Dry November: Day 10

November 10, 2018

Yesterday, I went to a screening of a pretty remarkable documentary called General Magic. It premiered at Tribeca in July, and has not yet been released. The first I’d heard of it was from the friend that invited me, and I believe he had learned of it on Twitter. It was screened at Picturehouse Central, as one of the final events of Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, an annual event that apparently started in 2006 but about which I’d also not heard.

The film begins in 1989, when a project to create a new pocket computer began within Apple. What is striking from the beginning is the prescience of Marc Porat’s vision:

A tiny computer, a phone, a very personal object […] It must be beautiful.

It must offer the kind of personal satisfaction that a fine piece of jewellery brings. It will have a perceived value even when it’s not being used […] Once you use it you won’t be able to live without it.

It was to be wireless, have a touchscreen, keep one constantly connected, and be able to do things like send messages or book flights. They wanted it to be as indispensable as one’s keys or wallet were when leaving the house. In short, in 1989, Porat had written a book that not only predicted today’s smartphones, but drew detailed diagrams of them, and presumed to make them a reality within the next few years.

Porat convinced Apple’s CEO John Sculley to allow him to spin this off into an independent company, with the “rock stars” of Silicon Valley, backed by hundreds of millions in venture capital. The team devoted their hearts, souls, and considerable intelligence to the project for the next several years. They called it a “joyride,” and their camaraderie and energy is palpable throughout the film. The vision was powerful enough to galvanise their talent: “We’re gonna create what comes after the personal computer.”

It was a catastrophic failure. You can read the wikipedia article for how it all panned out, but gist is that they ignored competition and the arrival of the internet, and most of the hardware technologies either didn’t exist at all or were nowhere near portable enough yet. And yet despite the failure, virtually everything they envisioned is now a reality. While some of the most brilliant people on the team never fully recovered from the experience, some unlikely subordinates (including Tony Faddell and Andy Rubin) went on to create things like the iPhone and Android. I say “unlikely” because they were extremely junior, and not the most obviously exceptional people on the team at the time. But they were the ones who persisted through to the delivery of the reality decades later.

It is a film explicitly about failure, which is a rarity, and its treatment of the subject is inspirational enough that I would recommend the film to anyone, regardless of their interest in technology. The fact that Kerruish got many of the key figures to revisit these memories today, and to reflect publicly on the intense pain of the failure, is what makes it so profound. Afterwards, director Sarah Kerruish and one of the key figures in the story, Megan Smith (former CTO of the USA) gave a Q&A, in which they discussed human failure modes and the power of vulnerability.

But I’m meant to be writing, at least tangentially, about booze. We had not been to the events preceding the film, so we paid £10 for the tickets, which went to a charity. This was a reasonably good deal considering the screening included not just the film and an intimate Q&A, but a reception with free drinks. There were also a sufficient quantity of canapés that the waiters were ultimately reduced to begging us to take them off their tired trays as they endlessly circumambulated. An open bar is a fairly difficult place to be during a dry month, a dry spell. But I persevered and was rewarded with some exciting introductions, scintillating conversations, and even an enjoyable dinner with some excellent people we met, undiluted by drink.

If the above, by the way, is not enough to persuade you that this was a beautiful and moving film, I might also mention that at the very start of the reception, a British businessman in his fifties literally wept in front of my friend and I, complete strangers, as he reflected on how the film related to his own experiences.

I realise that I said today I’d write about MK Ultra, but upon reading my notes I decided I have too much to say to say it today, so I’ll write a longer piece elsewhere, and link to it when it’s done.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.