The nerds have inherited the earth. THEO PANAYIDES meets one who is keen to see children encouraged to think differently
The first time I glimpse Mark Tuttle, he’s talking to three younger men in the offices of IdeaCy in Nicosia. He’s standing up, the three are sitting down. They seem, like Mark himself, to be American. I assume they’re entrepreneurs (IdeaCy is an “incubator” and “accelerator” for new ideas, providing office space and mentoring for teams pitching possible start-ups) – maybe even part of the three-day Startup Live Cyprus event, which ends today. Mark is speaking of the war in the former Yugoslavia, and the Serbian army in particular; I don’t catch the context, but he seems to know what he’s talking about. Mark Tuttle knows a lot of things, indeed knowledge – more than any particular trait – is a big part of what he brings to the table. ‘What’s your specific area of specialisation?’ I ask. He smiles: “I’m a generalist”.
Time is short; he has a flight to catch. It’s nearly 2.30, and a taxi’s picking him up from his hotel at three o’clock. Yet he can’t stop talking, like a gourmand reaching greedily for one last morsel even as the tray’s being taken away. We talk about all kinds of things. “I’m not a hacker, but I had to study hacking,” he confides at one point (his main business these days is Cryptografx, a company specialising in online security). “I had a company in India for two years,” he muses a little later. “Another business of mine was sound-on-sound recording, so I built a series of recording studios and ran them as businesses,” he says, thinking back to his 20s. He’s a musician and a photographer. He talks of Gabor Maté, a Hungarian-born doctor who’s made extensive studies of drug addiction and ADHD. He talks of Democracy Now, a news programme he watches religiously – one of the few media outlets that continues to cover topics (Julian Assange, for instance) which our leaders would prefer to be quietly forgotten.
Mark has blond hair and blue-green eyes; he looks younger than his 51 years, which he puts down to good DNA on his mother’s side. He’s been a design engineer for both medical and mechanical companies; he’s designed parts for the F-22 stealth fighter and the General Motors EV1, the world’s first mass-produced electric car (it was made in the 90s then discontinued, due to pressure from the car-making industry). He lives a peculiarly 21st-century lifestyle, the kind made possible by Skype. His home is a small Austrian village near the border with Slovakia, but his business is in California and he spends between one and three hours every day Skyping with the West Coast (he also fields a daily onslaught of 300-400 emails). His life is “time-shifted,” he explains, so he goes to bed around 5am – nine hours ahead of his associates in San Francisco – and wakes up around midday.
How did he even end up in Austria? He got married, he says with a shrug, to a “complicated” Austrian girl he met in California. “She was gorgeous and exotic, and I didn’t know much about women so I was like ‘OK, this is a good one’!”. He laughs, with no trace of bitterness; his face is rather baggy, giving him a look of relaxed anticipation. “It ended up that she wasn’t the right mentality for me. She didn’t understand me, what I was doing and why I did things. She just liked the money”. I’m a bit startled that Mark’s being so honest about his ex-wife (I didn’t even have to ask), but it seems to be part of his temperament: he won’t apply a filter, even when it comes to his own life. A little later, he talks about his sons, aged 15 and 14: “The 15-year-old boy is like me. So he doesn’t do well in school, he’s really smart, he’s awkward. And the 14-year-old is just like my wife – he’s like, Mr. Social!”. He pauses then adds a caveat, as if remembering that it is, after all, his own kid he’s talking about: “He’s intelligent, also – but he understands communication so well.”
Mark, too, is all about communication these days – but he wasn’t always. What was he like as a teenager? “I was a nerd,” he replies firmly. “I was very introverted in those days. Now I’m, like, an extrovert, but I went through a long process to teach myself how to communicate with other people”. He may even have a touch of “high-functioning autism”, he reckons – an innate awkwardness that left him slightly alienated in the world of high school. He didn’t go to parties, “didn’t go to the prom, never went to dances. I hung out in the Chess Club at lunch. All those people were foreign to me, all the rest of the people”. Chess Club people were fine: they were fellow nerds, they were “awkward people”. Oddly – or not so oddly – his technology provider at Cryptografx is one of his old Chess Club buddies, a brilliant computer scientist who could play three or four games of chess blindfolded simultaneously back in the day, and is now at the cutting-edge of secure authentication for online accounts.
That’s the point, of course: the nerds have inherited the earth, that slight quirky stiffness which made them better with machines and systems than fellow classmates turning out to be just the ticket in a world run by computers. “I had to learn how people work, so I could understand them,” explains Mark, listing the study of human nature as his main interest. “I learn all the time. One of my main interests is learning” – though one senses that he learns with a semi-conscious agenda, so he can teach what he learns. He’s taught English at a Montessori school, and Business Administration at a private university. Above all, in recent years he’s turned to mentoring, sharing his knowledge to advise and inspire entrepreneurs with ideas for start-ups.
What counts as a start-up? The working definition is “a company that’s doing something new that doesn’t have a predictable or measurable outcome from traditional business”. It’s not how big (or small) you are that determines a start-up, it’s how original or revolutionary your idea is. But why should a former electronics whiz-kid and design engineer be so keen to transform the world of business? The answer lies mostly with the missing piece in Mark’s personal jigsaw – his late father, who passed away from brain cancer about 15 years ago but was also his mentor as a child, sparking his curiosity and helping the rather nerdy boy to engage with the world.
“My dad was a serial entrepreneur before it was fashionable,” recalls Mark. He was always getting new ideas, then trying to make them work with no money. One of his brainwaves was a big success (he invented double-sided magnetic material, and made signs for military clients to put on their filing cabinets), allowing him to make a living just from that, but meanwhile he also made his son an accomplice and hands-on sidekick. At six, Mark was working for his father, taking devices apart on Saturday mornings – Dad had a company selling military-surplus electronics from the Vietnam war – and sorting the screws. At 16, he was working for himself, founding the Best Bike Rack Company which ordered bicycle racks from a manufacturer in LA and sold them to apartment blocks housing university students. “I ran that for three or four years,” he recalls, “while I was in and out of college”.
He finally dropped out of college, probably for the same reasons why he’d always done badly in school (“It wasn’t so interesting”) – but the point was never sterile knowledge, the kind one regurgitates to earn a degree, but curiosity, the thirst for knowledge. He and his dad “used to play a game,” he recalls: after church on Sundays they’d drop off his mum and sister at home and drive around suburban Santa Barbara looking for garage sales, a random person’s clutter laid out in their front yard. “Then we’d look at stuff, and I had to ask ‘What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?’ – and my goal was to learn what everything was, so I didn’t have to ask my dad anymore”.
It’s the same curiosity that drives the start-up community – what he calls “the oddballs, those who think differently” – and the same curiosity that drives Mark himself, whether talking of new ideas or staying up all night in his Austrian village, reading about the world. There’s actually a certain despair behind his relaxed bonhomie, his ongoing study of human nature having revealed that people aren’t always very smart. “In America, we call the people that don’t really pay attention to things ‘sheeple’,” he says. “And America’s full of sheeple”.
Everything’s too easy these days, he sighs: everyone is pampered, over-fed and consumer-minded: “We buy products now that last for three years, then we throw them away and buy a new one”. In return for material comforts, people have become passive and conformist, easily managed by the political system. “There’s a lot of people that their parents didn’t bring them up to think – and schools aren’t teaching them to think. They’re teaching them how to be compliant, how to learn something to get a job, so you’ll make money and not make a revolution, not complain too much, get married, have two children, pay your taxes,” he declares hotly. “I think one of the features of most educational institutions is to reduce divergent thinking and creativity”. He cites a study in the UK which tested kids for divergent thinking (“thinking about things differently”). In kindergarten, it found the vast majority of children capable of “genius-level divergent thinking”; by the time they’d graduated from high school, it was down to about 5 per cent.
Is that so surprising, though? Surely kids realise early on that a certain way of thinking will bring them more rewards and an easier life?
“An easier life?” he repeats acerbically. “Oh, is that the goal? An easier life?”
Well, doesn’t everyone want an easier life?
“Maybe. Or an interesting life. What’s interesting? If sitting at home and watching your big screen in your nice house, and driving your Jeep, and going on holiday for two weeks every year – if that’s all your curiosity needs to be fulfilled, great, that’s easy.”
He’s being sarcastic – but in fact Jeeps and big-screen TVs would indeed satisfy a large segment of the population. In a way, Mark Tuttle still hangs out at a metaphorical Chess Club like he did in his high-school days, subtly alienated from most of his fellow humans even if he’s grown much better at communicating with them. His life, after all, is unusual, swinging between two extremes, either super-sociable – immersed in crowds of smart young people from Kosovo to Sweden to Albania, and now Cyprus – or snug in his custom-made bubble, the soundproof office in his Austrian basement (there’s even a piano, in case he feels like playing) and the nightly Skype-commute across the Atlantic. Even now, however, he’s not too keen on going out socially (unless it’s to accompany his girlfriend, a local politician, to some village function). “Well, it’s kind of boring,” he opines when I ask about meeting people just for fun, without any angle. “I’m not really going to gain anything personally by going out”.
Mark will always be a bit of a nerd, I suspect – but that, plus his father’s early mentoring, may be the secret of his success. “I just don’t take easy ways out on things,” he says at one point – and he’s talking about keeping fit (he always climbs stairs instead of using the lift) but he might be talking of his reflexive non-conformism, his zest for the new and original. It’s important to try and think differently, he says – and even more important to share that message with younger people.
Kids no longer have role models, laments Mark Tuttle. Both parents work, the extended family is a thing of the past; they no longer have “uncle Tom, who has a great farm, or uncle Bob, who works on cars”, relatives who’ll invest in a child and answer his questions. “All those role models are gone – so who are the role models? Who’s on MTV, who’s on YouTube. Justin Bye-ber, Bee-ber, whatever his name is”. He shakes his head sadly: “If you don’t have a good mentor, how’s a kid going to reach beyond eating and drinking, and getting a girl in a fast car?”. Then – talking of fast cars, and the very fast taxi he’ll have to locate so as not to miss his flight – he zips out quickly, still talking.