tech, simplified.

My Weekend With Woz

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Originally published in Techinch Magazine Issue 4
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The other Steve’s outlook on life is something we all need.

Steve Jobs is everywhere. A recent Bangkok book fair had a life-sized wax model of him, malls use his quotes alongside those from celebrities and politicians to decorate boarded up shops while they’re being renovated, and the roti and tea shop around the corner from my house has a hand-painted mural featuring the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Statute of Liberty, President Obama, the Dali Lama, and, yes, Steve Jobs, all enjoying their chai yen (Thai iced tea). Ashton Kutcher’s acting as Jobs in the Jobs biopic isn’t enough for Hollywood, as Sony Pictures is still planning another film based on Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. Aside from Bill Gates, there’s few other people in tech that the majority of people on earth would know of. Jobs a legend, an icon.

But the other Steve — Steve Wozniak — is the often unsung hero that provided the technical genius that launched Apple. Jobs was the personal embodiment of Apple, the marketing guy who knew what was insanely great when he saw it, and fought to bring it to the world. Wozniak, on the other hand, was the reason Apple Computer, Inc. had computer in its name, the technical guy that made Apple’s original tech possible.

Aside from what Isaacson biography of Jobs mentions about Woz, as he’s affectionately known, and random other things about him from the internet, I’d never taken the time to learn much about Apple’s less-public cofounder. So, last week, I’d bought his autobiography iWoz: How I Invented the Personal Computer and Had Fun Along the Way in iBooks to try it out in OS X Mavericks, and then ended up sick in bed with the flu all weekend. With no energy or inspiration to write — my typical pastime — I read Wozniak’s full book.

In short, it was inspiring, almost tear-jerking without being the least bit sad. Absolutely nothing like I expected.

Wide-Eyed Amazement

You won’t walk away from iWoz wishing you were a millionaire, or feeling left out that you didn’t start a Fortune 500 tech company. You won’t feel like you’re dumber if your IQ isn’t near Woz’ score of 200. You won’t think less of Steve Jobs, and you’ll likely think better of Apple’s numerous presidents — and Apple’s long-forgotten competitors from the early days of computers.

What you will walk with is a touch of the childhood amazement that radiates from the text. Woz stands in awe of technology and what it can do, and seems to still be amazed that he was able to have a part in it all. He makes you fascinated by how electronics work together, and how each early computer design was important for the final goal of everyone owning a computer. I don’t know how else to describe it other than that he’s simply bubbling over with fascination over the smallest things, and has never lost that childish enthusiasm.

One could easily pull individual sentences out of context from the book — or even in context — and make it sound like Woz is bragging. It could easily seem that way, when he talks about being the best in his class, knowing more than other people his age, and designing electronics that were years ahead of their time. But that’s not at all how he made me feel. Instead, it felt like he was simply amazed that he was able to do those things, and incredulous that others didn’t see the same possibilities he did. It’s like he wants you to share in his excitement over doing good in school, winning contests, and making friends.

He analyzes others’ personalities, and finds the unique things about them fascinating. Others, even his good friend Jobs, do him wrong, and he takes it in stride, seeing it as a life lesson. He’s the only person I can imagine making you interested in universal remotes. Why? Because he’s fascinated by life.

Curiosity, killed.

The very quality of fascination is what makes children so interesting. Young kids are amazed by everything, starting with their fingers and toes as newborns. Everything’s new, and everything’s exciting. The whole world’s a new gadget for them to unbox and explore.

But then, we become jaded. We get older, get used to the amazing things around us, and forget to notice the magic that’s long-since become ordinary. The world is a really amazing place, filled with interesting things, and yet, we’re so used to it that it ceases to amaze us. The iPhone dazzled us when it first came out, but now we swipe to unlock unlock absentmindedly, when we used to would have marveled over the detail and fluid animation. We fly across the globe, and complain more over the delays than thrill over the speed and convenience. Louis C.K. got it right in his “Everything’s Amazing, and Nobody’s Happy” piece during his appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show: we’re the most spoiled generation with the most amazing technology that people complain about more than appreciate.

Somehow, though, I think we can’t include Woz in that list. If he’s anything like he comes across in his book, I happen to think that everything still amazes him. And that’s awesome.

So Revive it.

It’d sound quaint to say we should “stop and smell the flowers”, but as I argued in the inaugural issue’s Perspective article, it’s something we need. Sometimes it’s worth stopping and thinking about how awesome everything is, taking the time to appreciate what’s actually happening behind the scenes in the tech we use. It’s really, really amazing — but it’s so easy to get used to it and just expect it to work.

But when something breaks, as things are apt to, it’s equally not surprising because it’s just stuff, things full of tiny pieces working together to make their virtual magic. When the internet’s slow, it’s more amazing that it actually works in the first place than that it’s not loading our YouTube videos as fast as we like. I happen to think that we’d be far less frustrated with stuff not working — far less frustrated with life in general — if we remembered how amazing life and the things around us really are.

Want to get a glimpse at the story behind Apple from another perspective than Jobs’, and get a feeling of childhood wonder at today’s tech at the same time? Then go grab a copy of iWoz. I happen to think you’ll enjoy it.

Me? I want to be like Woz when I grow up.

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