Interview: Shuttleworth opens up to Memeburn

An intensely private person who rarely gives personal interviews, Mark Shuttleworth spoke to about what he values most in life, why he doesn’t want to be a role model, and what the sexiest technology is around today.

The founder of Canonical and Ubuntu, Shuttleworth became a billionaire after selling Thawte to Verisign. He is the founder of investment company Here Be Dragons and The Shuttleworth Foundation, which aims to make the world a better place by investing in education and technology projects that drive significant social change. Shuttleworth also made headlines around the world when he became the first African to travel into Space.

Memeburn: Who is Mark Shuttleworth?
[This question is followed by a long, contemplative silence and then the answer.]
Mark Shuttleworth: I would say that I am primarily a student. The best thing about me is that I am a fast follower. I haven’t invented that much in life, but I have connected ideas and people.

MB: What do you value most?
MS: Health and nature and youth. I am very conscious of the fact that life is very short. I feel like we are all on a short fuse so we should make the most of our time here. It is very dangerous to think that life is indefinite because then there is no urgency to get on and do anything. I think a good life is about getting out and doing things. You may live for another 50 years, but if you get on with it you’re likely to enjoy it so much more.

MB: Do you miss South Africa?
MS: Very much so. Oddly I have been living abroad now for a decade and that has had an impact. But I will always be South African, and I introduce myself as South African because I am very proud of all the complexities of that heritage. It would be impossible to be me if I weren’t South African. Life in South Africa has this extraordinary combination of being rich and edgy at the same time. It is something that is common to a number of frontier environments, so I miss that. It is a little bit frustrating to be in places where things work the whole time, because there is less to be done and it is easier to get complacent in those environments.

The places in the world that are agents of change are usually places like South Africa or Malaysia, or places where there are real challenges to solve and people have to come up with interesting new ideas and ways of solving them,. I miss that, and the sense that things really do matter, which I think is true of South Africa.

I don’t miss the sense that the only thing that matters is South Africa. South Africa has to be part of the global dialogue. But because the country is so rich and complex, people often don’t realise the importance of understanding, participating with, or connecting to the countries around them in the broader world, and I think that is frustrating.

Having lived abroad, most of the people I have worked with in London were from all over the world, and there is always this uneasy frontier situation because you are never going to be local where you are. But then you are also never going to be local back home either. I guess I’ve become a bit of a wanderer to a certain extent. I have very strong roots and a very strong identity, and I feel I have a responsibility to work globally and think globally whether I am inside South Africa or outside of South Africa.

MB: What do you think about others wanting to emulate your success?
MS: What they don’t realise is that I have also had tricky setbacks. I am not necessarily a role model in every respect. I would hate to live a life where I am afraid to cross lines that may cause affront. I guess I have it a little bit easier because I am not that much in the public eye. But I didn’t set out to be a role model, nor did I set out to be perfect. I set out to learn, and in that sense, my life has been very satisfying.

Another thing is that there are very few things that I do that you could only do if you were in my very lucky position. I live off a tiny fraction of the wealth that I am entrusted with. What I am saying is that you can live a perfectly satisfying life without the same kinds of success that I have had. Ultimately many people do. It is a bit of a red herring to think that you need to get as lucky as I did in order to be something in life; I think that’s just nonsense. I meet people all the time that I admire, that live satisfying and thrilling lives. But they have very different kinds of adventures, and challenges, and successes.

MB: What are the most exciting innovations you’ve seen internationally?
MS: The things that are most exciting are the ways in which computing is becoming wearable. It is becoming so tightly integrated into our daily lives. The computer isn’t just a work device any more. It’s an entertainment device, it’s a communication device, and it’s how we talk to our friends and our families. We spend more time talking to our friends and our families through a computer than we do in person. I don’t think that is a bad thing, because we are talking to people wherever they are in the world.

This whole sense of truly immersive wearable computing – you could be walking down the street and you will just know that your friend is in a book shop over there, so you can just walk in and say hi – is wonderful because of the immediacy of that computing.

On the other side, there’s this huge sense of scale in cloud computing where we are headed for data centres with ten million computers in a data centre that will be a big city of machines. Obviously I am passionate in making sure that Ubuntu is first choice for platforms for that sort of environment, which is something of a challenge that will keep me out of trouble.

MB: Do you still have dreams?
MS: I have different dreams now. I guess I like making or finding interesting connections. I think that opportunity always presents itself in person. So in order to find opportunity you have to be out there and talking to people. So most of my dreams are about things that I have come across or into contact with and which could grow and turn into big open dreams.

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