Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Kind of Buddhist Was Steve Jobs, Really?

Once again, way too much stuff building up. I try to keep to one post a day, so I don't run out of things to write about, but it seems I keep finding stuff in the interim.

Here's a fascinating article: What Kind of Buddhist Was Steve Jobs, Really?

Actually, the big surprise for me was that when I clicked on the link to the article, I expected it to deal with Jobs' very un Zen-like behavior. For example, his abandonment of his first biological daughter, his outsourcing of work to China and his callous dismissal of the suicides of workers at FoxConn where Apple's products were made, his "locking down" of products to stop people from tinkering with them, and his efforts to "destroy" (his words) Google for poaching operating system software. I even read that he refused to accept a badge that had him as employee #2 (#1 was Steve Wozniak) in the early days of Apple; he insisted on being #1 (he ended up at #0 as a compromise; computer scientists will understand why that's valid!). Decidedly un Zen-like behavior all of it. One is forced to wonder whether the seeking of power as a CEO must do and religious enlightenment are compatible. A CEO must strive to be number one at all times, otherwise they will not be a CEO. A Zen Buddhist, by contrast, seeks humility and enlightenment. How can all these powerful celebrities be Zen Buddhists? Is it just a fashion statement? This article barely touches on these issues, yet is fascinating throughout, and very well-written, especially in explaining some of the concepts of Zen Buddhism and how they effect the world. As a dilettante in Zen Buddhism myself, it makes me want to once again get more highly involved in practice.

Here's a related story: The Most Anal CEO Ever

On a related note, I find the effect that these new, "countercultural" thoughts had on the emergence of personal computing and Silicon Valley culture fascinating. We see the computer revolution as having a transformative effect on society. We see it today as the main driver of social change, GDP growth, political transformation, etc. Yet it came out of this countercultural, "hippie" background that was dismissed at the time as a sideshow at best, and antithetical to American values at worst. There is a fascinating book I have meant to read about this called What The Dormouse Said about the effect 60's counterculture had on the emergence of computers and the Internet. Here's a great post here by Charles Hugh Smith about whether we can manufacture creativity:

I recently watched the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys about the surfers and kids in Venice, California, who launched modern skateboarding in the 70s, with a good friend in Hawaii. He wondered why so many innovations, not just technology but skateboarding, mountain biking and Leo Fender's Stratocaster electric guitar seem to begin in California. As a third-third-third resident of California and Hawaii--first third of my life in CA, next third in HI, recent third back in CA but spending lots of time in HI--this set me to pondering the same question. It has been pondered elsewhere at great length, most recently, in a book by John Markoff What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer. Markoff posits that the values of the counterculture which found such fertile ground in California were the direct progenitor of the computer and Internet revolutions.

Which leads to a simple conclusion: future technological revolutions will not come from autocratic societies like Singapore, Malaysia, Japan or Korea (throw in France and the rest of the EU, too, for different reasons) because whatever counterculture lives in these societies is entirely marginalized, where in California it is heralded and admired.

So what makes a counter-culture? You can start with: a roving, curiosity-driven desire to question authority, to strike out on one's own, to think freely, to tolerate creativity's inherent messiness, to accept failure, however painful it might be personally, as part of the process and as part of the deal. Accepting failure, even repeated failure, isn't easy, but California is blessed with numerous successful role models--not just Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but less well-known heroes like James McKerrow, whose lab at UCSF has tackled the six worst parasitical diseases around the world--those that affect poor people in poor countries--and is close to developing treatments for three of them.

Truly innovative and world-changing ideas constitute a break with previous thinking. Why are we assuming that the new modes of thought are going to emerge out of corporate America? In my experience, corporate America is a recipe for groupthink, conformity and sycophantism. Everyone simply parrots what the "big man" wants to hear, and people who are similar to the "big man" at the top get promoted, while the rest get marginalized or cut loose. All the efforts are dedicated to maintaining the status-quo "gravy train", and so-called "new" ideas are merely variations on the old ones that benefit those at the top. Truly revolutionary, truly new ideas are always threatening to those on the top of the hierarchy; they are disruptive by their very nature and are therefore ignored and often suppressed. Just ask Preston Tucker.

So the fact that the most innovative thing that's transforming society came out of a completely unforeseen and unexpected place should give us pause. Maybe instead of looking for "the next big innovation" in the corporate boardrooms of America (which is where we seem to be looking), we should be looking where we least expect it. Maybe the next big thing is not a technology at all. A lot of transformative ideas are being ignored by the mainstream. Just off the top of my head, I can think of quite a few:

The sharing economy - car sharing, tool sharing, etc.
Local currencies, demurrage currencies
Distributed manufacturing
New urbanism
Publicly owned banks

And so on. And the thinkers that are putting these ideas forward, the type of people I follow and listen to, are usually ignored by the"mainstream" media, people like James Greco, Charles Eisenstein, Manfred Max-Neef, Herman Daly, John Robb, and many others. One of the intention of my blog is to showcase and to think about a lot of those transformative ideas. To conclude, and this seems related to our theme, here is a terrific interview a great example of the kind of innovative thinker that we need right now, Vinay Gupta:

Tools To Not Die With: An Interview with Vinay Gupta, creator of the Hexayurt (via BoingBoing)

Vinay Gupta is a man between worlds, and he’s got a lot of arms. Born to Scottish and Indian parents, he was programming from a young age. But looking back on the advent of web-culture in the late 90s, he found that he wasn’t satisfied with the thought of sitting around on .com cash and helping to empower the same old corrupt systems of power and influence just because they’d now found homes online.

No, no. Vinay packed up and went west to the American desert. There he did work with the Rocky Mountain Institute (he was on the editorial team for Small is Profitable and Winning the Oil Endgame by Amory Lovins, spent years meditating and learning Nepalese magical practices, and found himself on the playa trying to live out of a cardboard box. That struggle with the box lead him to make observations about a sort of pixelated version of the yurt, that ancient and highly efficient house of the high Mongolian desert. Thereby: the hexayurt.

Now it’s been ten years of struggle for Vinay, and he’s shown his invention (and the many conclusions that follow from it) to .biz high-rollers, .mil doves, and .org worldchangers. He has become a worldchanger. We caught up by email in October.

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