The Game of Writing About Apple: Connections

| Hidden Dimensions

“The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature and the player on the other side is hidden from us”

—Thomas Huxley

Writing about a large organization like Apple is like watching or playing chess on a computer. You see the pieces maneuvering on the playing field, but something is often missing. A true connection.

I have a new chess set, inspired by watching the TV show Numb3rs last year.

It’s from ChessUSA, a great little outfit up in Massapequa, New York. The black pieces are crimson rosewood and the white pieces are boxwood. The Kings are 4-1/4-inches tall. It’s a nice set, and as I was setting up the pieces, I was reminded that I’ve been playing far too much electronic chess on my iPad.

Chess set-1

My new chess set

Allow me to explain. Chess is a game that humans have dreamed about mechanizing, then computerizing, going all the way back to Wolfgang von Kempelen and The Turk unveiled in 1770. The game, while not trivial to instantiate on a computer, works well in the abstract 2-D (or faux 3-D) once one has the programming principles mastered. While the game is complex, the rules are relatively simple. More recently, ever since the fiction of Hal in 2001 a Space Odyssey and then, quickly after that, the real Sargon on the Apple II, we’ve been mesmerized by the prospect of computer chess.

And so, somehow we have fallen into the modern trap that playing chess on a computer is superior to playing on a chess board. We’re portable, elite, abstract, and hypermodern playing chess on an iPad. However, the sense of reality, the physical manifestation of the players, the handling of a finely balanced chess piece, the texture of the wood or metal and the intimacy of being in charge of a real army at our fingertips is gone. All that’s left is colored light.

tChess pro

tChess Pro for iPad by Tom Kerrigan

Writing about a large company is like watching a chess game on a computer. We see the tactics and the strategy. We think, if we’re a good enough player, we understand the planning and scheming behind the moves. But when it comes time to write about what we see, we’re not thinking about real people. We’re reacting to vague images on the simulated battlefield of the Internet.

Sometimes I get the feeling that some writers who cover Apple are entertaining their illusions. The company is a disemboweled behemoth that casts its shadows over the playing field, but there’s no human connection to any living entity.

In older times, reporters like Daniel Schorr, I surmise, sat in a bar with their sources. They weighed the tangible benefits of divulged secrets with the future of the source and his family. Lives hung in the balance.

Today, we live on an electronic Internet, and we’re more secluded than ever. Things are sometimes said about corporate employees which would earn the author a fist to the face if said in person. Like a video game, epithets are hurled like virtual fireballs, exploding on the LCD screens of the recipients.

Getting to Know You

When I write about Apple, it’s in the context of the Apple employees I’ve known and worked with. I am not alone. Other notable writers who cover Apple have worked there or have had long-standing relationships with Apple employees. I see in their work a certain grounding in reality. It’s as if the author is saying: here, my friend, read this. I am responsible to you for what I have written about you. If you need to punch me, fine. Then we’ll have a beer.

Other writers treat Apple as if it were a giant machine, pumping out products from faceless, distant factories, designed by denizens in the bowels of Infinite Loop. The humanity, hopes, blood, sweat and tears of 20,000 employees can be conveniently ignored because they are bound to bitter silence by their employeer.

In frustrated silence, they suffer outrageous charges, accusations, misinterpretations — all born of distance and ignorance. Over and over writers get it all wrong about Apple because their own imaginings and guesses are acceptable substitutes for the facts in a world hungry for lurid stories. Apple employees, when they have some spare time, sometimes get caught up reading those fabrications and don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Calling Apple Out

All this is not to say that Apple doesn’t make mistakes. They’ll continue to make bigger mistakes as the company grows. When Apple fails its customers, observers need to have a balanced sense of perspective and maturity. One can, after all, criticize a specific decision by Apple without losing sight of what makes Apple great. As in every endeavor, balance and judgment beat sarcasm and purported villainy.

It’s the job of the press to call it like they see it, but, like chess, seeing the glowing images on a screen is different than handling a real chess set. Or real people. For example, I grew up with a chess set in which the pieces have the faces of people and animals. That has probably influenced me…

Chess set-2

Chess set with faces, sample pieces

Facing Up

It’s very nearly impossible to not fantasize that when a piece is sacrificed or taken by the opponent, cast into the underworld next to the board, that there isn’t a glimmer of a mortal being there, serving its master, living and dying on the battlefield. Especially when you can see the faces. Perhaps that’s the allure that gets people started with chess in the first place. Or perhaps it’s the satisfaction of dropping an important piece in an imposing way with the thud of wood on wood. It’s only after years of mastery that skilled players can, comfortably, move on to the dance of abstract designs on a computer screen.

When I touch that piece with its tiny, chiseled face, I feel the texture of the player. Its fate is literally in my hand. I am responsible for its future. Every life, even when it’s the lifeless, Staunton forms of my modern crimson rosewood and boxwood, is sacred if the spirit of chess moves me in its haunting way.

May we always feel that way, but with a measure orders of magnitude greater, about the people at the companies we write about. May they always feel that even if we deserve a roundhouse to the jaw, we did it with respect, fairness and attentiveness to their existence as humans.

And then, we pick ourselves up. It’s time for a beer and a postmortem.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Join the TMO Express Daily Newsletter to get the latest Mac headlines in your e-mail every weekday.

Comments

vpndev

Thanks for a good article.

One of the things I see about Apple is the focus on users. People who work there (I never worked for Apple but know many who did and still do) have a real sense for doing cool things - for users.

I noticed it particularly in the recent Steve session about the iPhone 4 antenna issue. No discussion of “customers” - those are people who buy and you don’t see again. No - he kept referring to “users”. These are people with whom you have an ongoing relationship.

Microsoft has customers. Apple has users.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

If Apple were truly focussed on their users, they wouldn’t go out of their way to block Google Voice on iPhone. Notice that “user” and “useful” both start with “use”. Apple Visual Voicemail does not make voicemail “useful”. Google Voice with transcriptions does again.

As for the chess metaphor… The queen is nearly all-powerful. In Russia up until the 18th century, the queen could even move like a knight once per game. But modern worldwide rules took this extra bit of power away, as it is akin to a CEO answering email from customers or conducting his own press conference on a product flaw.

Nemo

Great piece John.  Journalism is a profession that does or at least should have certain ethical standards, among which is certainly a search for the truth but also a respect for those who are the source and/or subjects of one’s reporting.  So a journalist has to get beyond his personal basis—and should never be motivated by hidden agendas—to tell the truth but a truth that serves his readers, and he can’t do that without understanding and respecting, at leas as human beings, the people that he is reporting about. 

Unfortunately, journalism’s professionalism has been one of the things too often sacrificed to the progress of the Internet.  I am glad to hear that neither you or your colleagues at TMO haven’t made that sacrifice.

FlyingJoe

Very interesting piece… And a good reminder for most bloggers and for us commenters who only see the electronic version of things, and end up with skewed visions of reality.  We need writers like you to get a deeper understanding.

For those flawed commenters, they can end up repetitively repeating (yes - I know…) comments about needing tech ‘features’ from the Nerd/PC side that are not really wanted by consumers. Always believing that more complicated is better.

cb50dc

Apple has users

“So does heroin,” he replied, the syringe still dangling in his vein. wink

Log-in to comment