The Simplest Patterns

Steve Wozniak is arguably among the greatest, if not the premier inventor of the second half of the 20th century. His vision of invention helps us to understand patternmaking and unique artifacts.

I found Woz’s talk fascinating. Treated as a rock star by an overflow crowd at Boston’s venerable Symphony Hall, Steve did not disappoint his audience. With history, jokes, personal anecdotes, and wonderful stories he held me and I think most of the crowd spellbound. I was most fascinated by what drove his invention.

He told us that since he was a young boy he loved mechanical things and in particular electrical circuits. And from the time he was in 6th grade he played with electronics becoming a ham radio operator at age 10. He loved to see if he could build devices with fewer and cheaper parts. With the arrival of cheap integrated circuit chips, Steve switched from the analog to the digital world. He sought to build or to rebuild circuits using fewer and less expensive chips.

This passion for simplicity and elegance made his great invention the Apple II computer an icon and the archetype for personal computers to this day. Woz talked of making chips do multiple things so that he could use fewer of them. He spoke with great pride about replacing a circuit board with 100 component with one. He loved the creative contest to see if he could make things with fewer chips than anyone else.

His passion is our human passion. For chips are fundamentally patterns, patterns etched in silicon. We want to make patterns that perform a task with as few “chips” or patterns as possible. We want to use our patterns for multiple purposes so that we don’t have to replicate them. For Woz simplicity was not only compactness, it was cheaper. Patterns are always expensive for our brains, we not only have to construct them we have to fill them and share them. If they are too complicated, if they are too hard to use, if they are too hard to remember or to share, to store or retrieve experience, then they literally cost us too much.

We are all driven as Woz was to build our artifacts to be the simplest and thus the most elegant patterns that will work to hold a portion of our experience. His genius that brought us the Apple II is our genius as we construct artifacts everyday when we cannot rest until we have made those patterns as simple and thus as elegant as possible.