Sunday, May 16, 2010

Apple and the Political Compass

I've been a little wary of "political compass" tests, because the first one I saw was basically designed to make it look like everyone agreed with the US Libertarian Party (Big-L Libertarians). You obviously can't reduce all political thought, even all current mainstream political thought, down to two axes, but if you're going to try at that, this political compass site does a reasonably good job, and offers some insightful analysis of various positions.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs has made himself look silly yet again over the app store. There's a lot I've already said about his “freedom from porn” schtick, but what really interested me here was the beginning of the discussion. Apple has constantly associated itself with revolutionaries and anti-authoritarians (small-l libertarians) in its marketing -- notably Gandhi, and as mentioned here, Bob Dylan. But Apple's behavior is clearly authoritarian. That's the reason so many people are put off by Apple's campaign. Apple controls the app store economy; I think a significant part of their behavior is honestly aimed at improving the platform for its users and small developers. Based on this sort of analysis, they probably belong in the authoritarian left quadrant of the political compass graph. Clearly not as extreme as Stalin, perhaps somewhere near the Pope (scroll down to the “International Chart”). Compared to UK political parties (so much more interesting than US ones), depending on your reading of Apple, they probably fall somewhere along a rough line between Labour and RESPECT. But they position themselves with the Greens.

It's clear why Apple does this, from a marketing perspective. Young people often fall in the lower quadrants of the compass, and are likely to be more inspired by lower-left quadrant revolutionaries and artists than the upper-right quadrant establishment icons that Apple more closely resembles in truth. Apple wants to make money and steer its platform to lasting success for itself, which is its right as a business. But it should be clear why associating with Gandhi, Einstein, Mohammed Ali, and Bob Dylan while doing that is dissonant business.

ADDITION: The relevant Marx quotation (as Marx's writings really set out authoritarian leftism) here is from the Communist Manifesto, in the chapter Proletarians and Communists (translation by Samuel Moore): “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality. And the abolition of this state of things is called by the bourgeoisie, abolition of individuality and freedom! And rightly so. The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at.”. Obviously Apple is not a leftist organization within the larger context of society, but as it regulates the iPhone/iPad software ecosystem, its goal is to guarantee new types of freedoms for its users and declare the old types bunk. That makes it analogous to the economic Left, but it's really only an analogy — the Communists' “new freedoms” were revolutionary while Apple's are a bunch of banal bobo crap. Anyway, as it enforces its policy by controlling the App Store, it's analogous to an authoritarian state in the context of its own platform.

My political reading of Apple is purely based on analogy, and surely many other companies act similarly regarding anything they can control. Apple specifically invites this sort of analysis and criticism, however, by constantly invoking anti-authoritarian icons of politics and art in its marketing. It's a common trait of bobos, and Apple is one of the most bobo companies ever to bobo. As with other bobo-centric marketing (note Danielle's hilarious comment), it's annoyingly dissonant at best, and deceptive at worst.


heatrose said...

i like this post, but i wish it'd been called "macs and marx".

also, in france, the word "bobo" seems to be used in a way similar to the american(?) "hipster". what is your take on the word? or on both of those words?

Al Dimond said...

Yes. That would have been a better title by far.

Bobos, to me, are rich boomers that spend their money on different things than their parents and think that this makes them revolutionaries (that's a rather unsympathetic telling of one side of David Brooks' description of them). They were inspired by 60s bohemia and have inspired many people across economic classes in younger generations... so their marketing tricks tend to work on people our age. Those would be the hipsters (as hipsterism is usually a temporary phase that ends by 30).

I usually think of hipsters as specifically urban creatures, usually white and with enough money to live comfortably as long as they are young and healthy and not trying to raise families. This can be complicated by old peeople romanitcizing that lifestyle, but if they own (not rent) their home, drive to work, dress decently, hold a salaried job, or don't regularly get wasted on shitty beer on weeknights, they're probably not the genuine article. This may vary country to country, of course.

Anyway, for now boomers have a lot of power in the corporate world and I'd generally say the weirdest and most disingenuous marketing comes from them. So that's what I mean by "bobo marketing".