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The Northern Spy
February 2009

Hinges of History and a Tale of Two CEOs

Rick Sutcliffe

Long ago and far away

when the Spy was but a lad (but it was after the ark), he read a book with a rather pretentious title that went something like "Ten Battles That Changed The Course Of History". He can no longer specifically identify this tome or its author, in part because so many others have written very similar books. Much "Alternate History" science fiction is built around related themes--what if:

  • Adam and Eve had not sinned, (see C.L. Lewis)
  • Cain had repented,
  • Babylon (or a version of her) had never fallen,
  • The Persians had won at Marathon,
  • Alexander had not died of the flu at Babylon,
  • Rome had not fallen,
  • Brian Boru had survived the battle of Clontarf,
  • England won at Hastings,
  • the English conquest of Ireland had been the other way around,
  • The industrial revolution had been centuries earlier,
  • Nuclear war had destroyed Europe in the seventeenth century,
  • Spain's armada had succeeded,
  • Napoleon had won at Waterloo, or James at the Boyne,
  • North America had never been "colonized" by Europeans,
  • England had held on to the thirteen colonies,
  • The South had won the Civil War, (a favourite)
  • Hitler had defeated Britain in 1940, (stereotypical alternate history)
  • The United States had never entered the WWI; WW2,
  • JFK had lived,
  • your favourite here.

Quite a number of these are at the heart of the Spy's own Alternate History SF, some of which takes place on an alternate earth where the Irish rule not only their own world, but some of the others as well. But the real lynchpin of history isn't the battle itself, the parliamentary vote to end slavery, the coronation of the great leader, or even the inauguration ball.

It's the street boy who did/didn't bend over to tie his laces, causing ten-year-old Adolph to stumble and fall to his death in the path of a horseless carriage. It's the leader-to-be not rescued by a lowly soldier, not dropping out of piano lessons to take political science, the colonel who stayed for an extra piece of cake or a kiss and did receive the all-important communiquŽ of battle orders, the butterfly that spread its wings in Indonesia and triggered a typhoon in Japan, the child that was encouraged by a grade one teacher and never became the psychotic killer, the forest path taken or not by Little Red Riding Hood, the Steve Wozniak whose father never bought him construction toys and an electronics kit and so became a novelist, the course never steered, the mountain climbed, the Red Baron never shot down, the.É In short, it's an event that the participants are probably not aware of as important.

To be sure, God is sovereign and controls the details that accumulate to become the moment we perceive as a hinge of history. There don't seem to be many of these nexus points, and by their very nature, it is impossible to know when one is at such a historical nexus--it takes a generation or more to recognize that a door has turned. Yet, one is always tempted to speculate. Have we now arrived at such a time? Will the actions, or perhaps the mere presence in power, of this man or that woman become the keys to shaping the society of the future in a dramatic way? Yes, no, maybe.

Steve Jobs

is surely one such man, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Macintosh computer is a good time to say so. iSteve and his little Cupertino company have not only been at the heart of the small computer revolution in general, but also responsible for creating or popularizing nearly every specific technological advance associated with it. More than any other individual, he has his personal stamp engraved in the machinery (and the toys) of the Fourth Civilization.

Some might demur, citing necessity as the mother of invention, and suppose that the technological advances of the last three decades would have happened anyway, and been attached another's name. The Spy persists, suggesting it more likely we'd still be using text-based DOS and UNIX were it not for Jobs. No one incident, no one device, but the sheer weight of the technology he has shepherded to fruition will one day be seen to have engendered some of the profoundest social and economic changes the human race has ever seen.

Don't take this wrong. The Spy is no rube to be enticed by the empty promises of mere toys. The fundamental heart of humankind remains as it ever has, still with the same God-shaped vacuum at its core as ever. But some people do to break out of the pack mentality sufficiently to "Think Different" on technological, social and economic issues at least. They make some things happen. Ironically, there is no apparent or logical connection between this and the ability to do so on the far more important spiritual and moral issues.

Of course, what a stock analyst wants to know is only whether everything will fall apart at Apple these next six months without the great helmsman stalking the halls of One Infinite Loop? You heard it here first. No. There's too much inertia in the near to medium term, plenty of time to plan the long. Speculate all you like, but the next year's products are already mapped out, on the way to announcement. Moreover, the key conversations with engineering supplicants seeking the guru's blessing will merely take place on Jobs' own back porch instead of in the bowels of 1IL research labs.

"Get that thing out of my sight, and don't bring anything like it within a mile of me until it's half as thick or heavy, four times as cool, twice as easy to use, and we can charge an extra two hundred bucks. Apple doesn't make junk, and don't you forget it or I'll have Tim fire your sorry excuse for a butt all the way to Richmond."

The bottom line for the company's near future can be easily predicted from the near past. Apple just announced another quarterly earnings record (over $10B), once again slaughtering Wall Street estimates. Given the deferred revenue already in hand for iPhone contracts (spread out over two or more years to come), given that people are obviously not stinting on buying quality technology even if they do frequent Value Village and Wal Mart for other items, given the reservoir of mind share that has yet to be converted to marketshare, given massive layoffs at Microsoft (and even Intel), further sales and profit records seem assured, so-called recession notwithstanding.

The only puzzler (besides which new product niche Apple will next occupy) is what iSteve's boys and girls plan to do with all those billions they're currently using to prop up their banks.

So, one man's temporary absence from a CEO position is unlikely to have an immediate impact. And, even if he guides the company no more, iSteve's place in history is secure. So is that of Apple. This naturally leads the Spy to wonder whether the presence in office of yet another CEO can make an important difference.

Great Expectations

are the watchword for the new high muck-a-muck of that much smaller country that lies to the south of the (frozen) True North Strong and Free. Will the world be a better place or worse three weeks later, a year, a decade following the inauguration of the Excited States' latest CEO? Well, remember the Spy's fourth Law?

Marketshare lags mindshare by two to five years.

He arrived at that maxim by first making the political and economic observation that by the time a government acts, marketplace and social data are already old, there is a good chance things have begun a cyclical move in the opposite direction, and the action taken is more likely to exacerbate a new trend than to dampen the belatedly perceived old one. Despite the re-election imperative to be seen doing something useful, ofttimes the action best for the governed is taking no action at all.

True, in the fourth Civilization, the lag time in political decision making has shortened because data is now available more quickly. However, it has simultaneously lengthened due to increasing bureaucratic, regulatory, and legal inertia. This may be a wash. So, let's not get carried away with the euphoria. Opportunities for greatness in the political-economic sphere are quite limited. Presidents and prime ministers in both Canada and the U.S. have been sworn in amidst similar mania before, but proven to be lacklustre at best, pathetic more often. What politicians in particular usually forget in the heady days of a change in power is that the nation or province still needs to be governed--and that's the real reason they end up keeping so few of the ill-considered promises that got them elected. Make fewer, break fewer.

Is this US presidency historic? For the obvious social reasons, certainly. Is Obama a great politician? By all means. Only forty-three others have achieved this office. Is he a great orator? Pretty close if not already there. A great leader? Certainly, considing the number of his followers. Will he be a great president, or will this presidency be historic for moral, social, or even mere economic reasons? Ah...call me in ten years. Better yet, make it twenty. The odds aren't good, as there hasn't been a great US presidency or Canadian prime ministership in decades. The only recent one that could be termed historic in a positive sense was Reagan's, for his ending of the cold war (foolishly touted by the overly optimistic as the end of history).

More to the point for this column is to ask whether the new Washington order can have a significant technological impact, even if not on a Jobsian scale. The Spy believes so, more because of the man's age than his politics. He's part of a generation that, if it didn't quite grow up with technology, is at least familiar with it, uses it routinely in daily life. Somehow a president that "gets" science and technology has a novel ring tone to him. True, there are likely to be more pressing priorities. But a country's high mugwump (whatever the title) does have the power to either invigorate or to stifle science and technology, and this one gives early appearance of being more likely to do the former than the latter.

OTOH, it's probably too much to hope that he also "gets" the economy. That's more likely to heal itself once the system flushes out those behind the latest round of greed--and that without respect to his economic interventions. Of course, if he were to give in to certain unions and go all turtle-shell protectionist on the rest of the world, he'd trigger a complete world wide economic collapse, but he doesn't seem that stupid. He certainly can't address the root causes of the current woes. Cleansing the human heart of greed (a form of idolatry) is the sole task of One who is above and beyond any president or CEO.

But more specifically, Obama does carry a Mac into the White House (or he might if the House's infrastructure-challenged techno-dweebs have sense enough to let him save them support work.) That Mac suggests a mind open to ideas, to alternatives, to rational debate--in much the same way as do his choice of pastors to pray at inauguration and his cabinet picks. An open and somewhat inclusive mind weighing a nation's problems is not the only qualification for greatness, or even competence (some are open, but devoid of ideas; others are never challenged sufficiently by events to become great), but it is a pre-requisite for both.

The person with the closed mind buys a junk Windows box, even though she and everyone else knows it's both inferior and more costly in the long run. That same person approaches problems the similarly insane way--by trying again what has never worked in the past. Why? Because the herd does, and in today's North American society, it is not reason but the whim of the mob that directs decision making--another motive not to put too much trust in political salvation, for such is by its very nature both misplaced and misannounced by the mob. This is also why modern leaders of liberal democracies have little or no positive impact on the moral fibre of their nation--if they didn't reflect the herd's morality (or lack of it), they would never have been elected in the first place.

C.P. Snow

made a most insightful observation when he spoke of the two insular academic cultures back in the 1950s. A scientist and a journalist both, he was conscious of having one foot firmly planted in both, but noted that few of the denizens of either had sufficient vocabulary in common for meaningful communication. Little has changed since then, for few cross the great and widening divide between the arts and the sciences, except grudgingly, for the one or two courses that liberal arts and sciences universities like the Spy's own Trinity Western require them to take.

Modern society has many other divides of similar nature, to greater or lesser effect, whether support for a team, allegiance to an operating system, adherence to collection of religious practices or moral rules, or subscription to a political, economic, or social theory. For instance, the chasm between "left" and "right" in North America is now so great as to border on the destabilizing. Politics is the new religion.

No force originating here on this earth, whether political or otherwise, can erase the barriers we erect by seeing our neighbour as fundamentally different from ourselves. Witness the idea of race, which never had any support from either religion or science, though it did from purported practitioners of both. It has always been patently obvious that the only race is the human race, though when the Spy put the case this way in the early 1970s, it was not always well received.

To take another case in point, it has become fashionable to spout a "tolerance" mantra in matters of religious and moral belief, but in practise this PC redefinition of the term is itself narcissistic, ultimately refusing to tolerate those who remain convinced that certain ideas really do matter more than others, that it is possible and even necessary to be right about at least some things, that there are eternal and absolute truths. There can never be much in common between those who believe in (and therefore live by) a specific value system, and those who say that all moral codes (or religions) are of equal value (which is the same as saying that none of them have any value). Ecumenical inclusiveness without discernment is anarchy.

Moreover, the desire to be tribally right about the importance (or not) of moral or religious values tends to extend to all areas of life, including politics, and even technology choices. (Mac/Linux/Windows). If we have become somewhat less divided by the colour of our eyes, hair, and skin, we have become much more by our beliefs and choices.

At least the widespread use of technology has tended to democratize. Behind a keyboard, no one does know who or what you are except by your ideas, and there are yet a few Internet places where those can be intelligently debated. In this at least, the Fourth Civilization still has potential to serve us well.

So, does this new CEO of the USA represent a dividing or a unifying trend? Here, his main positive aspect is the hope and optimism surrounding him--such political coin, spent wisely, may tend to make social and economic improvements that mere political policy (whether right or wrong headed) could never achieve. Yes for his past achievements, a big question mark for the future.

So, the Spy can wish well of this man, many of whose political inclinations are about as opposite his own as possible. Why? Because it's time for someone who thinks different. Yes, this new CEO does change everything--at least in part because his very election fulfills the fundamental liberal agenda of equality, incidentally forcing the movement to find a new cause, in much the same way as conservatism had to re-invent itself when Reagan defeated its iconic enemy. But in the long run, we must all look elsewhere for both substance and salvation than to human leaders. If they deliver any, it is borrowed from the Source of all. Oh, and remember that in a real melting pot (which the Spy has operated) the sludge rises to the top and has to be creamed off for discarding. So, let's us hope the model for the new White House is not in fact a melting pot, but a refiner's fire.

What does the hinge of history turn on,

if it isn't the CEO, the king, the president, the financier, the general, or even hoi polloi? In view of the comments above, it's tempting to suppose said hinge is firmly fastened to a door frame of technology. This is at least partly right, for although necessity is the mother of invention, that is, some technology (e.g. the light bulb) is deliberately developed because society needs it in that time and space, much new technology has entirely unforeseen uses and consequences. Like the phonograph, the small computer arrived on the scene as an invention looking for an application. Both found some, but computers in particular unintentionally became the proximate cause of transforming society.

The present technological revolution has already passed through several phases, none of which could have been reliably forecast (though the Spy always thought the small computer would have greater social and artistic implications than it would scientific), but there is no way to determine if the door attached to the hinge is halfway open, or nearly up against the stopper. The Spy feels that computing technology is still in its infancy, that its ultimate role in shaping society can now only be dimly perceived (see his fiction). Moreover, there are still far too few people even asking what are the social or ethical implications of technology deployment, and these issues are ultimately far more important as hinges for society than the capabilities of its toys.

This is all a long winded and somewhat evasive way of saying that if we are indeed at a hinge point in history, whether politically, technologically, or morally, we may be dimly aware something profound is happening, but nearly incapable of analysis except in the retrospect of the next generation.

So, like it or no, Steve Jobs and his ilk have already changed the world. Barack Obama might or might not. Either set of changes might ultimately be for the good or the bad, depending on application, circumstance, and the people surrounding and influencing the course of decisions. In neither case, and in no form of purely human innovation can we say precisely where events are leading. By all means oil the hinge, but the future is the province of Another.

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

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Last Updated: 2009 02 02