Walter Shaw, as portrayed by Genius on Hold, was a man of nearly unparalleled genius, and so it’s a perfectly titled movie. He reminds me of one of the genius characters in Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, but come to life. And, if the movie were only about Walter Shaw’s life, it would be worth watching.
But, it’s about more than that.
Genius on Hold is about a war, between big companies and what is commonly accepted as the good of the people. And, it just so happens that this dialogue is exemplified in Walter Shaw’s own family.
Walter Shaw worked for AT&T, climbing poles and putting up telephone lines. In his spare time, he designed electronics, at home. His brilliance came to the attention of his bosses at AT&T, who quickly transferred him to the exceedingly famous Bell Labs, where the bulk of phone, electronic, and eventually computer technology was pioneered in the United States.
At the time, AT&T was a legal monopoly; they controlled all the phone lines in the U.S. Moreover, AT&T also had caused laws to be in place that made it illegal to connect any non-AT&T devices to their network. Shaw found this out later in his life when he tested a tone generator on AT&T’s lines and was sentenced to 4 years in federal prison.
But before all that, Shaw worked at Bell Labs.
He was designing electronics that were decades ahead of everything else that was being done. The bosses tried to buy Shaw’s ideas from him, and get him to sign an agreement that is now standard operating procedure in Silicon Valley, that everything he comes up with while employed at Bell Labs belongs to Bell Labs.
Shaw didn’t sign it. And, in his anger, he left Bell Labs. He went broke. In a period of desperation, he took a job creating some electronics for the New York mafia. When the FBI discovered he was the designer of said electronics, he was arrested.
And this is where Genius On Hold becomes a brilliant microcosm of our current plight with big business.
Shaw’s son Walter Thiel Shaw became enraged at how AT&T treated his dad, and how his dad refused to take matters into his own hands. Thiel rebelled, eventually joining the mob.
The beauty of Genius On Hold isn’t the revelation that Shaw was a genius. In fact, quite a few geniuses were making innovations around that same period at MIT, which has been perfectly chronicled in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. They even made tone generators like Shaw, and very few of them suffered anything like what Shaw faced.
No. The beauty of Genius On Hold, to me, is that it asks a question. We accept the laws that keep society functioning because we believe those laws enable us to live our lives and fulfill the designs of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which states that everyone has “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But, when U.S. laws support what is clearly immoral acts of major corporations like AT&T, prior to it’s 1984 breakup under anti-monopoly laws, then from where does our morality come? Who is to say groups like the mafia are wrong and AT&T is right? Both do immoral things: both are corrupt and cause deliberate harm for selfish reasons, doing damage to society at-large.
Laws do not define morality. Rather, laws stem from morality. In the case of the United States, that morality is defined by the will of the people who participate in its democratic process.
Walter Shaw died penniless. And in so doing, he brought to mind another genius inventor, way ahead of his time, who also died broke. Nikola Tesla. Both men were made broke by the acts of immoral men and corporations taking advantage of their genius, devouring them, digesting them, and leaving behind the remains to rot.
I see Genius On Hold in the context of the FCC’s rulings on net-neutrality, or the attempt by the MPAA to pass laws like the Stop Online Piracy Act, (those are big companies attempts to exert their will on the people rather than being servants of the people) I also see it in the context of what’s been happening this year in Ferguson Missouri. Justice is not being served. The will of the majority is being ignored. Genius On Hold is one excellently illustrated example of that.