Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Smooth on Sterling

Nice concise slice.


jimf said...

"These tapes should be the last nail in the coffin of
the idea that there is any meritocracy in American
capitalism. Any misconception that anyone ever had about
rich people getting where they are because they're
smarter had to die with this tape, because. . .
Wow. . ."

Yeah, well, of course the commentator here is being
funny for entertainment's sake, and shouldn't be taken
too literally.

"Smart" is a slippery term. Maybe a better word for
the sorts of people who end up as billionaires is
"shrewd". Another phrase that comes to mind
goes by the initials "SOB". You need a minimum of the
academic kind of smarts (it probably helps to be able
to count, and to know when important numbers are going
up or down ;-> ), but they're not enough -- you also
need the kind of ruthlessness that has always been
lauded in American society (and which is currently
idolized by Republicans, Libertarians, and Ayn Rand acolytes --
tools of the oligarchy. ;-> )

Bill Gates is a good example. He had (has) plenty
of smarts in the academic sense -- he (and Paul Allen)
got their claws in the 70's microprocessor revolution
by writing a BASIC interpreter for the Intel 8080
chip in -- what was it? -- 3 months.

But he had as much chutzpah as IQ -- 1) he used
Harvard's PDP-10 computer to write his BASIC interpreter.
Harvard, as far as I know, never got (or sought)
any compensation for this, and they never went after him
for theft or misuse of school resources. This
would be simultaneously less likely to be let slide
today and less "necessary" in the first place --
at least as far as computer resources are concerned.
I doubt if any Harvard administrators at the time
would have had a clue what was happening, and if they
had, well, somebody else would have become Microsoft.
2) He had no compunction afterwards about A) lying to IBM about
having an operating system he could sell them
for their upcoming PC, and B) sending somebody to talk
to Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products to convince
him (without mentioning anything about IBM) to sell
Gates & Co. the rights to Paterson's QDOS 8086 operating system
for $50 grand (this has been called a better deal
than the proverbial purchase of Manhattan for $24).
Gates also managed to negotiate a deal with IBM
to license "his" operating system as PC-DOS for the
IBM PC without IBM's getting exclusive rights to it (another
case of taking shrewd advantage of apparent cluelessness
or carelessness on the part of somebody at IBM).

jimf said...

Was Gates an SOB? Yeah, or at least a "sharp" business
negotiator. (Steve Jobs was an even
bigger SOB, and with less technical savvy -- just the
possessor of an overwhelming, and overwhemingly lauded, sense
of "style", and the ego to go with it). Does Gates
have to apologize (or hang his head in shame)
over these episodes in his past? Not bloody likely!
For one thing, none of the "victims" of his ethically-questionable
business practices ever went begging -- Paterson actually
went to work for Microsoft, and founded companies afterward, one
of which was bought by Microsoft. So what if Paterson's
"only" a millionaire, and not a billionaire (or
a candidate for "richest man in the world").
And maybe he (Paterson) doesn't get invited to Davos,
or enjoy (if that's the right word) first-tier celebrityhood.

Harvard is still Harvard, and IBM is, if not the
perceived titan of the computer world it
once was, still in business (they made other
mistakes in the early PC days, like not fighting the
"infringement" of the Phoenix BIOS --
it's ironic that a recent -- widely criticized --
court decision just established that APIs
(Application Programming Interfaces, like those
in a PC's BIOS) **themselves** (not just the code
implementing them) **can** be copyrighted:
IBM came close to imploding in the early 90s
(for many reasons, not just losing control of the
PC market) but (like Apple) managed to turn around
at the last minute.

So no, you don't have to be a genu-wine intellectual
to be a billionaire. But you **do** have to be both
shrewd and ruthless. And it probably helps to be
a sociopath, in some sense of the word
( ).
In the case under discussion, Sterling's very shamelessness
in the face of public criticism in a sense "qualifies" him
to be what he is. That's an essential component of the "merit" in
"meritocracy", here in the U S of A.