Homer on The Range

John Perry Barlow

About five years ago, when I left the cattle business and took up such smoke shoveling as you find me engaged in here, I was intrigued by the myth of Steve Jobs and the drama of his dealings with John Sculley. I thought that their story might tell us something about the future of our collective endeavor.

Of course, I didn't know beans about either one of them, but there was something about their caricatures, the barefoot visionary and the thin-lipped Prince of Sugar Water, that rattled something deep inside me. I pumped them so full of my own imaginative gases that their struggles came to seem Homeric. Steve was Achilles, sulking outside the walls of Apple, his heroic heart, though shredded by the cold claws of organizational efficiency, still beating strong with the idea that the personal computer might free modern workers from corporate bondage.

I thought of Apple under Jobs as being somewhere between a cybertribe and a techno-commune, literally dreaming up tools that embodied a sense of mission far more potent than mere productivity solutions. I arrogantly dismissed Sculley as a tool himself, a brittle bottom-liner who would make Apple into another bland corporate engine.

I shudder at these cartoon images now. In the years since I sketched them as mythic characters, I've gotten to know Jobs and Sculley as human beings. They are both complex and interesting people, each large in intellect and imperfection. Jobs is far more expedient than I once thought, and Sculley turns out to be a genuine visionary, despite a personal delivery that can seem about as spell binding as golf on television.

Their old epic, once so compelling to me, returned to mind the other day when I heard that Sculley had resigned as Apple's CEO. Into his place diesels Eurodroid Michael Spindler, a man whose unsentimental management style will make Sculley look like Percy Bysshe Shelley in no time. I cannot imagine Spindler dreaming about anything but victory.

This news landed like a flat stone on mud. There was nothing in it to inspire imagination; it was just something that happened. I realized suddenly how little room there is for myth, or drama, or even dreams in the computer business as it's once again come to be.

Apple differs from other large California-based companies only in being a harsher place to work than most. It is less interested in changing the world than remaining in it. There remains something heroic about both NeXT and Jobs, but only in the sense that they are running head-on at mean and mighty Microsoft. Even there I have a hard time getting my heart above a resting pulse. What, outside of survival, is the point?

If NeXT survives, which I now believe it can do, it's hard to imagine that the world will be better or even visibly different. I'm as likely to get emotional about NEXTSTEP as I would be over the future of any number of Smalltalk development environments.

Over the long run, I wonder if either company can survive long without that almost religious sense of attachment their early customers brought to them. Buying a Macintosh or a NeXT was once a statement of devout personal belief against which people were willing to put out some additional cash. Without that poetry, what remains to set Apple apart from Dell, or NeXT apart from the Santa Cruz Operation?

Everything changes, I know. But it seems that the computer business has lost its heart. There aren't many stories worth hearing or telling these days. But maybe that's the way business is supposed to be.

John Perry Barlow's odyssey continues here each month.