Apple, The Perils of Power and Human Emotion

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.


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.