The central myth of American culture, according to David Simon, is the transcendent individual: there are great men and women who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and achieve greatness through their autonomy, courage, intelligence, strength and perseverance.
It’s an image particularly associated with science and technology: the lone genius, an anti-social geek, working in his garage in spite of the rejection of the mediocre masses, and then springing his brilliance upon the world and changing everything.
The problem is, it isn’t true.
Walter Isaacson has built a career writing biographies of great individuals: Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin. He swings in the opposite direction for his newest book: The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.
It’s an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. Here’s the short version: it was pretty much all groups.
There have certainly been visionaries and geniuses, but they worked with people who had complementary abilities. Those who were isolated, or bad at working with others, made very limited contributions to the information revolution.
In Enneagram terms, this is the Social Instinct at work. The healthy aspect of this instinct is the ability to tune in to others, to work with others, to feel comfortable with others and appreciate how people can work together and bring out the best in each other.
When Bell Labs moved their headquarters to New Jersey, they had their various buildings connected by long corridors, specifically to encourage chance meetings between people working in different departments. Steve Jobs replicated this when redesigning Apple’s headquarters.
As Atari exploded with the popularity of Pong, they instituted parties every Friday, with beer, pot-smoking and skinny dipping. Company founder Nolan Bushnell said “We found out our employees would respond to having a party for hitting quotas as much as having a bonus.”
Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore – co-founders of Intel – worked at cubicles identical to those of anyone else in the company. They didn’t have reserved parking spots – no one did. Noyce’s personnel director and wife said “There were no privileges anywhere. We started a form of company culture that was completely different than anything had been before. It was a culture of meritocracy.” This was a very deliberate contrast to the top-down culture of corporate America.
Grace Hopper – a foul mouthed programmer of one of the first computers – swore like a sailor at Richard Bloch – her hardware engineer partner – developing a “pirate crew camaraderie” which became part of the culture of coders, who may be prickly but ultimately value their collaborators as allies.
When researcher Paul Baran was asked who invented the Internet, he answered:
The process of technological development is like building a cathedral. Over the course of several hundred years, new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying “I built a cathedral.” Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then comes along an historian who asks, “Well, who built the cathedral?” Peter added some stones here, and Paul added a few more. If you are not careful, you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part. But the reality is that each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.
We have a strong desire to look good. What could look better than saying “I built that cathedral. Yes, me. Just me.”? But if you were raised by at least one other person, if you learned language, if you wear clothes that you didn’t weave, and eat food you didn’t grow or hunt, then you’re part of the social continuum.
We will continue to learn to live on this planet inasmuch as we can live and work with each other.