People in Silicon Valley can be difficult to work with. Photo: Getty
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The Evil Genius theory: do you have to be a nightmare to be truly innovative?

From Johann Gutenberg to Steve Jobs, extraordinary creativity is so often coupled with callous disregard for others.

Among the reams that have been written about Johann Gutenberg, there is one little known and telling piece. The inventor of printing, it seems, could be a brute. While experimenting in the 1430s in Alsace, he was sued by a lady with whom he'd dallied, but refused to marry. Yet her claim for breach of marriage contract wasn't half of it. When the matter came to court, the German entrepreneur attacked the woman's witness with such vulgar threats that he was fined for his foul mouth.

Gutenberg was undoubtedly a genius, but he could also be a lout. He left a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled partners behind him throughout his career, while at the same time dreaming up the most important human innovation since the wheel.

Researching his life for my first novel, I couldn't help but notice how his behavior echoed that of the titans of our own technology revolution—and, for that matter, megalomaniacal creators through the ages. Many great innovators, from Steve Jobs to Larry Ellison, Pablo Picasso to Wolfgang Mozart, exhibit a similar profile: extraordinary creativity coupled with callous, often imperious, disregard for others. Silicon Valley is stuffed with such "brilliant bastards," reported Wired magazine in 2012.

At a time when all of us, in every walk of life, are exhorted to show "innovative thinking," it is worth asking what such profiles tell us. Must we be cruel to create? How far should we accept the idea that great minds are not all that social? The experience of the world's first tech entrepreneur may help to shed some light.

Printing with moveable type was a fraught undertaking that took Gutenberg ten, if not 15, years to get to actually work. Borrowing money left and right, he turned to letters only after the failure of another venture, making metal mirrors for medieval pilgrims. Even then, he and his team—his venture capitalist, the merchant Johann Fust, and his apprentice, the former scribe Peter Schoeffer—had to overcome political, financial and technical obstacles galore. Perseverance was a key prerequisite: to hang on through that long, bumpy ride, he had to have thick skin.

Such disdain for the opinions of the herd may in fact help to ring-fence original thinking. As every artist and writer knows, thick skin is essential to weather the contempt of contemporaries while engaged in the process of forging something new. Social interaction is also antithetical to solitude; to get into the creative flow, the world must be shut out. (It bears noting that Gutenberg never married or had children.)

Recent studies show that brilliant people's brains are more sensitive to stimuli, and less able to filter them out; their emotional lives are more volatile. Antisocial behavior can be useful in keeping the world at bay, creating space for leaps of cognitive insight.

Nowadays, we've even hit on a new diagnosis of the abrasive, brilliant individual—they're neurologically different from the norm. Extreme focus and social awkwardness are common in mild forms of autism such as Asperger's Syndrome. A 2012 study, meanwhile, revealed "exceptionally high" rates of autism among high-tech workers in the Netherlands, a finding the authors extended to tech clusters like Silicon Valley.

A more recent study suggested that geeks produce more autistic offspring, though some argue that the spike may simply be due to later childbearing or higher education generally. Temple Grandin, the autistic animal scientist, remarked that Albert Einstein would be considered autistic today.

Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal, asserts that people with "Asperger's-like social ineptitude" have the ideal psychological profile for creative innovation. "If you're less sensitive to social cues, then you're not likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you," he and a co-author wrote in the 2014 book "Zero to One."

Working with such people, of course, can be a nightmare, as many who knew Jobs report, and as Gutenberg's example suggests. Yet at the same time they can inspire. Two recent biographies of Jobs reveal this dichotemy, which my novel of Gutenberg also explores. We put up with the brutal, egomaniacal boss because the work is so important and exciting. Paradoxically, they push us beyond our limits, provoking us to accomplish things we never imagined we could do.

Still, a domineering, belittling demeanor will only take you so far. We still cling to the Romantic view of the lone genius. But in technology, more than in literature or art, eventually you need a team to execute your idea. By the second coming of Steve Jobs - when in 1996 he resumed the lead at Apple after being booted out ten years before - he had at last learned to play more nicely with others.

Gutenberg, alas, apparently had not. Here is the other side of the story of his famous Bible: although the splendid book was made, the partnership was poisoned by bad blood between the genius and his banker. It blew up spectacularly in yet another court of law, and Gutenberg, for all his brilliance, was left to watch the others profit.

 

Alix Christie is an author, printer, and journalist. Her debut novel "Gutenberg's Apprentice" is out in paperback from Headline Review. www.gutenbergsapprentice.com

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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