Takeaways from a Talk by Steve Wozniak: The Mount Rushmore of the Digital Environment

If we had to create a Mount Rushmore* for the digital environment, who would be on it?  Who would be the four people that should be immortalized in granite?

Last week I listened to a talk given by Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple).  He is a very engaging guy.  Full of life, brilliant, and from a distance at least, he seemed quite warm.  Today as I sit in my office wasting time, I think back to that talk and I realize just how important Steve Wozniak is to the digital environment.  I think he – not his more famous counterpart at Apple Steve Jobs, or even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – would deserve to be on the “Mount Rushmore of the Digital Environment”.


Photo by: Nick Harrison

That might be a bit surprising, as many people have not even heard of Wozniak.  Well, let me explain…

We have to start by putting Vincent Cerf and Robert Khan on the mountain.  Indeed these two may need to be placed in the center.  Their ingenuity produced the Transmission Control Protocol/Information Protocol – the industry standard language that allows computers to share data.  We can network because of them.  Almost all devices that use the Internet – even your Wi-Fi enabled washing machine – communicate via TCP/IP.  As they co-wrote the protocol, they would share a spot, joined at the shoulder.

You’d put have to Bill Gates on that mountain.  At this stage of his life, people may see Gates as only a business man and philanthropist.  But Gates wrote computer code at one time.  It was his code that formed the kernel of Microsoft Windows – the operating system that made computing available to the masses.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee would be there.  Berners-Lee is widely considered the inventor of the World Wide Web.  He is the one who wrote the code that made it easier for people to find documents on another computer, the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP). This webpage you are reading now is a document, and the method used by your browser to find this page was written by Berners-Lee.
These four men made it possible for the digital environment to exist and for it to be used by all.

Yet there is room for one more person on the mountain (since Cerf and Khan share a spot).  The previous three represent the technical and commercial aspects of the digital environment.  But there needs to a person on that mountain who represents the cultural aspect.  Before listening to Wozniak’s lecture I may have gone with Steve Jobs.  My reasoning would be that, although Apple is a company and a very, very, very profitable one, it is just as much a cultural force as it is a commercial one.  The introduction of the Ipod, then Iphone, then Ipad into society may have had the same cultural impact as the introduction of Ford’s Model T.  I could have gone with Mark Zuckerberg for the same reasons.

Wozniak in Granite

But after listening to Wozniak’s lecture, my opinions have shifted.  Sure, Jobs was the face of that company and by the time Apple became one of the biggest companies on the planet, Wozniak had very little influence in the company’s direction.  But what Wozniak represents is a set of values held by the innovators in the digital environment to this day:

  • Wozniak talked about how he spent hours tinkering – playing with transistor radios first, then graduating to computer chips.  There was an ethic of learning to what he did.  There was no market for computers per se, no job waiting should he build a better computer.  He did all that playing around for the love of learning and for the desire to build a better machine.  It was Wozniak who took the lead in building the Apple I and Apple II – Job’s work was to sell it, which he did very well.  The digital environment is powered by people who participate for the love of it (see the post on R), just like Wozniak.
  • Wozniak, from the time he began designing machines and writing code for them, prescribed to an ethic of openness.  In his talk he discussed his desire to build Apple machines so that others could see how the machine was built and how the code was written.  He expressed disappointment in the fact that in later years, with Jobs in a more prominent position, the company began producing more closed machines.  Openness is essential to innovation in the digital environment.   Because people can see the code used to produce artifacts in the digital environment they can learn from it and build upon it (If you want to see the code for this webpage and learn how the coders at WordPress did it, select “source” on your “view” menu in Internet Explorer or select CTRL + U in Firefox.  You can do the same with most software by going to the file folder where the document is installed).
  • Finally, there is a level of kookiness to Wozniak.  A kind of free thinking vibe that I believe is essential to creativity.  He had the audience laughing as he talked about the pranks he did at Berkeley and his odd jokes (In a comment about the repressive nature of modern day political correctness, he told a joke: What do you call four Mexicans in quicksand – Quattro Cinco!).  In a world of code and algorithms, there is no code or algorithm for the invention of code or algorithms.  You need people who are comfortable thinking outside the box.  We went from clichés of Birkenstock wearing, granola eating overnight .com millionaires in the 90’s, to hipster geeks in the 2000’s.  What remains the same is the notion that the creators of the digital environment tend to be a bit weird by the standards of the physical environment.

And so there is the Mount Rushmore of the digital environment – Vincent Cerf, Robert Khan, Bill Gates, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and Steve Wozniak.


*A little backstory:  Last year a reporter asked Lebron James who would be on his Mount Rushmore.  He gave some answer that I have forgotten, but it provided fodder for days and weeks on sports talk radio.  A group of people obsessed with rankings had to decide upon the four most important basketball players ever.

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