As the debt ceiling hullabaloo is still ongoing and vastly depressing, I’m going to blog about a general idea that bugs me — that of the singular brilliant “auteur” — which has recently spread to this technology article in the NYTimes contrasting Apple and Google.
To summarize my previous argument about singular auteurs:
The recent revelations of Robert Johnson’s sped-up recordings show that even the most idealized and individualized romantic musical figure — the traveling bluesman who sold his soul to the devil — is just as co-dependent as everyone else. Homer was probably multiple people; Emily Dickinson needed the support and encouragement of Thomas Higginson; and Robert Johnson had a nosy producer. If anything, I find this reality much more assuring than the God-given myth of great artists, because it reminds us that prodigious talent is not the result of magic folks coming out of the clear blue sky (or another world), but products of an individual and community effort.
The Times story suggests that Google’s design team is hampered by “design by committee.” This is a long-standing joke, but frankly, “design by committee” can yield superb results. Consider Chartres Cathedral: there’s no greater “design by committee” example on earth. How many craftsmen over how many years put together that glorious building, and yet, no one would say that its design was the work of any one man. Is it a victim of the shortcomings of “design by committee”? Raymond Carver’s stories are as much a response to Gordon Lish, his editor, as they are a fully-grown one-man production.
And yet, we want so much to believe that some magical individual person is behind our products (or our music or our art, etc.). When people go to a restaurant with a celebrity chef moniker, they expect that the chef is back in the kitchen actually cooking the food. Instead, the chef has delegated the responsibilities for the menu and cooking to his executive chef at the restaurant. This sort of “design by committee” all works well, and no one complains that they are not eating the food of the “auteur” (until, of course, they discover that Emeril isn’t really back there!).
Google’s method of “design by committee” gave us a better browser than Apple, a better maps app than MapQuest, a better mail program than, well, anything really.
This is not to devalue the contributions of Steve Jobs, who undoubtedly turned around Apple’s fortunes. It is worth thinking that there are many paths to great art, and nowhere is this clearer than in another company that Jobs helped to turn around — Pixar. I can’t think of a better example of “design by committee” pursuing excellence and hitting it almost every time.