Wozzing the wheels

It’s been a few days, but I’m still beaming from the cheer afforded by the TNT movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, in which the same Ted Turner who made professional wrestling what it is today turned his attentions to a different kind of grudge match. Good clean fun, and Microsoft ought to be kissing Turner’s ass right about now for making Bill G. look far more sympathetic than usual.

Whether that’s strictly fair in light of Gates’ stupendous charitable donations over the past year or so is beside the point. This is a story about hype and geek machismo, and how the best part of the evening’s entertainment was the de facto canonization of the true genius of personal computing’s early years, Steve Wozniak. And this is a story about how he walked away.

It was deeply refreshing to see Apple Computer’s shiny-happy-people image broken down into its original component parts: Woz, who is a lovely soul and the human equivalent of Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, and Steve Jobs, who is, succinctly put, a dick. (For those keeping score at home, Gates comes off as a relentless, earnest, and somewhat unsanitary dweeb, which should be no surprise since he’s played by the dorky dude from The Breakfast Club; Steve Ballmer comes off as a perv, or more precisely a frat boy—which, if you think about it, is kind of pervy in this context.)

Three out of four of the gentlemen portrayed are still machers in the industry—Gates and Ballmer holding down the Big Bad Monopoly gig, Jobs supplying the cool-guy counterpoint (when in fact the purchase of a Mac over a PC is about as nonconformist as being a 7UP-drinking “Un”). Woz, however, has by his own choice spent most of the last decade working with schoolchildren. Over at the hallowed geek halls of slashdot.org, where success is generally defined by insane hours and Herculean effort, the verdict is uncharacteristically unanimous: Steve Wozniak is one of the Good Guys.

And what did it get him?

This is the problem: there is no quarter allowed now in geek culture for kicking back and watching the wheels, unless you come back from your timeout with a money-making scheme that’ll get you forgiven for shirking your cultural duty to climb fast and high, to climb even past the point where there’s not enough oxygen.

As a result, a geek’s creative and generous soul is his liability. Twenty-five years after the first volleys of the personal-computing revolution drove Gates from the arms of Harvard, and 20 years after Woz decided that the folks who helped build Apple deserved stock in it, high tech is a place where a soulless suit like Microsoft CFO Greg Maffei can state (as he did last week) that there’s something inferior about the temps who form the backbone of the MS labor force.

Maffei may not know clean code from coax cable, but he’s making more money and benefits than the temps, and that must mean God’s on his side. (Damn hippies. What kind of weirdos don’t have regular jobs, anyway?) And those are just the people in the non-executive part of one company in one part of the industry. Imagine what a yuppie punk like Maffei must think of Woz, the $100 million man who became a schoolteacher, who gave away the schematics for his machines.

Wozniak himself seems to be enjoying the post-Pirates attention, or at least the conversations it has caused. Since the movie aired, his Web site (www.woz.org) has been expanding with answers to questions about his accomplishments and what he thought of Pirates. (His contributions to both hardware and software are almost inconceivable in their breadth; as for the movie, he says they got the personalities pretty much right. Yikes.)

This is a story about hype and geek machismo. Woz walked away from it all and ascended into geek heaven, where you may lose your credit and prestige but you regain your soul and your joy. Or, if you’re Steve Wozniak, you’re an honest-to-god genius and you never gave yours up.

P.S. Remember Third Voice, the people who want to put graffiti on your Web site (“Drive-Bys and Ridealongs,” 6/17)? Web weavers will be pleased to hear there’s a way to block them now. Point your browsers to mac-mania.com/lowend/musings/thirdvoice.shtml for details.

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