Here's what I'm wondering: In the largest sense, is this bad? Or good?
But let's back up a bit.
I had spoken with Nicholas Negroponte for about a twenty minutes before I had any idea who he was. Whether this was because he was tired of being pawed by star-fuckers or he was simply messing with my head, I'm not sure.
I was up in the front row on a puddle-hopper flying into Monterey, accidentally thrown in with the richer folks because there's no first-class section on thirty-year-old prop-plane from Brazil. On a plane like this you are just grateful there are seats and not, like, giant cedar boxes of cargo covered in green tarps and straps hanging from the ceiling.
A dapper gentleman was seated beside me on the full flight; he had a copy of the London Times or some such, and the cut of his clothing and the way he carried himself pretty much said, "Hi, I'm old money." He turned to some smart-looking folks a couple rows back and said, "I've got a car waiting in Monterey, we can continue our conversation on the way to the hotel."
I was in an exceptionally chatty mood. "Flying in to TED?" I asked. He was just the tiniest bit dismissive in his tone: "Everyone on this flight is going to TED." Right, that makes sense. I mean, how many people want to go to Monterey at 10PM on a Sunday? I think we were doubling the population.
I made another weak attempt at humor: "Boy, I'm glad I spent the extra money on these first class seats!" (Since, uh, see, we were all in cattle-car seating.) He didn't get it: "Yes, I just flew in from London, and first class is a must on those flights." Right. So it is. Yup...
Ok, so I'm thinking, maybe this fellow prefers to be alone with his thoughts, that's cool. Long flight from London.
But then he decided he did want to be friendly, after all, and he offered me a section of his foreign paper. A universal ice-breaker, and also just damn good breeding, if you ask me. Or I might have been reading over his shoulder and making him crazy. I can't remember what section I took. But it led to me making some comment about business.
I asked him if he lived in London, and he said he actually had five (!) houses, all over the world. I can't remember where they all were. One was, if I recall, in the jungles of Cambodia.
What do you say to that? I asked (quite seriously) if land-mines are a problem, still, and he gave me a horrific figure of the percentage of people in that country who are missing limbs because of land-mine injuries. It was something ungodly, like 20%. (Again, I apologize for my bad memory, it's been a year and I didn't take notes. Don't take this as a factual story; I'm just trying to give an impression of the man here. If there are errors assume they are mine, not his.)
To lighten things up I asked how he managed to decorate five houses. I mean, don't you run out of ideas? I asked if he was a businessman, and he sort of demurred and asked me what I did instead.
On a side note, this illustrates a neat trick I learned at TED (from the lady kissing me in this picture) the very next day: everyone loves to talk about themselves. As the kissy lady put it to us in her talk on How to Make Friends at TED: "Ok, imagine you see Suzy Smartipants, and you're all, 'Oh my god! It's Suzy Smartipants! She invented... like... SPIT! I can't talk to her! I mean, spit!' Well, it turns out that you and Suzy already have something that you BOTH love talking about, and that subject is: 'Suzy.' Just go up to Suzy and say, 'Hey, Suzy, how DID you get the idea for spit?!'"
Possibly these were the wisest words I heard I at TED that year.
So, I launched into my "Delicious Library for Businessmen" speech, which was, naturally, dumbed down a bit for older business guys who probably didn't even understand that computers can fit on a lap now. "I write a program that lets you track all your stuff... CDs, whatnot... the cool part is it uses the built-in camera in your Mac to scan in barcodes... there was some hard math in that, I'm pretty proud of it."
Yes, truly, I bragged to the dapper gentleman about my mad computer science skills. I mean, why not? The great thing about talking to business dudes is you can tell 'em whatever you like: they don't know. "Oh, you're in business? Well, uh, I invented UNIX. Yah, that's it." (Actually, I probably would have gotten busted on that one anyway, since the next day I fucking met the guy who really DID invent UNIX. Also, I have to say it: Bill Joy has the most charismatic wife of any really rich ex-computer mogul. Seriously, damn.)
But I digress. So, I'm explaining to this nice gentleman how incredibly great my mad computing skillz are, and how I plan to change the world with these new-fangled "computers," and how I think making software fun could actually really make the world a better place. Also: blah blah blah me me me.
He's all "oh yes?" and "how interesting" and such. I'm pretty sure he's savoring what he knows is coming next and I do not.
So finally I'm all, "Well, if you're not a businessman, what do you do to get five houses?" And he says, "Well, I'm a professor, actually."
And I'm all like, "Abitchsezwhat?," except I didn't actually say that, although I kinda wish I had because I'm guessing it would have been the first and only time anyone ever said that to anyone in his family. Excepting possibly his brother.
"Really? What do you teach?" He's smiling big now... too big. My spidey-senses are tingling. I'm no poker player, but even I know when I'm about to get trumped. (I might be better at poker if I knew that "trump" is a bridge term.)
"Oh," he says, as noncommittally as possible, as he wants to keep this fish on the line until it's all the way in the boat (now I'm a fish who plays poker?), "I'm in your line of work, actually."
Now, let's just appreciate that phrasing for a second, shall we? "Your line," as in, you know, the field where I, Wil Shipley, am such a star. Computing is my game, he's just visiting... oh, he's good.
"Really?" I'm getting suspicious at this point. This man is enjoying this too much. "Uh, hmm, would I, uh, know your name?"
Smirk. Pause. "Yes."
Sinking feeling. "Oh... so it is?"
He silently reached into his satchel and handed me this business card:
TRUMP! TRUMP TRUMP TRIPLE-TRUMP! YOU GOT SERVED! YOU WANNA STEP TO THIS? SNAP! OH NO YOU DIDN'T! NOT IN MY FIVE HOUSES!
"Hi, I'm Nicholas Negroponte, and I founded the MIT Media Lab, ran it, and then quit so I could build laptops for every single child in the entire world."
Of course, I said the only thing I could: "Sheeeee-iiit, negro... ponte."
No, I wish. What I said was, "Oh my god! I know you! You're crazy!"
He looked just a little taken aback. I think I even heard him mutter, "Adumbasssezwhat?"
Here's the boring philosophy part of this story.
I've been thinking about the nature of fighting, about why we fight and when fighting is actually appropriate and just and good. I'm using 'fight' to mean any kind of conflict, from spending your life trying to bring down Microsoft to punching someone in the face until they fall down in a ring. It feels like we've entered a new age of fighting, and then fighting-backlash.
Most instances of fighting I can enumerate are what I'll call "fighting for ego," which is a fight that's not for any cause besides "I'm great, acknowledge me as your better and/or give me your resources, women, or money." This is the kind of fight we see at sporting events; it's not like the New England Patriots really are more patriotic than the Pittsburgh Steelers, and if the former triumphs they are not offering lead us into an age of enlightened nationalism, whereas the Steelers would build us more cars.
"Fighting for ego" is also the kind of fight in which almost every corporation is engaged -- corporations crush their competition not because it will be better for society, but because they want more money, and owning the market leads to money. For example, I would love for someone to try to argue that Microsoft has some mission besides "control all money in the entire world," but I've already had a birthday this year. But I'll also state that Apple, whose technology I admire, is not really morally that much superior. They've done shady business deals and ignored contracts just so they could triumph over their opponents. (There are certainly things I admire about Apple, like Steve Jobs' open support for Democratic candidates and ideals, as opposed to Microsoft's policy of giving piles of money to both sides so that whoever ends up in power is beholden to them.)
Stop for a second, though... this is NOT to say that everyone working for Apple or Microsoft is immoral or even amoral. I know, KNOW, that there are many, MANY people at both companies who believe they can make a difference in the world by making computers better. And I admire those people, no matter where they work. And I know that Bill Gates, the person, is very dedicated to charity, and bully for him. I am simply saying that companies, as independent entities, have "personal survival" as their absolutely primal goal. Companies are not really trying to better mankind or our lot. (Again, for an exception, you could make a very coherent argument that Google is a moral company, and you certainly would get no debate from me.)
Television is pretty much comprised of fights for ego. Survivor: "Watch people do crappy things to each other and stab each other in the back to get 15 minutes of fame." Rush Limbaugh: "I'll say the most heinous and hypocritical things imaginable in order to get fame or infamy, I don't care which." The nightly news: "Screw enlightening the population, we need to steal eyeballs from the other channels... more stories on how your cats might be killing you! FIND OUT AT 11!"
And, of course, we have the war in Iraq. I'm dying to hear what tangible good we accomplished over there except stroking Bush's ego. No, sorry, to be precise, I am not dying, 600,000 Iraqis are. Did. Whatever.
The backlash on all this is that many people have apparently decided that conflict itself is inherently bad, just because there are so many examples of conflicts with bad motivations. I don't agree, but that begs these questions: When do we need to fight? When is it right?
My answer: When we're doing it for something larger. Some concept grander than ourselves. We're fighting for something that's right. And not right in the "my God told me your God sucks"-sense, not right in the "We're right because we're America and if you don't love our country you should leave you damn mexican jew lizard"... right in the "I can point to tangible good effects this will have on other people without causing a lot of tangible harm" sense.
There's an interesting side-effect to this last kind of fight, the fight for good. When you're not doing it for your own ego, you can win just by convincing others to join your side. If you get enough people to fight for you, you can even win without anyone actually knowing it was you.
For instance, let's say Apple has 60% marketshare on actively-used desktops in five years... will anyone say, "Wow, thank gord Wil Shipley decided to save NeXTstep all those years ago?" No, no they won't, and as much as I think I'm great (which is a *LOT*), even I don't think they should. They should thank Avie Tevanian and Bertrand Serlet and William Parkhurst and Jack Greenfield and Craig Federighi and Ali Ozer and Peter Graffagnino and Mike Paquette and Steve Jobs... well, shit, I could go through my whole address book, but you get the point.
But I still won! That's the beauty. I'll win because I chose a win condition that a lot of other great people thought was worthwhile, so I don't have to personally triumph over everyone to win. I can let those heavy-hitters above do all the hard lifting (why are batters lifting stuff? I don't know) and when they succeed I can say to myself, "Yes! Life goal accomplished! Next!"
Now, I've got an ego, I'm the first (and MOST IMPORTANT) person to admit it. I like getting credit for stuff I've done. I'll tell stories that end, "...and that's how I indirectly invented the World Wide Web by being an intern at Stanford Linear Accelerator in college." But I remind myself, hey, I was fighting because I wanted some greater good, not because I wanted credit. Credit is fun, winning is better.
Ok, back to NickNeg. As I said, I've only spoken to him for about thirty minutes. I didn't peer inside his soul, but I think I've got a fair impression of him. I think he's a very smart guy. I think that, like most great men, he's got an enormous ego that is matched by his ability to actually DO stuff. I think he may be one of the few people in America who is not actively being tortured and still hates W more than I do. And I think he's very committed to doing what's right for the world.
So do you think Nicholas Negroponte will feel like he's lost if his OLPC initiative forces Intel and Microsoft to subsidize PCs for children in every developing nation in the world?
I do not.
Oh, sure, I know he's a proud man, and naturally part of him wants the credit for changing the world. And he'll be (validly) pissed that the Classmate is not based open source and that he's not able to prevent Microsoft from basically using this as a chance to infect the rest of the world with its blecherous software...
But deep down in his heart? He's laughing. He wins.