This is an extended version of the interview that appears in Issue 2 of The Old Diocesan magazine
INTERVIEW: Mark Shuttleworth (1991W) “In your dreaming, think big. Go beyond the perimeter of the school. As South Africa and indeed the world warms to a new age of communication, there is no reason why Bishops boys should not be at the forefront of the movement.” – Mark Shuttleworth, head boy’s prize-giving address, 1991
It’s hard to know how a conversation with one of our school’s most prominent Old Boys might pan out. What do you talk about with a multidisciplinarian ex-cosmonaut who straddles an elusive area between IT, big business and deep thinking? Well, among other things, bee-keeping, Bitcoin and why you should specialise in two things at the same time. Oh yes, and space. By Tim Richman [This is an extended version of the interview that appears in Issue 2 of The Old Diocesan magazine] Mark Shuttleworth (1991W)
is a difficult man to get hold of. No surprises there, really. One of the highest-achieving ODs of our time, it takes eight months to pin him down for an intercontinental interview. After a couple of false starts, the chosen hour for our chat finally ticks over – and then I can’t remember my Skype log-in. The wonders of tech.
The more pressing concern is that I have no way to gauge Mark’s commitment to the interviewing cause. For a one-time space hero, he certainly keeps a low profile; no-one at Bishops seems to know where he is; he doesn’t respond to emails himself; his PA (eventually) tells me his most recent publicity photo is four years old... Will he be a reluctant interviewee, dialling in out of some residual sense of duty to his alma mater? Or, as his ongoing (even lower-profile) financial support for the school might suggest, perhaps he’s keen to chat but just can’t find the time.
The last time I saw Mark in the flesh it was prize-giving, 1991. As the departing head boy, he told us to take advantage of the opportunities that Bishops presented us and to dream big. Then he followed his own advice.
In 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, he sold his pioneering internet security company, Thawte Consulting, for either $575m or $700m, depending on your source. A couple of years later, at age 28, he validated his surname and spent nine days on board the International Space Station (ISS). (Today, in the pantheon of space heroes the Shuttleworth name sits not far from immortals like Alan Shepard and Anatoly Solovyev. Shepherd was the first American in space and walked on the moon; Solovyev holds the record for time spent space-walking. Mark remains the seventh youngest person to go into space.)
His achievements on their own are remarkable. Together, they are unique. I wonder if it’s been something of a letdown since – a literal return to earth. How do you top those two or three years?
Today, Mark runs Canonical, which supports the open-source Ubuntu operating system that he has been instrumental in developing. Canonical’s client list includes Netflix, Tesla, Deutsche, and its influence is profound, with Ubuntu now everywhere, from the smallest startups to major corporations and governments. But is the quiet computing revolution he’s orchestrating enough? Do you wear the world heavily after talking to Nelson Mandela while orbiting the earth at 28,000km/h?
We connect through the miracle that is the internet – that thing that Mark spotted and mastered before all the rest – and the first thing he says is how glad he is to be connecting. He looks comfortable and light of spirit – and he engages. The conversation takes extended and unintended diversions down paths that are invariably interesting and loaded with insight. He makes mental leaps that don’t always coincide with the words coming out of his mouth, and he punctuates his answers with the phrase, “You know what I mean?” Sadly, not always, but it’s a ride nonetheless.
Mark’s range of expertise and interests – and his willingness to explore them in some depth – mean that our allocated hour flies by. We barely touch on his day job at Canonical, I find out next to nothing about his day-to-day life, and I forget to ask him how he remembers his passwords. But he does tell me that he tries to spend two months in South Africa every year. Given the exceptional ground this short conversation covers, I’m hoping this is the launch of the annual Shuttleworth interview…
Early successes: Mark giving “an excellent and mature performance” of the Modern Major General in the school production of The Pirates of Penzance
Many ODs have been canvassed to put questions to you, and the winner is: “Do you secretly wish you were in Founders House?”
Haha. It wouldn’t be a secret if I answered that question.
Fair enough. Then let me start with a softball question. What teacher did you learn the most from at Bishops?
Gosh, I had a really good relationship with Hugo Leggatt who was my science teacher for a good chunk of time and also my house master at White House. He had a very diverse set of interests – history, the outdoors, science – and he was a great mentor, he really encouraged me to be curious and interested about what was out there. The thing that he subtly conveyed to me was that so much of we consider “great history” happened remarkably easily for people who were just interested in stuff that was going on. The net effect was that it didn’t seem intractable to just be interested in what was going on anywhere in the world, and to want to be part of that, and I really credit him with creating that sort of straightforward expectation.
You left Bishops as head boy in 1991, and in your prize-giving address you literally advised boys to “think big – go beyond the perimeter of the school. As South Africa and indeed the world warms to a new age of communication there is no reason why you should not be at the forefront of the movement.” Could you have predicted your own success better?
Did you have a very clear vision of dreaming big, and that shooting for the moon, so to speak, was actually possible?
Yes, and I was ambitious at the time, but I had no idea how the dots would connect. I can’t draw a straight line at all between the end of matric and stuff that’s happened since. Certainly not a straight line-type experience, but it has always helped just to be willing to get on a train or a plane or a boat and go somewhere a little bit different. It has always turned out to be worth looking at something that was not yet in the mainstream. Something that was a little bit further out.
Do you credit any of that to Bishops, and the teachers there?
I’d have to. I was at Wet Pups and then Bishops, and certainly by the time I left Bishops I really believed that any of us could be part of interesting change in the world. That’s even more true today than it was then. I had the benefit of being one of the exchange students [to Brooks School in Massachusetts], which was also helpful in taking some of the myth out of America, taking away some of the aura of invincibility, and rock ’n’ roll and Coca-Cola. At the end of the day they are kids just like us.
Do you agree with the Malcolm Gladwell formula for success: combine above-average competence, 10,000 hours doing what you do, and then a large dose of luck?
Yeah, all of those things. You have to credit luck. I know that in various things I’ve done, there are always other people who have had similar ideas, worked as hard. And sometimes I got lucky and sometimes they got lucky. I often meet people, especially in the tech industry, who have been successful and are completely blind to either the inside track that they had or the luck they had along the way – until they’ve been around long enough to have had a couple of swings of the bat. And then you start to see that luck always plays a role – but so does the 10,000 hours, and that instinctive sense of knowing whether something sounds right or seems possible.
So how would you define your expertise? Where did you spend your 10,000 hours?
At university I dove very deep into very nerdy things. It was a time of change in the form of things getting connected. When I started university I knew nothing about connectivity but it was totally different to the internet. By the end of university it was the internet. So it was that critical time, and going really, really deep at that critical time, meant you were 1 in 5,000, and you could amass a sense of what was possible that was wildly different to somebody who just used their time differently. I just happened to be super-interested in that set of things, and put a lot of time into them. It had nothing to do with my degree programme – that got me into a lot of trouble from the degree programme point of view.
So am I right in saying that you decided to drop out of university and start your business?
No, not quite. I was very interested in technology but I had chosen the Finance track at UCT business school, and I somewhat greedily pushed to get permission to take a dual honours in Finance and IS [Information Systems], which, for various reasons, was an unpopular thing with the IS department. It’s a slightly comical story now but at the time it felt really quite anxious. And so I got kicked out of IS effectively, which is ironic, and we can laugh about it now – and then I finished Finance in the last year.
And then from that you basically went straight into the garage?
Ya, I tell you, the rollercoaster of life. I very precociously thought I’d have a good shot at the Rhodes Scholarship, and I didn’t get it. I thought, you know, university comes to an end but then university would start again – and then it didn’t. I was slightly mortified, and genuinely at a loose end, as I hadn’t made any provision for the year after university because I was pretty sure I would get the Rhodes.
Do you remember who won?
I think it was a Mr Cartwright... I’ve lost touch. [It was Anton Cartwright (1990F), now a Senior Associate of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership.] But it was a very good lesson in presumptuousness. You actually just don’t know what will take care of what. And it left me with a sense of an opportunity. A sudden gap. So I threw myself into it right after university, at home, much to my parents’ distress, and that 10,000 hours thing – getting really deep, getting really immersed in something that was wild and strange, and therefore not something that a lot of people were paying attention to – made it relatively easy in the end to connect the dots. I wasn’t competing with, for example, 100,000 Stanford graduates.
You were pioneering effectively?
Yeah, it was more like bushwhacking – haha. A good workout.
Right, on the topic of your success with Thawte, here’s a quote of yours on working out you’d got it right: “The moment at 2am when my Python RSA implementation produced a digital signature that Open SSL then would verify. That was quite a rush.” Do you remember that moment?
I do, ya.
And tell me about the personal feeling of that moment compared to when you accepted the offer to sell Thawte?
Oh, one is a moment of personal satisfaction. It’s a little bit like: you’ve tried your hand at woodwork and you’ve made all of these wooden parts and you fit them together and they actually fit – it’s satisfying but no-one else cares, right? In the other case, it’s a significant moment for lots of people. Both happened in Durbanville, both happened in essentially very informal settings, and I think it’s nicer that way.
Can you describe how you got the offer for Thawte?
It was a time when things were moving very quickly and we’d gone from a couple of small entities interested in this idea of connecting people for secure commerce. The simple problem is you’re exchanging information with someone who’s completely unknown to you: is it safe to give them your credit card? Is it safe to trust that they are going to do what they say they’re going to do? Half of that problem – not the whole problem, but just half of that problem – is knowing who they are. And so there were a couple of us around the world interested in that problem who started companies and who essentially said okay, for our region, however we define it, we will essentially represent that we’ve checked out someone’s identity and then people can transact. The biggest of those companies was the US one [VeriSign], and I had met them in that nervous way that you meet your most fierce competitor. And then I got a call from an analyst that sounded like it was a scouting call, and then I got a call from the company themselves, saying, we think that what you’ve built is great and will give us access to the global market. My real strength was outside of the US.
What was the technical difference between the two?
It turns out just to be a question of how you think about the paperwork. In the US it’s a big market and it’s easy for American companies to do business with American companies. And to them, the rest of the world looks enormously complicated. Hundreds of different countries, none of which are very big, in their view. So they built an operation that was very US-centric, and if you were Deutsche Bank it was really hard to get them to recognise that you were legit. Whereas I’d said, okay, in every country you have some appropriate way of doing this – why don’t we build a decentralised way of doing that, where in each country there are experts who know their local country? It was a franchise type of operation effectively, and it was understanding that the real problem was doing a good job of checking out somebody’s paperwork, and that it was more efficient to do that for the global market if you worked with local experts than if you tried to do it all from an office in California. And so they put the two companies together and that worked very well.
Do you follow Thawte today?
No. I’m kind of delighted every time it pops up in a browser but it’s not my focus. It’s interesting to see the Bitcoin phenomenon – because it’s back to crypto, right? It’s back to a lot of the same mathematics, back to a lot of the same questions about who was going to take what risk. The real question of the day for me had been, would large institutions put their reputations at risk to be that broker of identity? But as the guy from Microsoft said to me, everything I didn’t have was on the line. I had nothing to lose, whereas the IBMs and the AT&Ts had a lot to lose. Doing it from a garage in Durbanville turned out not to be a bad idea.
So, on to the Bitcoin phenomenon, a favourite WhatsApp group conversation… What are your thoughts?
I do think we’re still very early in the process of understanding of modern economics. It’s only 20 years since central banks notionally went independent. The idea of money is still pretty shallow and pretty poorly understood. Crypto is a very physics-centric way of thinking about the problem of neutral value. When you have something that is essentially useless that is hard to create, it becomes effectively a reasonable store of value; you may not need it but if you have to get one you’ll have to do something for it, swap something for it, or go and do a bunch of work. Whether you dig metal out of the ground or spin a couple of electrons around, it doesn’t make any difference.
I’ve always thought Bitcoin is plausible as money in the same way as gold is – it serves exactly the same purpose in exactly the same way. But it does have the exciting property that if the mathematics changes you’re fucked. Which has happened in the world of cryptography. Whole edifices get built and then torn down overnight because we find a new mathematical insight. These things are all built on the idea that some things are difficult mathematically, but a new algorithm will change what’s difficult. Long division is difficult until you find an easy way to do it, then suddenly it’s not difficult. What creates the value in a Bitcoin is simply that if you want to make one yourself, you can do it, but it takes time and you will have to pay a lot for the electricity – there’s no other way to do it. If we found another way to do it instantly with no electricity, the value of Bitcoin would evaporate.
Do you see a future for blockchain and crypto?
I think a physics-based definition of money is lot healthier ultimately than a human-reputation-based definition of money. Because it turns out humans don’t really maintain their reputations more than two to three generations. There is no central bank you can really bet on for two to three generations. But the laws of physics – you can probably count on those.
Then getting back to online security, what general precautions do you take?
I choose products carefully. I choose who I trust carefully. And I think that stuff matters. At the end of the day I do think you probably want to be a bit thoughtful about these things.
Do you hand over your credit card details for internet transactions, or do you look for the Thawte brand?
I think that stuff now is best handled by third-party payment processes, like PayPal, so you’re not actually handing over your credit card details to different institutions. You’ve taken a risk you can manage – only one scary trip rather than motorcycling to work every day.
Now, your trip to space. Are there any misconceptions that have arisen over the years about your trip to space or is it fairly straightforward?
It’s fairly straightforward. I think the path that might surprise people, coming back to the opening questions, is that in simply going there all of these mythologies of complexity get shaken out and you’re simply dealing with people and problems. From the contemplation of it, it seemed very grand. You know, you’re going to go to a country you’ve never been to, and you’re going to negotiate with a government that’s got a bit of a reputation, to do something that is kind of legendary. In practice it means, buy a plane ticket, and start going to meetings, and see what happens.
A lot of the reasons we might give ourselves not to just try something go out the window once you simply go there and start engaging with people. And I think that’s true for pretty much anything. If I wanted to get into something profoundly new I would simply go somewhere and start talking to people and then figure shit out. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get it done, but, all of the things you might tell yourself about why you might not get something done are almost certainly just fictitious. You just need to go there. Moscow was a very complicated place. It was a real mess. But in the end, it was just a question of meeting all the different actors and figuring out what they needed to do to do it properly. You know, talk to the people who make space suits and make a plan to make a space suit, and talk to the people who certify cosmonauts and make a plan to get certified, and stitch all of that together, and, with a bit of luck…
So, when you were sitting in your Soyuz capsule ready for blast off, were you a 100 percent trusting in the process that you’d gone through?
No! How could you be? The gantry was quite rusty. Haha! There were lots of reasons to turn around and head straight back. Actually, the only time I can remember being genuinely fearful of the process was the day before. Until then, it was really a challenge. Can I do this? What are the obstacles? Can I get through the tests? Can I contract with all of these parties, and will they honour their obligations? It was a million little challenges. The day before, you get signed off. You sit as a crew in front of the panel and they go through a long list of things that have been checked, and then they sign a piece of paper saying that that crew will go to space. And only at that stage was it truly my own choice, because there was a very nice Russian chap called Oleg who was super happy to take my place. And I shat myself, because it really came down to: do you actually want to do this?
So I went off and slunk into an abandoned, emptied swimming pool and just sat there, and my South African phone rang, which is a number that only family would have, so I thought, ah, here’s the call to get me out of this funk, and it was the wrong number, and I thought, ah screw it, let’s just go.
So a wrong number saved the day and got you into space.
It was literally someone looking for Petrus…
Of that long checklist, was there one technical challenge that was the greatest challenge of them all? Like learning Russian, or learning the technical aspects of flying into space, or dealing with the politics?
The complicated piece was the layering of all of those things at the same time. The Soviet state was abandoning the idea of having one monolithic state, and the way it used to work had just collapsed. Literally, people had been told, we can’t pay your salaries, you should form a company doing what you used to do – good luck! And then I showed up there, and I ended up having to negotiate 17 or 18 different groups. Right until about two months before, I didn’t have I contract to fly, but I had contracts to get trained, to get medically certified, to get medically tested, to study ballistics, to study survival, and all these different things that I could effectively contract to do with different groups. So it was a very interesting exercise, with no certainty in it whatsoever. Then layer on top of that complications in South Africa on how to fund it, because that required exchange control approval…
Essentially, I was trying to live in Star City, figure out how to build relationships with the various different astronaut corps, negotiate with different groups of Russians, learn how to be a cosmonaut and kind of figure out how to deal with all the back-end politics, and build a science programme all at the same time. It was layers of complexity.
So, it was basically a grand lesson in project management.
Ya, with a little bit of luck in it. I had a great team. Tons of great people pitched in, but really what was different about my experience, compared to the experience of, say, an ESA astronaut was they could have assumed that all of those other things had been taken care of and had no influence on them, but I had to stitch that all together. That’s what made it really interesting.
You say it made it “interesting” – not unpleasant or particularly challenging. You enjoyed the whole process?
Marco Polo has this great quote attributed to him that says adventure remains when misery is forgotten, and that’s true. You go out on that limb, it’s scary, it’s cold, it may be wet, it’s uncomfortable. In my case you’re sleeping in a hotel room that you know is bugged – haha – and not a very comfortable hotel room either, so you go out there because you want to see what’s there.
So, then, the big question. It’s 16 years now since you were in space, they say it cost $20 million, plus all the intense training, the project management, the media spotlight, expectations of a country on your shoulders, being pigeon-holed as the first Afronaut… Was it worth it?
Hugely so. My memories of it are all about the people and the dynamics between people effectively. And there’s all of this technical stuff and physical stuff, but somehow that evaporates and you’re left with this sense of comradery, of having done something interesting under difficult circumstances. It is deeply satisfying, ultimately, to see those threads come together. And I really felt like we moved the needle in interesting ways. Previously there was a lot of hostility to any sort of private involvement in space, but by looking them in the eye and saying I’m going to run a science programme and an education programme, I’m going to get fully certified and trained, I’m not just a passenger, it changed the perception for a certain number of them of what it would be like to work with the private sector or private individuals. They could see that I had latitude to do things that they didn’t have, and I could use that sometimes to do things better than them within the constraints they had.
A good example of that was the technology on the ISS. When I flew, their laptops up there were seven or eight years out of date, and so I said, well, I’m just going to take a bunch of new stuff, and they said, well, we can’t provide any guarantees and what if it doesn’t work, and I said, well, there’ll be some things we just don’t do. And the moment my flight finished they packed a whole bunch of those new laptops on the Space Shuttle to the Space Station because they now had proven that that stuff worked. The issue was that in their institutions there was no-one who could reasonably take that risk.
And so I think for many folks at NASA and ESA, while it was polarising, there were at least some people who felt like, actually, this opens up a lot of possibilities and we can get stuff done that’s startlingly good. We can do science in the year that it’s relevant as opposed to putting it in this long queue and therefore always being out of date. I think that it changed people’s perception of the role of private enterprise in the space industry. It certainly didn’t change everybody’s perception – there were lots of naysayers – but it changed enough people’s perspective. NASA signed a contract with me, so I could use their radio systems and they, in exchange, got access to some of the stuff that I was doing. I think that had a material impact on their thinking which now leads them to be contracting with private space companies.
So would you consider space tourism and your space trip in particular as a forerunner to Space X and the like?
Absolutely. I mean the very idea that NASA would come on track with a private entity was anathema. They told me they essentially had to change their founding documents to make it possible. It was a deeply institutional thing.
And the science? Did any of it endure?
Yeah. We took four experiments.
One was a failure: to crystalise an HIV protein in zero-G and that didn’t work.
There was a very interesting stem cell experiment. Stem cells were in the news because the Bush administration had banned the creation of using new human stem cell lines. So we took stem cells to space and that worked really well actually. There were significant findings there in regard to how stem cells multiply in zero-G. They formed clumps rather than sheets, which is what they will do on Earth. So that really got people thinking about how to mimic the conditions on Earth that had caused that in zero-G, and that’s very important in terms of, for example, injecting stem cells into people, to be able to grow them in little balls, rather than sheets that you can’t scrape off effectively.
Then Tim Noakes’s team had two experiments on me, both of which had to do with metabolism and muscle development. Those were interesting.
And then for the Russians I was another data point in a couple of long-running Russian experiments, which were exciting because they involved electrocution – haha. They had to do with understanding why and how muscles deteriorate in space, and the key insight was that what goes first is your brain’s ability to tell the muscle what to do: the muscle itself doesn’t immediately start deteriorating; your brain-muscle link deteriorates. So you feel weak when you come back even after a ten-day trip, but you’re not actually much weaker at all in practice, it’s just that you haven’t exercised those pathways effectively. It’s a very interesting bit of science.
Fascinating stuff, but sadly we must move on from space. Some routines. You work from home…
Yes, and I try to encourage other people to work from home as well. Commuting’s sort of nuts. I try to work with people who are deeply interested in what they do. If you ask why we’re hanging out together, and what are we trying to get done, I think that’s the most important question to ask, and that then forces you to try to make sure that what you are doing is interesting so that you can get interesting people doing it with you.
So if you are essentially hanging out with people you’re interested in, and you are, shall we say, multi-faceted and can steer your energy in whatever direction you want, how do you decide, in a world sort of full of data and opportunities and possibilities, what you’re going to do?
There’s a lovely bit of science that showed very clearly that people make decisions and then rationalise them. Sometimes you’ll meet people who will give you long, detailed insight into what they’re looking for in a partner, but if you meet them 20 years later none of that would have been relevant. The way they would have met the person who they spend time with is a complete accident. I think this is true of much of what we do. At some level, brains are weighing machines. What we are good at is feeling lots of different ways forward and then picking one. I’ve gotten into bee keeping, and the way a hive allocates its time effectively, or it decides where it’s going to move to, is exactly the way a brain works. The brain has lots of ideas at the same time, and they compete with each other until one wins. They get weighed up against each other at a level that you can’t rationalise. This is where I think the 10,000 hours comes in. At the end of the day, the more you’re seeing something, or becoming immersed in something, the more instinctive you are. Or the better your instincts are. So we all tend to make decisions instinctively. You can then choose how much time you want to spend rationalising, but all you’re doing is essentially explaining to yourself, making up a reason for what you’ve done.
If I look at the things I’ve done, it’s simply been that there’s an idea percolating, and it grew against other ideas, until eventually it became a thing that I said, alright, let me immerse myself in that. And some of those things have been super rewarding in one way and super cautionary in other ways, but at the end of the day I really think you have one life, it’s a short life: have diverse interests and then pursue something that connects them in a new way. If I am lucky enough to talk to a bunch of students, or school kids, I’ll say, look, go study two things at the same time, two different things, and go make sure that those are both things that interest you, and you will almost certainly be a more interesting person and have a more interesting life as a consequence. And that’s it.
And then perhaps you find a node or path that links them?
Well, there are always ways to link them, you know. We’re always trying to put teams together, because we need, say, art and mathematics, or we need law and botany. So if you just happen to be interested in law and botany you’ve got a very productive and unique future ahead of you. Go and enjoy it. And it’s even more true now in a world of AI. I really don’t think you can have any certainty of an outcome other than whether or not you are going to have a satisfying day. That all gets accessed after the misery’s forgotten, right? The simple question is, are you going to have done things that were intrinsically different and interesting? So you should start out in the way that sets you up for that.
We’re getting into tech now, which always seems to be in the news. It’s where the interest is, the money, the controversy, the potential redemption of mankind… So, tell us about the tech stonemason society where you and the Zuck and Elon and Tim Cooke all meet up and plan the world.
Hahaha. All I can say is that all of them have pitfalls. All of them have blind spots. They all could’ve come out of Wynberg, Rondebosch or Bishops. All of them have put their 10,000 hours into something that was a bit different at the time, and all of them have got a bit lucky. And the worst thing they could do is not be clear about that in their own minds.
And do you think some of them aren’t?
Yes, because I think if you are in the spotlight it looks like a mirror but it’s really a cartoon. The representation of you is really a cartoon, a caricature. And that’s always true, whether it’s mampara of the week or tech god – it is always a caricature, so you really can’t be too invested in it. If you’re too invested in it, then you will go a little gaga…
Is tech going to save us or destroy us?
We won’t get out of the pinch we’re in without tech. But tech does a lot of damage too. It’s very much a two-edged sword. The really deep issues that we have to resolve have to do with the significant imbalance of human footprint verses the ecosystems that sustain us. And we won’t address that without fundamentally changing society around how many of us we think we want to have in the world – there is no way to support an ever-increasing population – and there are some enormous consequences for that. Most economists can’t get their head past an idea that the economy has to shrink. But if your population has to shrink significantly then almost certainly your economy’s going to shrink, and you shouldn’t be afraid of that. Coming back to this idea of money and Bitcoin and all of those sorts of things, we’re very attached to certain dogmas of Western economics that are just fatal if we can’t get past them. And it’s not just enough for us to become vegan cavemen. We will need technology to make that transition interesting, to make life interesting, and fulfilling. So I’m a believer in tech but also very mindful of the damage that it does along the way.
What are your thoughts on the fact that so many extremely influential tech people were very young when they became so influential. Zuckerberg is the obvious example. Can we entrust the future of the world to such young and inexperienced minds?
No choice. Of course you can. We all make mistakes, but the advantage of youth is that you can spot the inequalities and imbalances that remain. All of us have fought for change at varying times in our life but then we become complacent, we become comfortable with life as it is. Youthful types look at the world as it is and see the things they want to change, whereas the older among us tend to just be grateful that we managed to get out of bed. I think we fundamentally have to entrust the world to the next generation and imbue them with a sense of optimism, of what’s possible, and the energy to go do what they think needs to be done. Facebook has arguably made some terrible mistakes but it also connects people in a wonderful way. The same with Google, same with Microsoft….
It’s easy to be a critic but I try to think, how do we make things go forward faster so that we do less damage on the way. A lot of what I do with Ubuntu is specifically aimed at shortening the cycle between each peak of innovation. You will have a period of making things better and then there’s a period when you’re holding things back – if we shorten that cycle, we are essentially making things better faster. I take great satisfaction in the story of Ubuntu, in how it’s enabled people to operate off a level playing field with the very biggest companies. Being Google doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage over the guy who wants to be the next Google, because there isn’t anything to afford in terms of the getting started. They’ve got nothing to lose.
Which is what you had in the past.
Exactly. Also, it’s a great way to, I hope, level the playing field geopolitically. You can be smart and in India and use Ubuntu, and you can be smart in California and use Ubuntu, and you’ve got 24 hours in the day, good luck.
How’s Canonical going? How’s it going getting Ubuntu out there? Summarise in a minute!
It’s a profoundly interesting exercise. It’s challenged me on multiple levels. It’s pretty extraordinary how diversely it’s being used. It underpins just swathes of modern technology, which is a huge responsibility. And it gives me a window into innovation at the largest companies and also the start-ups. So that’s very satisfying. It presents its challenges, but for me that I was looking for. I was looking for the hardest problem that would have the biggest impact that was really singularly dependent on someone who had that sort of unusual combination of time and resources and interests that I had. I could have done things that lots of other people could do, or I could try to do something that very few people were trying to do.
Tim Richman is a publisher and author, and editor of The Old Diocesan.