Apple, The Perils of Power and Human Emotion

| Hidden Dimensions

The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.” — Albert Einstein

Small companies simply try to build great products. Large, powerful companies exercise their power. In doing so, they influence our emotions about them. Then human nature kicks in.

I should note first that there’s a difference between making a technical prediction based on facts and then drawing logical conclusions — and having a concern. I am simply concerned. That’s because I’ve seen what I am about to describe happen before.

The Problem of Size

Big companies almost always annoy us. It’s human nature to be annoyed when one company has too much power and becomes pervasive. Large companies manage to find enemies where there weren’t enemies before, and in the process of fighting them, greatly alarm their customers.

Apple is at war with Google over Android. Apple is at war with Microsoft, hoping to crush the PC and Windows into just a memory. Apple is at war with Amazon, trying to seize the ebook distribution market. There are solid suspicions that Apple wants into the TV set industry and the digital wallet. When a company fights on too many fronts, its decisions become compromised: it’s hard to do the right thing for the customer alone. The Big Picture gets in the way.

It’s just human nature for customers to respond to that sensation that a company has bigger fish to fry than bending over backwards for them. It leads to talk show host barbs and Saturday Night Live skits. Remember Lily Tomlin skewering Ma Bell? “We don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re the phone company.”

Human Nature

One day, the large company wakes up and finds that it’s being made fun of. Competitors figure out juicy ways to pour on the coals with clever commercials. In a polarized society, the large company becomes a fat target. Envy kicks in. Before you know it, the tide has turned. The ultra large company is seen to have moved from fighting for us to fighting the world. Then, the executives become thin skinned and defensive. Customers are seen as betrayers, especially considering what the company thinks it has done for them.

It’s human nature to pull back from open criticism. Embattled U.S. presidents typically retreat and terminate their press conferences. Public appearances are seen as an opportunity to be skewered and are therefore shunned. Similarly, Apple isn’t exactly known as an open, forthcoming, highly communicative company with the press. We’ve seen how Apple clams up when there’s a snafu.

Apple is involved in many things now. They’re no longer just that charming, boutique UNIX company that makes Macintoshes. They’re involved in a boatload of services and products: our desktops, our phones, our tablets, our music, our books, our cloud, our Wi-Fi, our Mac and smartphone apps. Apple’s ambitious know no boundaries because the company’s charter is, after all, to change the world. And so far, Apple is doing a great job of that.

My concern is that we’re technical people, and we don’t like to think that human emotion can dictate science, politics and technology. But we see that happening every day. Logic doesn’t always win, and the emotions that we feel about Apple, that they are our crusader, our defender and our hope are fragile.

Superhero

A Tightrope to Walk

Apple is a beloved company. Even so, I am concerned that in the throes of business, in the storm of war, the fragility of human nature by both Apple execs, Apple’s foes and its customers will become amplified by Apple’s size and power. Given the capability of social networks, it doesn’t take much for the tide to turn.

Where human emotions can sometimes betray us, they can also bring out the best in us. That’s what the spirit of Apple has always sought, and that’s what we hunger for. In fact, one of the most basic principles of our culture is to use power for good, even if it harms the holder of the power.

Unfortunately, that’s a tough proposition for any company in this economy. And, as we’ve seen in other cases, how a company handles that challenge dictates our emotions about it.

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3 Comments

delmiller

John,

Yes, getting stepped on by an elephant hurts. Even if it is a friendly elephant. The elephant here, in particular, is Apple; though in general one could say that the corporatocratic culture that surrounds us is a whole herd of dangerous pachyderms.

When granted the power that corporations have over our lives it is not surprising that our best interests are not foremost in their collective, corporate minds (they are people, after all.) There is certainly a danger that Apple could morph into an evil empire that ceases to even pretend to be on our side.

It seems the only thing that might constrain the behavior of Apple, or any other company for that matter, is an undying commitment to an overriding principle that trumps short term gains. Apple?s operating principle seems to have always been either ?to change the world? or ?delight the customer.? Neither is half bad for a corporate mission statement, but together they are actually pretty damned good. If Apple could just stay true to that sentiment we would probably recognize the good ol? Apple for the foreseeable future.

It?s the staying true part that?s difficult and the part where companies that promise to ?don?t be evil? fall down. Business realities interfere with the founding philosophy and reality (or that sociopathy that people often mistake for reality) almost always wins. If Apple stays on our side (whatever that means) it will be because they were successful in welding their operating principle to their operating profit. When doing the right thing means business success it tends to make you both richer and nicer.

And that is why I think Apple will actually avoid the worst of the corporate excesses that unnamed others have fallen into. Apple seems to have settled on a business model and a corporate culture that makes changing the world by delighting the customer both profitable and sustainable—and I mean sustainable in a corporate culture sort of way. Of course things always, eventually change but in the history of Apple they have more often than not driven change for the better rather than for the worse. So, at the risk of being a Pollyanna, I give them the benefit of the doubt that they might just keep doing so.

skipaq

My concern is that we?re technical people, and we don?t like to think that human emotion can dictate science, politics and technology. But we see that happening every day. Logic doesn?t always win, and the emotions that we feel about Apple, that they are our crusader, our defender and our hope are fragile.

Not sure I’m getting your concern (an emotion.) Hopefully we are people who use technology rather than technical people. The thought of logic always winning would be frightening. Knowledge and the logic that flows from it would be a dangerous arrogant thing without human emotion; especially love. I am not thinking of a romantic or even filial love. But the kind of emotion ancient Greeks spoke of as active good will.

“Do good” or “Don’t be evil” ought not to be slogans to whitewash people corrupted by power. What motivates people (companies are people) will manifest itself over time. When greed, selfishness, hatred or arrogance are what motivates people then others (including customers) will know it. Likewise, when people act out of good will towards others (including customers) they will know it. Knowing the difference results as much from our emotional response as a logical one.

geoduck

I’ve been very concerned about this as well. A brief list of why:
The lagging Mac Pro system and unresolved rumors of its demise. (Do you think GM would let rumors of Chevrolet’s demise fester for months?)
The Final Cut Pro Final Cut X debacle. It betrayed some of their most loyal customers.
MobileMe -> iCloud. Sure there are new functions but there were a lot of functions they dropped without so much as an apology. Once again they stabbed a loyal group of customers in the back.
There are many others but it seems to suggest a growing level of arrogance.

However what’s the option? I work on Win 7. I’m sure as h3ll am not going to pay for that monstrosity with my own money. Linux is amusing but has never reached the point where I could set up a system for my wife or mother. It just ain’t there yet or possibly will ever be. Android, fine for phones etc. but not for a desktop.

For the longest time Apple was the underdog that was fighting the good fight because every customer was critical. Unfortunately, dominance breeds arrogance. (Example: the MSOffice Ribbon that is universally hated but MS sticks with it because We Know Better Than You.) Until Apple gets some serious competition again I see them getting increasingly entrenched and arrogant. It’s a very bad sign because arrogant and ‘cool’ are mutually exclusive. If Apple ever loses the ‘cool’ factor then they will be in a world of hurt.

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