build in a high profit margin - this approach has sustained Apple into the terrifically rich entity it is today.

Woz enumerated the process: skip parts if possible, simplify steps (if you can use two instead of five, do so), avoid waste, always assume there are better ways and build in the time to think things through properly. He believes it's important to find out what motivates your employees, then enable it. All good advice.

It's clear this once shy and generous man is now thoroughly enjoying the limelight, as well he might deserve.

So I'll leave the last word to Wozniak: "Truth is the apex of all good."

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