Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak: Creative Technology? Never heard of it

Posted on 09 March 2011

Getting topnotch speakers to a civil servant-run event on raising productivity isn’t enough to encourage innovation in Singapore.

By Fang Shihan

steve wozniak

Photo: Campus Party Mexico

THE event started off promisingly enough, with the Other Steve slated to speak about: “Innovation and Creativity In the 21st Century”. Organised by Singapore’s WDA and NTUC LearningHub, the session began with a keynote speech by Ms Josephine Teo, Assistant Secretary General of NTUC.

Oh no, you heard alarm bells going off too? Government? A People’s Action Party Member-of-Parliament? INNOVATION?? *beep beep!* cognitive dissonance!


The event marked the launch of the DRIVE (DRiving InnoVation Excellence) series, a list of keynote speeches comprising of big shots (like Steve) who will “impart their knowledge and experiences on innovation solutions and applications for competitive advantage and business excellence” to eventually “build a more productive, high-performing work environment”.

Productivity drive lah. You know, the 1 billion dollars that Tharman allocated to the National Productivity Scheme? This is part of it.

Here’s the logic: The local workforce needs to be more productive to compete in the world market and to reduce dependency on a foreign slaveworkforce. Government needs to keep the economy buzzing. Government therefore needs to do more to raise productivity. Being more innovative helps companies find better solutions to their productivity problems.

Looking like a wide-eyed schoolgirl (a cute one at that), Ms Jose enthusiastically rolled out the reasons why Singapore should innovate, what the government is doing to help PMETs and why we should achieve innovation excellence.

Now you can start scratching your head. Innovation excellence? That’s like saying ‘creative best’ – and what marks the difference between innovation excellence and innovation mediocrity?

I’m just being pedantic. Let’s move on.

No one’s going to argue that Steve exemplifies innovation. The guy designed the first, and then the second Apple computer which in his own words “had half the parts and ten times more things than any other low cost computer.”

But it wasn’t so much of his string of successes that struck home, it was his beginnings as an outlier in the education system. As a high school student, he was the anti-social, over-achieving nerd who garnered top grades and awards. The kind you’d flip in the dustbin just for the heck of it.

However, he did have a teacher who told him to pursue his passion for computers by going down to a company once a week to program. There were no computers or programming in his school back then.

Later on, he began munching through computer manuals that he found at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre after office hours when “the smart people that worked there left things unlocked”.

It was clear during the Q&A, after his speech, that this struck a chord with an audience all-too-familiar with the rigid education system. It’s not so much the science of an apple computer, or the creativity within both Steves that put Singapore and the U.S. on different levels of innovation development.

It’s how children are taught when they’re young. Imagine if at age 10, Steve Wong decided that he wanted to be the best programmer in the world. He stops paying attention during history or Mandarin classes because of his obsession with coding. Is his form teacher going to encourage him to pursue his interest? Or will he be chucked into remedial classes after school?

Where do the smart overachievers end up? Somewhere in the civil service serving a PSC scholarship bond.

Or, imagine Steve Wong now age 16, decides that he wants to do some research in NUS. Sorry, security just got tighter and you need a pass to enter the labs. Now, I’m not advocating trespassing of tertiary institutions by teenagers who may or may not know better but you get my point.

Steve Wozniak would not and could not have founded Apple if he grew up in Singapore. He may not even grow up to be the still-excitable-over-new-ideas Steve we know today. After all, where do the smart overachievers end up? Somewhere in the civil service serving a PSC scholarship bond.

More tellingly, it wasn’t his speech that drove home the message that Singapore really should be labelled de-innovation hub. It was the questions that came after.

One educator asked Steve, who volunteers as a teacher, how to ‘teach’ his charges ‘to be creative and innovative’. Our man, clueless about the very Singaporean tendency to conflate processes and goals, replies that he frees his students up to explore their own directions. His innovation is in the delivery of the teaching content, and not the content itself. This point may have been lost on our local educators.

Another asked if the race for grades spoils the learning process, which probably wasn’t a very good question to ask a man who never scored less than over-the-top grades while he was a student. He did however, leave some food for thought when he explained his motivation for forgoing Stanford or MIT for Colorado while he was picking his University. It wasn’t the pedigree, or the reputation of the school – it was the snow that attracted the Californian. How many local parents would allow their children to enter anything but the ‘best’ schools for their grades?

Education system aside, the internet and the brain that starts with ‘G-O’ (it’s not God) has opened up opportunities like none before, for self-taught inventors to learn skills via online content. Steve donates computers on a regular basis (even before the internet was invented, he was quick to add) with hopes that students could exploit the network of users for their own knowledge.

How then does he feel about censorship in schools?

“schools have a right to censor things to a certain extent. That does not affect what’s censored at home….I’m sort of a no censorship type of parent but if a parent wants to censor their child that’s fine. That should be their decision in their home. We’re all different… [but]…that’s one thing I don’t have a good answer on. Because I tend to fall into the free speech side of things. That’s different from schools with young people.”

So, do what you want Singapore. But in Steve’s world, the trend-setters get space to be creative, support to be innovative, and… free speech.

We have to be kidding ourselves if we think we can buy ourselves to becoming an innovation hub by splashing out a billion bucks on a productivity scheme and inviting big shot speakers over.

Fundamentally it even seems conflicted to bring a speaker to speak about innovation when all you’re really after, are solutions to be productive.

When laundry services evolved from Dhobies balancing sheets on their heads to rows of washing machines in shopping malls, it didn’t require much innovation. Just some product research and capital investment. Furthermore, innovation requires certain amounts of inefficiency, redundancy, unaccounted-for ‘play time’ and the freedom to do nonsense that won’t immediately be anything more than nonsense. Tough for a government so hell bent on results.

So, de-nnovation capital? Here’s what Steve Wozniak had to say when he was quizzed about the pride and joy of Singapore’s early startup scene – Creative Technology.

“I’m not too familiar with it. Maybe you can tell me more?”

Shows you where we stand in the world of innovation.

This post was written by:

- who has written 230 posts on New Nation.

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  • XJ

    Creative ideas stem from the freedom to think, but our society clearly does not offer that liberty given our conformist and non-confrontational culture.

    Questions, even dumb ones, are a sign of a critical mind, but Singaporeans tend to extinguish sparks of creativity in a vice of self-censorship.

  • Fong

    say what we like. THE MAN IN WHITE just dont get it

  • Nave

    Love your writing style. Good stuff

  • bliz

    The juxtapose of choice of words “Never heard of it” and “Shows you where we stand in the world of innovation.” with “I’m not too familiar with it. Maybe you can tell me more?” reveals the personal mission of some Singaporeans to mock and deride local brands, while at the same time showing the great tact Steve Wozniak has.

    • Jimmy Lee

      Dude, when was the last time you bought a creative product?

  • eiizumi
  • chenghao

    The education system is meant to churn out workers not innovators

  • Serene

    Is it possible to write an article in a tech blog that doesn’t demean women?

    Seriously, “Looking like a wide-eyed schoolgirl (a cute one at that), Ms Jose enthusiastically rolled out the reasons..” Is there a need to point out the appearance of the speaker? You wouldn’t do this if it had been a man.

    Also, “Ms Jose”? Her name is Josephine Teo. Would you diminish a male speaker by appending a cutesy nickname after a “Mr”? Have some respect, please.

    • seriously?

      i seriously see no reason to be concerned about the phrase. i believe the write will produce the same effect if the speaker was a male.

      the difference i see however, is the way you see this issue. while everyone else is focused on the main point of the article (about innovation) u decided to step on the dog’s tail and digress the discussion.

  • Ms Jose

    Heard of NUT? No U-Turn syndrome.

    This government doesn’t even give us enough leeway to decide where we can make U-Turns and just mark more dangerous junctions with No U-Turn signs. Here, you can’t not make any judgement, if they don’t explicitly state you can make a U-Turn, don’t even think about it.

    That’s just an example of the stifling environment this government has built so what innovators are they hoping to get?

    (…and to Serene, No. It’s not possible to write an article in a tech blog that doesn’t demean women.)

  • yawns

    get a grip pls, feminists.

  • Ricky

    Funny, but i remembered Creative sued Apple for the infringement of patent for its ipod and got 100 million USD in 2006…so forgetful har? :)

    • Steve Jobs

      Steve Wozniak is an innovator… he is not involved in the business side of things in Apple. He has his own life.

  • Terence

    @Serene ehhhhhh, we demean both men and women on this website. so stop being so sensitive. and just so you know, the writer’s a lady.

  • Karen

    I suppose raising concerns about sexist writing and having them belittled or trivialised is not sexism in action? The fact that the writer is a woman does not make it ‘OK'; far from it. Just goes to show how unaware and insensitive we are as a society with respect to gender issues, and the taken-for-grantedness of subtle forms of gender discrimination.

    I, too, used to think that gender issues and feminism are products of people being overly-sensitive and over reacting to ‘normal’ issues and events. But it’s like riding a bicycle, once you learn how to do it, you cannot unlearn it. Once I started seeing the pervasiveness and importance of gender issues, I could not ‘un-see’ or remain immune to them.

    Having said that, I do think the article raises important issues about education, creative learning, entrepreneurship and Singapore’s economic dreams, and it was cleverly written. Thanks for the insights.

    • Belmont Lay

      You have a point. Therefore, we’d really appreciate having someone like you on board our writing team.

    • sh

      I’m stumped. How else am I suppose to say that Josephine’s a chio woman?

  • terence

    @Karen I appreciate the efforts put forth by feminists and queer theorists to call out the inherent gender and sexual inequality that exists in our social institutions. But I will not hesitate to call out Serene over quibbles that, in my view, are insignificant. To NOT do so would be sexist. So here’s my take: It just so happens that the mere subject of our derision is female. Also, as you point out, the sexist issue is hardly the main point of the article.

  • Anonymous Coward

    Why so much rage? UMAD?

  • Butch

    Feminist? Really? I know some real feminists and I can tell you they don’t jump through the roof for every little thing. These women are strong and confident. Strong and confident enough to be against the women’s charter cause they expect a level ground for all.

    THAT’S a feminist. Not the female opportunists you get here who are quick to yell foul, but expect doors to be open for them and bills to be picked up by their dates.

  • Fiona

    Everyone can think and be creative.

  • Serene

    I hardly think making a note of the inherent sexism in this article is a “quibble”. Sexism should be called out when it occurs; ignoring it or letting it pass merely exacerbates the problem. Pointing it out will raise awareness and help to educate.

    I’m not here to be overly sensitive or argumentative. I came here for the article after all. I see my mistake was in not making mention of the contents of the article itself – in which case, my comments would have been, “great article; it’s amazing this guy has never heard of Sound Blaster.”

    I apologise that the tone of my earlier comment seemed uptight or “rage”y. It wasn’t meant to insult or belittle. I just wanted to point out the unevenness inherent in these, and many other, communities.

    • Lucy

      I read the phrase again and again and found that the writer wasn’t meaning to be demeaning. I think sometimes people read into things. This has been proven through tests conducted by psychologists with regards to perception. People generally have references from themselves and thus most things become subjective.

      The fact in this matter has been clearly stated: THE WRITER IS, HERSELF, A FEMALE. It is clear from Serene’s initial comment that she assumed the writer was male because she stated “You wouldn’t do this if it has been a man”. That is an arrogant conclusion. For all we know, the writer could have written “Looking like a be-spectacled professor of history (a geeky one at that), Mr Wong enthusiastically rolled out the reasons why Singapore should innovate, what the government is doing to help PMETs and why we should achieve innovation excellence”.

      The whole point to the writer’s phraseology was to highlight the cluelessness of our NTUC board when it comes to true innovation (instead of productivity). The writing was done to highlight the incongruence by juxtaposing the kind of speaking representatives we had (from NTUC) with the actual nature of the topic being spoken about.

      I, as a woman, stand up for sexism. But Serene, this was not the case for this writer, who is also female and has no reason to put us down. Recognize the intention of the writing. That is more important than reacting on the words on the surface— this kind of reaction is more indicative of you as a person and your personal frame of reference than the writer’s preferences.

  • Roy

    Damn… the feminist talibans are here

  • seriously?

    i like the writer =)

  • Xnsdvd

    I love how Steve completely disregards creative despite the fact that Apple as a whole is sore about the lawsuit. There’s an air of snarky, “Thou art beneath my notice” that I wish more people would adopt when picking fights.

    And how exactly is Jose a cute schoolgirl? There isn’t nearly enough porno-paraphernalia in existence to pull that look off. I’d have pegged her for a dominatrix though…

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