The Silicon Chip Mafia

In the aftermath of Littleton we seemed to have discovered an alien culture in the heart of our society: teen-agers. In the last few months, we’ve all become amateur anthropologists, cataloging the cultural practices of high school. Whatever causes kids to explode in violence, we’ve concluded, it must be related to the intensely hierarchical nature of teen-age life. But Littleton wouldn’t have happened had the killers not had access to the necessary technology, and expert knowledge of how to use it. This intimate relationship with technology puts them within a long tradition of teen outcasts finding refuge in gadgetry. From greasers tinkering under the hoods of their souped-up cars to science freaks building rockets to the time-honored boy prodigy who takes apart the radio and puts it back together again, adolescent boys have found shelter and solace in mucking around in whatever technology they could get their hands on. In this limbo between the worlds of toys and work, it’s bound to happen that some kid’s toy will turn out to be more powerful than his elders think it ought to be.

Sunday night’s Pirates of Silicon Valley (9 p.m. on TNT), the story of the battle between Microsoft and Apple for the control of the personal computer desktop, tells the tale of a few such kids from the ‘70s, Bill Gates and Steven Jobs, who realized while still schoolboys that their toy computers had the potential to become extremely powerful machines. Gates and Jobs, so the story goes, were high-school oddballs who compensated for their malnourished social lives by forming intimate relationships with technology. (Actually, Bill wasn’t an outcast in high school, and his past is littered with such non-nerdy activities as football and water-skiing. Jobs, on the other hand, was apparently the kind of kid everyone loved to beat up on.) Littleton’s Trenchcoat Mafia and the computer nerds both had secret languages by which they could communicate with the few who understood them. But it was Gates and Jobs who hit upon a machine that would communicate with them in a secret language, the universal language of ones and zeros. Moore’s Law, which says that the price of computer processing power is halved every two years or so, combined with adult myopia at companies such as IBM, made it almost inevitable that the masterminds of the personal computer would come from this teen-age tinkerer class. That former members of this class (but do they ever really grow out of their teen-age social habits?) now rule the business landscape suggests that maybe the strange ways of high school are not quite as alien to the adult world as we would like to believe.