Five Guys is the name of the nation's hottest purveyor of quality (that is, fresh) fast food, with 550 outlets, and another 200 slated to open this year. I have another five guys in mind: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Google). The American economy and society have been transformed over the past 25 years or so by their technical innovations and marketing skills.
Imagine how different life would be if they had chosen nuclear physics, automobile design, or burger franchising instead of digital entrepreneurship. Michael Dell (Dell), Jerry Yang (Yahoo), and many others also contributed to the re-invention of industry and culture. But these five, who were all in their 20s when they launched themselves, are now dominant arbiters of how culture and information is presented and the way we spend our time and money.
In the early decades of the past century, another group of guys played a comparable role: Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Ford were the forerunners. William Paley (founder of CBS), David Sarnoff (RCA and NBC), and Thomas Watson (who built IBM) came later. It seems safe to predict that across the country in the years ahead, young geniuses (guys is now a gender-neutral term) will devise equally spectacular breakthroughs, combining vision and execution, the indispensable pairing for such fundamental change.
Thomas L. Friedman devoted a recent New York Times column to the 40 finalists of the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search: Linda Zhou, Ranganath Puranik, Raman Venkat Nelakant, and so on. He's done this at least once before and it is thrilling to be reminded that beyond the tumultuous politics, financial shenanigans, and scandals of the moment are the rigor, imagination, and enterprise of so many teenage first- and second-generation Americans. "If we can just get a few things right," Friedman wrote, "immigration, education standards, bandwidth, fiscal policy, maybe we'll be O.K."
This optimistic thought chain came at a time when news was highlighting the evolutions of the Messrs Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Brin, and Page. Each in his own way is shaping events broadly and our personal habits with current expressions of their restless sprits.
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy is a listing of major initiatives regularly includes multi-million dollar grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for an annual total in the billions focused primarily on the eradication of disease and improvements in education. The combination of the Gates fortune and the equally vast sums provided by investor Warren Buffet are destined to have an impact on these issues; the question being of what magnitude. It is too early for any real measure of value to all these efforts, but the foundation apparently has commissioned studies of their results. The benefits of mega-philanthropy in the past have been substantial, and Gates' and Buffet are giving it away on a far greater scale than anyone ever has.
- Steve Jobs and Apple have just released the iPad (I'm in the process of learning how to take advantage of mine) and are now in fierce business competition with Bezos's Amazon and the Kindle for the digital reading and entertainment market. Bezos's move from online retail into the development of a lucrative computer-like appliance that established an e-reader market has been a significant step for his behemoth of an enterprise. Meanwhile, Jobs, who has had serious health problems, is clearly framing his personal legacy. He is said to be actively cooperating with Walter Isaacson, chronicler of the lives of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, on a biography that should provide, if anything really can, a deep understanding of Jobs' mind and motivation.
- Sergey Brin (presumably with the support of his partner Larry Page and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt) has challenged China in an area where that country's leadership seems especially sensitive by rejecting censorship of search in the world's largest Internet market. Brin was born in the Soviet Union, and until now that background has seemed irrelevant to his business activities. Brin told the Wall Street Journal that "growing evidence in China of repressive behavior" stirred memories of his childhood "having his home visited by Russian police, witnessing anti-Semitic discrimination against his father," leading him to the view that Google should not tolerate Chinese controls over information. This tug-of-war with China seems to have given Google a renewed sense of itself as a factor in the interaction between technology and global social progress.
Russian dissidents in the 1970s confronted the Soviets by smuggling political manifestos to the West, mainly by soliciting travelers to carry them. China's free thinkers (and those that are merely curious) live in another age. But Brin's instinct about freedom plainly has roots in that earlier time.
What these five guys have done and what they may yet accomplish are essential elements in the American saga. Theirs is by no means the only narrative of our times, but it is certainly one of the more hopeful ones.