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  · Joy After Sun
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Sun Microsystems
Joy After Sun
With his corporate ties cut, the 'Edison of the Net' speaks freely on the challenges facing Sun, the Net, and, of course, Microsoft.
Monday, September 29, 2003
By Brent Schlender

Tell me a little more about that sixth phase, after you wrote the Wired article.
I came to view that article as my version of either public service or public penance. I eventually found that it's not fun talking about not-fun stuff all the time and trying to think of ways to shoot down arguments people use to make themselves happy but which aren't true. It's a very negative energy, and I just couldn't do it anymore. I mean, what good did Orson Welles do scaring the bejesus out of people with War of the Worlds?

You see, the book initially was to be a warning book. But Sept. 11 rang a bell louder than any bell I could possibly ring about the perils of the world. And we've had other warning shots that have raised people's awareness of some of the things I was going to write about: We've had SARS, we've had mad cow disease, we've had weapons-of-mass-destruction as the word of the year. Just saying there's a problem is no longer sufficient, so now I'm thinking of more of a prescriptive book. And I have some ideas.

If I were to propose one thing that we as the human race need to do, I'd say we can't let the future just happen anymore. If too many of the possible futures are catastrophes, we have to try to steer down the less dangerous paths. That implies that you somehow have to manage markets, geopolitics, and human behavior in the way we have become able to manage the scientific process. Those are inconceivable things.

So what does it mean to apply design to the choice of our future? I don't have a good answer for that. It's an existential question: If we don't choose, the choice will be made for us in a way we won't likely want. But it's so much more convenient to go on pretending that the bad guys aren't out there and not acknowledging that all it would take would be some teenager making a minor modification to a virus like Sobig that could shut down all of corporate America.

Or even something random. Look at the big power blackout in the Northeast.
That's another result of flawed design, because the grid wasn't really designed at all; it just evolved into what it is. Why did the state of Michigan, which had plenty of generating capacity to supply its own needs, go black because there was a problem in Ohio? Can you even build a grid like we have now that is reliable? It may not be possible. Can you secure it against people blowing up the power poles? That's what they did in Iraq. Pipelines and everything else are vulnerable too.

So the real question is, What does it take to get past one of these evolutionary dead ends? One answer is an extinction, which is the kind of catastrophe nobody wants. The alternative is to design a whole new approach to ultimately replace the old one.

Amory Lovins, a neighbor of mine, talks a lot about relying more on local generation of power than on these large centralized plants and the big power grid. If you get local, renewable generation using wind or solar, and you use more energy-efficient devices and hydrogen fuel cells or some other noncarbon technology that doesn't generate greenhouse gases, and develop some kind of power-storage technology so that you can have it in reserve rather than have to be so dependent, then you wouldn't even have to have the grid in many places.

The grid we have is partially a result of regulation. Do you consider that to be the antithesis of design?
It's a very clumsy form of design. It's about preventing bad things, but it also often makes presumptions about what is possible that turn out to be limiting, that prevent better solutions from emerging. So instead of prohibiting things, a much better way is to provide economic feedback reflecting true cost, so that things you don't want to happen cost more than the things you do want to happen.

What is the actual cost of greenhouse gases, for instance? If you create a marketplace mechanism to solve that problem, you will probably end up creating wealth, and people would stop doing the stupid things they do now because it doesn't cost them anything. The Soviet Union collapsed not because of communism or central planning, but because of corrupt accounting. They couldn't organize the means of production because everybody was lying about everything. It was a game of fake numbers, and when you do that, you get crap for answers.

Why, really, did you leave Sun? To become more involved in public issues like these?
There's no ideal time to leave a company, but I feel now that all the projects and strategies at Sun are in good hands. Sure, I could've found another project that needed incubation. We had one to design a new kind of network data-storage architecture that involved 20 or 30 people that I could've stayed involved in. It doesn't have a code name that starts with a J, though.

The problem with big projects like Java or rewriting Unix or designing the Sparc chip is that they require a five-year commitment. So when you come right down to it, I had to decide, "Do I want to push this big rock up a hill again?" Not this time.

Bill Gates faced a similar choice with his Longhorn project. He probably has a lot of great ideas and all these brilliant people, but he also has this antecedent condition he has to take into account—keeping it somewhat in sync with the old Windows. So the beautiful vision may fail because it has to be compatible. I've often wondered why they can't, for once, do something new. I mean really, really new? But then, when I asked myself that same question, that's when I knew I had to leave Sun.

From the Oct. 13, 2003 Issue Article Page: < Previous 1 | 2 | 3



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