‘We Can Change the World. Let Me Show You How.’

(General Magic, Tribeca Film Festival)

I spent the last five years working (as an executive producer and original story team member) on a feature documentary about a fabled—and doomed—Silicon Valley startup, where I was the general counsel. Our company was named General Magic. It was spun out of Apple in 1990 to create the next big thing after the Macintosh, a mobile intelligent personal communicator—or what we would today call a smartphone.

Magic built an alliance of multinational consumer electronics giants and major national telephone companies to make compatible devices and host them on an interlinked global voice, email, and data service. After raising $100 million from its partners, it went public in early 1995 despite not yet having any revenue, let alone profits, and raised another $100 million.   

Magic’s hardware partners finally shipped devices that could communicate rich multimedia content anywhere, anytime, but they bombed—a classic case of an idea being too far ahead of its time. The available technology (8.5 megahertz—not gigahertz!—processors and 2,400 bits-a-second radios) was too primitive and market demand years away in the future, and the sudden emergence of the consumer internet started to obsolete closed, proprietary networks. The company sold a few thousand devices and eventually went bankrupt.

The documentary movie General Magic tells the story of this seeming catastrophe mostly through the eyes of the young engineers who started their careers at Magic and learned from failure about how to accomplish extraordinary things. Tony Fadell, the eventual founder of Nest, went back to Apple after Steve Jobs’s return and co-developed both the iPod and iPhone, realizing the Magic vision 17 years later. Andy Rubin, who shared a cube with Tony, went on to lead the creation of Android, another version of what Magic was trying to do. Pierre Omidyar founded eBay, the “electronic marketplace” Magic’s founders wanted to create, while still a Magic technical support engineer. Megan Smith sold her post-Magic startup to Google, became a senior VP there, and left to become the first women chief technology officer of the United States in the Obama administration. Kevin Lynch invented Dreamweaver and became the chief technology officer of Adobe Systems before going back to Apple as VP of technology and the head of the Apple Watch team. John Giannandrea became the head of search at Google and now leads Apple’s A.I. group.

And that’s just a few of the whiz kids—other Magicians went on to co-found LinkedIn, to head chip development at Samsung, to run Twitter’s operations, to oversee the development of Safari, Internet Explorer, and Chrome, to pioneer the natural language processing technology that resulted in Siri and Alexa, and much more.

In 1990, there were no digital phones, no smartwatches, no internet, no streaming content, no mobile multi-player games, no photo-sharing apps or sites, no online shopping, no consumer electronic payment systems, etc. If you wanted to buy a book, you went to a bookstore. If you wanted news, you watched TV or read a paper. If you wanted to find something out, you went to the library. If you wanted to photograph something, you used a camera—and took the film to the drug store to get it developed. If you wanted to watch a movie, you went to the theater. If you wanted to pay someone, you sent them a check.

The Magic mantra was that all this was prologue to the coming digital age, which we were going to create singlehandedly: “We can walk through walls and change the world.” Two of Magic’s three founders, Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson, were the core of the original Macintosh team. They felt they had already changed the world once by inventing a user-friendly machine that enabled mass personal computing—the Mac was “the computer for the rest of us,” democratizing access to tools and information, enabling community. And Bill and Andy wanted to do it again, and teach their young apprentices how.

The third founder, Marc Porat, had led the Aspen Institute’s future technologies initiative before being hired by Apple to chart the post-PC world. Marc’s roadmap for what became the General Magic business plan foresaw, in great detail, everything we take for granted today about smartphones, social networks, ecommerce, video gaming, app stores, and worldwide access to online content. It all came to be over the last 20 years—certainly massive “change.” But of what sort?

General Magic premiered at the Tribeca film festival in New York in April 2018. That was the same month as the conference held at Columbia University memorializing the 50th anniversary of the student strike that shut Columbia down in April 1968. I was a reporter then for the Columbia Daily Spectator (along with Prospect co-founder Paul Starr; both of us were among the co-authors of Up Against the Ivy Wall, the Spectator history of the uprising). Five campus buildings were occupied for a week (before being violently emptied by the NYPD) to demand an end to the university’s ties to secret war research and its expropriation of public parkland to build a de facto segregated gym in Morningside Heights, both real and symbolic issues in the larger context of the antiwar and civil rights movements.

At the conference, Paul Cronin of the Columbia film school screened for the first time his seven-hour documentary opus about the strike, 15 years in the making, for the 200 or so of the old warriors who came back to both reminisce and reaffirm their ongoing activism. Most of the audience members were in the film. As I watched them watching their younger selves proclaim the “liberation” of the campus as both harbinger and evidence of the massive social change they sought—the end of the war in Vietnam; racial justice and economic equality at home, and the curbing of the U.S. imperial world system abroad; genuine, “participatory” democracy in the university, workplace, and electoral arenas—I couldn’t help comparing them to the Magicians then and now, and their rhetoric about changing the world to that of Silicon Valley’s.

As Fred Turner argued in his seminal book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the digital utopianism of the Valley, founded on the belief that magical devices could unite people, raise their consciousnesses, and enable the creation of a new form of community, has always occluded the social and political context of technological innovation. Smartphones may connect us to each other and to the worldwide web of information, but they also connect us to the surveillance of the national security state and the invidious psychographic targeting of advertisers (and worse—Russian election hackers and other nefarious actors, as we now know) on social networks.

The supply chains for our gadgets are embedded in a global system of exploitation and environmental degradation, from the prison-like factories in Shenzhen to the villages in India that disassemble broken phones and spew their toxins into the air, earth, and water. The relatively non-hierarchical, merit-driven, creativity-fostering corporate culture of the Valley—for me, being at General Magic sometimes felt like being in the occupied buildings at Columbia, as we worked around the clock in devoted, vociferous harmony on a shared goal—originated at Los Alamos and the national laboratories that created and now run our nuclear weapons programs. The era of the iPhone has also been the era of growing economic inequality and the resurgence of fascism in the United States and the rise of ultranationalism, authoritarianism, and xenophobia in Europe and Asia.

In his book, Turner describes how the “political” (commune-forming, alternative lifestyle–adopting) strand of 1960s radicalism diverged from the “digital” (company-forming, technology-adopting) strand of the counterculture. The great challenge for Valley denizens who deem themselves progressives is how to re-twine these strands. How can we harness the practice of technological innovation, and its emancipatory potential, to the concrete processes of political change—the hard, slow, difficult work of organizing, persuading, motivating, and acting to articulate better policies, elect better leaders, enact better laws, enable more opportunity, and mitigate the effects of racism and misogyny?

Bouncing back and forth from Q&As at Tribeca about the startup experience to the impassioned speeches of graduate students on strike at Columbia for the right to unionize made me all too aware of how big a challenge this is. I’m hoping my next movie will help the Valley and movement communities to talk to and with, and not past, each other. Stay tuned.

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