Monday, August 7, 2017

Eventually you get to Elon Musk...

Brian Merchant  makes a really important point here, but he glosses over a fundamental distinction. Putting aside for the moment the equating of the two men's impact (with all due respect to Jobs, it isn't even close), it is valid to point out that both are often credited with the work of the teams under them, Edison was able to set up his research lab (itself a tremendous innovation) because of the money he made as an inventor. It's true that most of the patents he held were primarily or entirely the work of others, but he remained an engineer supervising engineers. Jobs was a genius when it came to design, consumer psychology and the future of personal technology, but he was not an engineer.

We've gone from crediting the engineer/manager (Edison) to the marketing/design guy (Jobs) to the promotions/financing guys (take your pick). This trend will not end well.

“The thing that concerns me about the Steve Jobs and Edison complex,” Bill Buxton, who helped pioneer multitouch in the 1980s (Jobs said Apple invented it in 2007), told me, “is that young people who are being trained as innovators or designers are being sold the Edison myth, the genius designer, the great innovator, the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates, or whatever,” Buxton says. See: The current myth of the founder-hero, that is partly to blame for steering companies like Uber into peril. “They’re never being taught the notion of the collective, the team, the history.”

Which is why it pains me a bit to see the story of the iPhone reduced to Jobs, brilliant as he may have been. The true version is more intense, messy, convoluted—and human. And it’s not just a matter of doling out credit, either; it’s a matter of understanding how innovation actually happens, so we might facilitate it better in the future. There are lessons here for anyone who might try to build a product, advance a technology, stir progress—or understand how innovation really unfurls. The iPhone is the product of a collaboration carried out on a scale that’s so massive it can seem almost incomprehensible—but it makes more sense than the lone inventor myth. And we can learn more about where we're headed if we look into the iPhone's black mirror and try to see the huge host of faces reflected back—not just Steve Jobs'.

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