“Far better to think historically, to remember the lessons of the past. Thus, far better to conceive of power as consisting in part of the knowledge of when not to use all the power you have. Far better to be one who knows that if you reserve the power not to use all your power, you will lead others far more successfully and well.”
—A. Bartlett Giamatti, former President of Yale University
We seldom think about how a company can change our culture. Or whether they have the power to do so. Usually, they just sell products. Apple, however, has taken us through a series of cultural changes, some good and some perhaps not so good.
It requires a company that is both powerful and greatly loved to change our culture. Their products, advertising and their image seep into our lives, they hope, in a favorable way until we completely identify with the value proposition of the company. That could be Coca-Cola, Nike, BMW, Disney, Amazon … or Apple. We give them our patronage because we like what they have to offer and we like doing business with them.
But when I think of powerful companies, I also think about the stages they go through. I think about the analogy to powerful people. That is, when someone is very, very wealthy, that person goes through stages as well.
- Phase I: I can buy any thing (drugs, cars, jewelry, homes)
- Phase II: I can buy any experience (ride Russian spacecraft into orbit, dogfight in a jet fighter, go on an African Safari.)
- Phase III: I can do anything I please.
It’s Phase III where some, not all, wealthy people in Hollywood and business get into trouble.
Companies go through the same phases. For example, there was a time when Apple was happy (and only able) to provide a great UNIX operating system for the creation of great things, using as inspiration, the Crazy Ones. The cool thing about the people in that commercial is that they accomplished something wonderful with their genius, talent, intelligence and perseverance — even without a computer. But you get the idea. We like to think that the Mac is the best modern tool for the creative arts and science.
But that’s no way for Apple itself to make a lot money.
Apple’s Phase II
So Apple set about the business of selling music. That was a great idea because music is a universal constant. Music inspires us. We live and breathe to the soundtrack of our soul daily. Apple changed our culture to the point where we wear our music, take our own radio station into our car, and sometimes get so lost in our music that we can escape to another world. (Of course, there are also disastrous consequences: death by iPod.)
Apple hit on a way to turn a creative tool, an infrastructure device like Mac OS X, into a money making machine via iTunes. That’s okay. Many of us listen to music while we create. And when we’re weary after our creative work is done, it’s often nice to escape into the fantasies of movies derived from iTunes and maybe Apple TV. Phase II is a dream come true for both Apple and its customers.
Apple’s Phase III
These days, Apple is in a new phase. The company has become so wealthy and immersed in our lives that it can realistically think about inserting itself into our lives even more completely. At will. Of course, with the added bonus of generating even more cash. For example, Ping is designed to make money by introducing us to the music of friends. If we like it, it’s to our benefit. And, conveniently, Apple’s. Ca-Ching! And then there’s Game Center where we can spend time with friends* as well as procure more and more games. All day long, Apple hears that pleasant Ca-Ching! of its new money machines.
Phase III is where, without conscious thought and introspection, we can slide from achievement into mere involvement. I wouldn’t suggest that everyone will do this. In fact, most adults stay fairly busy with the essentials of life, family and work. So when there’s some spare time, the choice to engage in social networking, well considered, is just fine.
What I’m referring to is the larger issues of Internet life that can affect the culture of younger people for the long term. This is described by Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. You can read the summary at Amazon, but Gord Hotchkiss summarizes nicely:
“His [Carr’s] basic premise is that our current environment, with its deluge of available information typically broken into bite-sized pieces served up online, is ‘dumbing down’ our brains. We no longer read, we scan. We forego the intellectual heavy lifting of prolonged reading for the more immediate gratification of information foraging. We’re becoming a society of attention-deficit dolts.”
Of course, if we’re well read, we already know about all that. But right here, right now, in the case of Apple, it’s almost as if Apple has grown tired of being the misfit, the rebel, the troublemaker. Instead, Apple wants to fit in — in every part of our life because that’s where the cash flow is. Apple has completed the process of cashing in on its products and brand, and now there’s no place to go except to go for the money. You can’t go wrong cashing in on narcissistic behavior.
As part of its current ambitions, Apple is eying the living room TV viewer with more focus. The company would like to do an end run around the cable and satellite companies and place itself in a premiere position as the company that sells us our commercial-free TV shows. That’s a boat rocking proposition to be sure, but also reveals Apple’s ambitions to alter our TV culture.
Apple remains everything we want it to be. It builds great products, and we love to use them. We can chose to use some and dabble elsewhere when needed to suit our needs.
The danger, however, is that Apple is becoming hooked on the power and the money. To maintain growth, reach for US$100 billion dollars in the bank, and outperform every other tech company on the planet, Apple can no longer afford to invest heavily in products and tools that serve the heavy lifters, the geniuses, the renegades. Those gifted people may have to look elsewhere for those life tools. Apple has shown that, while it continues to support legacy products for the creative, they’ll also cave to whatever is currently popular in order to increase revenues. Apple is now mainstream.
In essence, Apple has reached Phase III. It can do anything it pleases. How it handles that power nowadays will reveal additional nuances about the character and future of the company.
* Conveniently, Apple will pick a friend for you if you don’t have any.