Imagine the sum total of human knowledge as something of an inkblot.
Lest the above figure be allowed to imply otherwise, the “stuff we don’t know” is potentially infinitely large. I created the figure with a focus on “stuff we know.” I did this because, in the context of the Jobs/Woz symbiosis, I’m most interested in the boundaries between the known and the unknown.
The stuff we know is comforting. Routine, convention, repeatability; this is the character of that which provides comfort to the greatest number of people. The stuff we don’t know is scary to the greatest number of people. But this is not universal. There is a small minority of people who find comfort in the unknown; people who seek it out. Actually, this distinction falls along a continuum that looks something like this:
Individuals aren’t monolithic either. Even those who cling fiercely to tradition and dogma find an occasional hunger for novelty and vice-versa. Because I am essentially one big digression-in-action, I’d like to mention that I’ve noticed, with some irony, that many who fancy themselves “mavericks” are really little more than caricatures thereof. Like the majority of, say, the baby-boomers. With their Harleys and leather jackets, the whole Dennis Hopper-wannabe lot of them spend considerable effort and energy to evince what amounts to a hollow iconoclasm. Marvy. Fab. Far out.
My point is that the greatest majority of people live closest to the center of the inkblot. The further to the edge you travel, the fewer the occupants. This distribution is owed not only to the reptile-brain comfort of the known and fear of the unknown. It is also a reflection of the degree of erudition and refinement of knowledge necessary to travel to the edges of the blot. To wit; if we limit the blot to “stuff we know about mathematics,” the center of the blot will comprise basic arithmetic and as you travel toward the edge you encounter propositional calculus, number theory and so on. To posit completely new mathematical knowledge, one must have first traversed a considerable path of increasing mathematical sophistication. Thus, the paucity of inhabitants at the edge of the blot is not only a function of discomfort but also of erudition.
These edge-dwellers live in the thin air of the mountain-top. The austere panorama with which they grow to find resonance is not the tableau encountered by those in the thick of the inkblot. They are the Wozes—the pioneers—and they are most commonly nerds of the highest order. They will corner you at a party for an uncomfortably long stretch, invade your personal space, and wax passionate about quantum computing. Herein lies the rub. How can new ideas—and more importantly, their everyday implications—become known and useful to the widest audience?
This is where Jobs comes in. David Hume wrote of the divide between the “Learned” and the “Conversible.” This is a somewhat imperfect analog to the continuum I’m describing. Steve Jobs is not squarely within either of these camps. He rather stands astride both. His prefrontal cortex is big enough to assimilate the requisite nerd knowledge, and his ego is big enough to comprise the necessary charisma to sell said knowledge.
This is a tenuous and necessary thread that ties novelty to orthodoxy. Left to their own devices, the orthodox would happily maintain existing structures even in the face of changing circumstances. Only novel solutions can solve novel problems. As Einstein famously said;
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
We need Wozes that obtain that next level and we need Jobses to imbue new solutions with charm and make them digestible.