TIME speaks to the tech legend on the eve of his latest project: bringing a comic convention to Silicon Valley
On March 18, San Jose, Calif., will host its first-ever comic convention, putting a technologist’s spin on the costume-laden, celebrity-spattered, fantasy-drenched fanfest that another part of California has become so famous for hosting every year. The driving force behind Silicon Valley Comic Con is none other than Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Before the three-day celebration—which will include appearances from the likes of William Shatner and The Martian author Andy Weir, as well as a “big VR zone” and a panel about the greatest threat to humanity—TIME spoke to the Superman of computer geeks.
Below follows a lightly edited transcript, covering everything from artificial intelligence to Donald Trump to why he thinks there’s no problem with kids having loads of screen time. (Note: If you meet Woz, don’t pitch him your business plan.)
Why is Silicon Valley having its first comic con and how is it different from other ones out there?
The question we ask is: why is it happening so late in time? When you’re around the tech community, so many of them are into the comics and the fantasy it invokes and the superhero movies. It’s like nobody thought of it until now. We want to be a little bit distinct and special, so we’re going to include [technologists] in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. We’re going to include a little bit of that carryover, where science interacts with popular culture. We know that it allows the effects to be made in the movies and all that.
Why do you think people in tech tend to be really into this stuff?
Probably because we spend our lives turning little ideas that are in our head, which is like science fiction, into things that are real. Having discussions at a dinner, saying ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if somebody could do this?’ And then saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I might even try to find a way. It might be possible!’ That’s what a lot of these movies do for us. Primarily it’s still an entertainment-based show based around pop culture. But we’re making an appearance that we technologists are significant in that world.
Speaking of technologists, I know you have said that you side with Tim Cook in the Apple vs. FBI fight. But what do you think Steve Jobs would have done?
It’s unfair for someone to guess what Steve Jobs would have done. He’s such a hero to so many people. I just know from being around him—for a lot of things in his life, he really cared about people, the end users, regular people. One time I was with him and the FBI came into Apple, and there were just a few of us, maybe a dozen executives. And they explained how to watch for Chinese people that are trying to get into computers and steal our IP and stuff. There’s was no Internet back then. And Steve Jobs, intelligently, said to the FBI, “Well, we do the same thing right?” And the FBI guy said, “No, we don’t.” In my life I always put honesty above everything else, and it’s just a lie. Why bother to tell it?
I just lose faith in, especially, administrators. I think there’s evidence that Steve Jobs would have been thoughtful on this issue but I can’t say for sure, because people change over time. And I do not know what he would have said, say, at the end of his life. He just really wanted good products for people. And that’s a different issue than whether they should they be totally secure or insecure.
Personal security is an important thing in our lives. Look at all these movies, the stuff you’re going to see at Comic Con. Keeping those things secret is so critical to them. I mean, just look what’s happened to Sony. Steve Jobs, he realized, when you introduce a product, it has to be so secret that it just blows people away—grabs their mind! Just leaves them in awe, just thinking, ‘Whoa, I gotta have that.’ That’s the same thing for popular culture. You’ve got to come out with surprises so people say, ‘Oh my gosh, I gotta buy that comic, just based on the front cover. I gotta buy it today.’ Or, ‘I gotta see this movie.’ It might be as simple as who’s in it.
Secrets are part of security and privacy. If you build a product and it’s very secure, and you’re the one company in the world that keeps your word, then you made a secure product. And encryption. The bad guys, they can always just go and buy 20 different encryption programs. Remember in this case with the FBI versus Apple, they’ve already got all the metadata, every single phone call the phones made, who they were to, what the SMS messages were. They got all the metadata. I don’t know what else they’re going to get. Maybe a loose word in a phone that wasn’t even the person’s real phone, it was their work phone?
What is harder: creating that security or defending that security?
Well, creating and defending are kind of the same thing. If you asked whether creating or breaking it was harder, I’d say they’re both about equal. You need very, very smart people to get through it. But creating good security is very, very tough. Look how many companies get a hundred thousand records accessed by hackers. A million records accessed by hackers. Twelve million accessed by hackers. You just hear about this over and over and over.
Having a new festival to at least partly celebrate technologists is a reminder of how prominent that culture has become in the Bay Area. There’s been a lot of angst toward tech workers that middle-class people blame for rising rents, the gentrification in the area. Angst toward the Google buses. What’s your take on all that?
All my life, for different reasons—I kind of grew up during Vietnam War days and opposing authority—I’m always for the little guy and against the big guy who has power and money being able to buy their way. When I grew up, just a normal engineer—engineers don’t make the money that lawyers do—could have a home and cars and school and clothing and food and books, everything for the family, one person working. Now two people in Silicon Valley have to work full-time, stressful jobs just to maybe afford a home. So we lost a lot and where did it all go? We developed computers! My gosh, they made us so much more productive. Where did all that wealth go?
It didn’t really go to us, like ‘Oh, we got it easy. Now we only have to work four days a week.’ Some places in Europe might have gone that way, but we went the opposite. The powers of money control how money makes more money and doesn’t get taxed, whereas those of us who work with our muscles or our brains do get taxed. The money kind of went to the one-percenters and those are the guys who are saying they’re going to save America and bring back the middle class. They’re the ones that took it away.
So you mentioned some political issues. What are your thoughts about Donald Trump?
Donald Trump is a very rude person. Donald Trump is a very rude person. Would I ever want a child of mine to grow up talking that nastily about other people? Absolutely not. It just offends me. I watched what’s going to be an ad, I guess, of him making comments about women and I was just crying out loud, right here in this chair in my office, just crying out loud at the things that he said. Sometimes people do those things [that make you think], ‘How can that be a human-being person?’ Some of his ideas might be okay but I probably don’t agree with most of them. The Republicans to me just don’t match my own personal ethics. But, you know, if I voted, I would vote for somebody who can’t win. If I do vote, it’ll probably be for Bernie Sanders.
What do you like about Bernie Sanders?
The way he talks, these values. I have friends in those countries in Scandinavia and Western Europe that email me all the time and tell me how wonderful it is what they have, and they can’t believe the U.S. And Bernie Sanders proposes things like getting college paid for. You seen that movie Ivory Tower? So many people are so worried about starting life with such huge debt. He’s for some good things for people, for the people to have benefits, universal healthcare. We have the most privatized healthcare system of all the developed nations, through insurance companies and all. And we have the highest costs and the lowest performance. So it’s time to get more socialistic like the ones that outdo us.
There’s a lot of talk about trying to create more diversity in tech. Is that something you’ve tried to incorporate into Comic Con?
The person who is going to come to Comic Con is an interesting person to me. I hang around just normal workers and engineers in companies. I don’t hang around the higher-up people who make decisions about who they’re going to hire. And I never, ever want to hire and fire. I’ve always been at the bottom of Apple’s org chart, to this day. Most of the people I deal with, everyone I ever run into, thinks ‘Oh my gosh, we should do everything we can to be equal as far as both ethnicity and gender.’ And it doesn’t turn out that way.
A lot of that goes on in the schools. I taught how to use computers in elementary and middle schools. I taught for eight years. I was teaching seven days a week. No press allowed. And let’s look at the gender. The girls and the boys had equal answers. They understood what was going on in the computer at every stage and how to get things done. And by about seventh grade, when they’re getting into the little social problems that teenagers have, the girls who knew the answers wouldn’t raise their hand. And I noticed that.
When I took computer science—I went back to get my college degree after 10 years, at Berkeley—the computer science classes were filled with people from Southeast Asia because they’re very mathematics-smart, they’re very heavily trained in that. And they were 50-50 on gender, whereas we Caucasians were something like 90-10. Different cultures are just different. It’s just how it is in a culture. And it doesn’t mean that it’s good or bad even. As far as pay goes, I have never heard anyone who speaks common sense say that the pay shouldn’t be equal. So the fact that it isn’t is offensive.
What do you think we can do, as a culture, to make it so the girls who stop raising their hands decide to keep them raised up instead?
It’s way too hard to change in school and education. Almost all the exciting things that took me places were outside of school. The academic institutions have a problem, which is often 30 students in a class, and they’ve all got to do all these different subjects. You can’t even go off and excel at anything, because you don’t have time. You gotta do the reading and the homework. And there’s gonna be a quiz on Friday. I was hoping computers would fix it. But maybe in the future a computer will be like a human being. We’re now talking to our phones. We’re talking to our Amazon Echoes. We ask a question and it speaks back an answer, like another human being. And kids are carrying around their phones like, ‘This is my best friend in the world now. My little portal to the world.’ And if it could ever become a good enough friend to guide them in education, we could have one low-cost teacher per student and really rethink education.
What do you think about people worrying that kids get too much screen time, too attached to those friends in their pockets?
‘There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy. There’s only you and me. We just disagree.’ It’s not bad or good. What we had was good for us, and they’re missing it, so we think they don’t have good, they must have bad. No, they just have something different. It’s their future. It’s the world they live in. It’s their status quo. And I never, ever look at that sort of change in people and society as bad. It’s just the direction of the day. And you know what? Every generation sort of gets accused of that by their parents, no matter what, because they aren’t living the way the parents lived. But that doesn’t make us bad.
What are your thoughts on artificial intelligence? Do you fall more on the side of ‘It will make us immortal’ or ‘It will kill us all’?
We’re going to have a session on this at our comic con: what’s the greatest threat to mankind, artificial intelligence or super babies? I got very worried at one point. I got negative for a while, realizing that these machines are going up and up the scale, from muscles to brains, of what they’re doing better than a human. And why would you want a human, if you’re going to lose money in a company, over a computer? And then I rethought it, and I changed my mind quite a bit for reasons I won’t get into now. I hope a lot of it comes out in our panel.
What are you most excited about seeing a Comic Con?
Seeing interesting people, just saying a word to them, chatting, looking. The ones that are dressed up in costumes are going to be interesting. And attending the sessions. Looking into some of the sets and casts and movie company presentations. You’re part of a big huge crowd and you can’t go meet 30,000 people. But you might bump into one or two who think like you do, and are like you. Maybe they like the same products or maybe they’re deep, deep fans of one certain genre or one certain movie.
When you meet people, what do they tend to ask you? What are they most curious about?
Funnily enough most of them just want to say thank you, because they’re so delighted with where technology has gotten us. We are the superheroes as much as the movies used to be. Some of them will talk about how they grew up. Some of them will remind me of a time that we met, which is always good. But I can’t spend forever on people. ‘Here’s my idea. I got this idea for a company. Gosh. Oh, gosh.’ I get 12 of those a day in email and that can take up a lot of time. Don’t waste other people’s time. Be polite. Enjoy the show.
And for the most important question, will you be wearing a costume?
I will not be wearing a costume. When I was young I’d wear costumes and I’d even win contests sometimes. I was so shy, but behind a costume, it’s like the early days of computers. A shy person who couldn’t talk to people could go in and be anyone they wanted online in chat rooms, on AOL, even before the Internet. And it could really bring a lot out of them. No, I will just be totally normal and comfortable. When I put any clothes on, I sweat and sweat and sweat. So if I put a costume on . . . that’s one of my aversions to it. And why would I hide out when there are people who do want to meet me? Why would I deny them that? All I have to do is smile.