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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear