It’s not that Mark Zuckerberg, Travis Kalanick, or Jack Dorsey are unscrupulous; it’s that they don’t seem to have any idea what scruples are.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who’s relied on me off and on for thirty years for tech advice, came to me with a complaint that his iPhone 6 — then barely two years old, out of warranty, but a month or so short of being off contract — was shutting down at random, even though it still seemed to have plenty of charge left in the battery. We rounded up all the usual suspects to no avail, then hauled ourselves off to the nearest Apple store, where the genius at the genius bar, assisted by Apple’s own diagnostic tools, rounded up all of her usual suspects, and concluded that there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with his phone — except, of course, that the random shutdowns made it at best unreliable, and at worst, unusable. At my suggestion, my friend paid off his old contract, and replaced his suddenly unfaithful companion with the then current model, an iPhone 7. Two months later, I read that Apple was replacing batteries for free in out-of-warranty iPhone 6’s exhibiting random shutdowns, with no questions asked, and, as usual for Apple, no explanations given. A year later, again with no explanations given, Apple began throttling iPhones with aging batteries which could no longer supply the necessary voltages under peak load conditions.
It’s been painful to watch Apple get Twittered, Facebooked, and ultimately sued over this whole affair. The fact is that those of us who were aware of the limitations of lithium-ion battery technology, Apple engineering executives above all, should have seen this coming. The very things that make the iPhone magical — its pocketable size, its ever-increasing computing power, and its appliance-like simplicity and ease of use — are also, to a greater degree than Apple marketers would have us believe, based on an illusion.
The sad truth is that Apple had painted itself into a corner bounded on the one side by an understandable, if misplaced confidence in its own hardware and software innovations, and on the other by a misguided attempt to protect the technological innocence of its customers from the consequences of their own addictions.
Marketing has its own imperatives, and as any marketing expert worthy of the name would probably concede, a certain blindness to the long-term consequences of its own cleverness has never been much of an impediment to its operating budget, or to its status in the corporate hierarchy. Until, of course, the shit hits the fan. Then the public dance of recriminations is performed, and everyone concerned goes back to business as usual. Except for the hapless consumer, who’s inevitably forced to grumble, sigh, roll his or her eyes, then pay whatever the going rate is to get back on the road.
Apple could have done a lot better a lot quicker. Its customers love what it promises, even those of us among them who know to what extent the promise exceeds the current limits of technology. Progress requires us to dream forward, and to accept that sometimes along the way our reach will exceed our grasp. That said, a little more transparency from those at the pointy end would be welcome. Infantilizing the consumer as a path to marketing success has all sorts of support from the countless schools of social science pilot fish who’ve attached themselves to corporate C-suites in the postwar decades. God forbid that I should deny what their statistics are telling them about our human vulnerabilities. I would ask them, though, to consider how they feel when their own strings are pulled.
Watching President Trump try to beat the Congress into submission has been a uniquely gruesome experience, but also an edifying one. For decades now, the dysfunction of the federal government has been something sensed rather than seen, partly because it was in the interest of the political class to keep it hidden, and partly because the media, ever conscious of which side their bread was buttered on, shared that interest.
Today we’re told by Marc Short, the President’s director of legislative affairs, that the White House is simply “asking that the Congress do its job.” I wonder if he, or his boss, for that matter, has any idea just how big an ask that is. If the experience of the past 40 years or so is anything to go by, the problem isn’t that the Congress won’t do its job, it’s that it can’t. Our tolerance for venality, it seems, has drawn the veil over an alarmingly complete incompetence as well. What happens when you bully a moron? Nothing good, I’m thinking, but with the two-minute warning already being signaled, it looks as though we’re about to find out.
A question for Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and all the rest of the Confederate flotsam and jetsam clinging to the present occupant of the White House:
The White House, that supposedly august parsonage of liberty’s American church, was built by black slaves. Do you really think you can make us forget that?
1. Look out for your family, friends, and people who’ve got something on you.
2. Starve, bomb, incarcerate, belittle, or humiliate everybody else.
3. Elevate assholes.
4. Listen attentively to morons.
5. Support the troops.
The future is not apps, the future is functionality. The sooner you guys get done fighting over the money, the sooner Siri, Alexa, Cortana, etc., can be addressed as fully rational creatures, and we guinea pigs consumers can get on with sorting out the blessings and curses of this new symbiosis you’ve been threatening us with promising us.
President Obama: Trapped in his own ever-so-judiciously-created paradoxes.
Mitt Romney: Lie, cheat, steal, and grin: it’s all he knows.
The American People: Once again, getting what we deserve.
He (or she) is a teacher (or an employer.)
These kids today — I deal with a lot of them.
No. Not this. Not again.
They don’t like to work, and they don’t know anything. They can’t spell, they can’t add a column of figures. They can’t find France on a map, fer Chrissake.
I pull my iPhone 4S out of my pocket, hold it up to my ear.
Tell me about France, I say.
Five seconds later, the screen shows a zoomable map of France, with a virtual red push-pin sticking out of Paris. I hold out my hand, palm up.
Do you know the average age of Apple’s work force? I ask him (or her.)
The answer is 33. For Google, (which provided the map) it’s 31. Whatever is wrong with the country today, young people aren’t it.
From Dani Rodrik’s Europe’s Next Nightmare in Project Syndicate:
The challenge is to develop a new political narrative emphasizing national interests and values without overtones of nativism and xenophobia. If centrist elites do not prove themselves up to the task, those of the far right will gladly fill the vacuum, minus the moderation.
That is why outgoing Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had the right idea with his aborted call for a referendum. That move was a belated attempt to recognize the primacy of domestic politics, even if investors viewed it, in the words of a Financial Times editor, as “playing with fire.” Scrapping the referendum simply postpones the day of reckoning and raises the ultimate costs to be paid by Greece’s new leadership.
A more moderately-worded view of Europe’s delusions. Then again, Rodrik doesn’t need to shriek — he isn’t looking directly down into the abyss. He’s over here on this side of the Atlantic, where we have our own problems with democracy. There are many pathways to the legitimacy conferred on a government by the consent of the governed. Europe can’t seem to find any of them, while we seem to have given up looking. Given that modern history hasn’t tolerated either form of benign neglect for very long, there doesn’t seem much point in preferring one over the other.
Today, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung online, an editorial by Heribert Prantly which makes, among others, the following point:
In der Spitzenpolitik wurde dieses Referendum diskutiert, als habe Premier Papandreou vorgeschlagen, die Demokratie in seinem Land durch ein russisches Roulette zu ersetzen – und als gelte es daher, dem Premier die Waffe wieder aus der Hand zu winden; das hat man denn auch getan. Dabei hatte Papandreou nichts anderes versucht, als die Demokratie in ihr Recht zu setzen: unzulänglich sicherlich, undiplomatisch, ohne zuvor an Angela Merkel und Nicolas Sarkozy wenigstens eine SMS geschickt zu haben.
Er hätte sein Vorhaben früher ankündigen, es besser vorbereiten, es hätte Teil des Euro-Rettungspakets sein müssen. Aber auch mit der falschen Verpackung und falsch dargereicht bleibt eine Medizin eine Medizin; man muss sie besser einsetzen, zur richtigen Zeit und in richtiger Dosierung. Eine Volksabstimmung ist kein Allheilmittel, sie ist aber auch kein Gift. Wer in einer Demokratie das Volk, den Demos, befragen will, ist zunächst einmal kein Narr, sondern ein Demokrat.
Or, as I translate it:
In senior political circles, this referendum was discussed as though Premier Papandreou had proposed replacing democracy in his country with Russian roulette, and as though it would therefore be appropriate to wrest the weapon out of his hands, which was in fact what was done. But in acting as he did, Papandreou had sought to do no more than give democracy its due — inadequately, to be sure, undiplomatically, and without having so much as sent Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy an SMS beforehand.
He should have announced his plan earlier, prepared it better, it ought to have been part of the Euro rescue package. But even in the wrong wrapper, and improperly administered, a medicine remains a medicine. One need only introduce it more properly, at the right time, and in the right dosage. A plebiscite is no cure-all, but neither is it a poison. In a democracy, he who wants to submit a question to the people, the demos, is first and foremost not a fool, but a democrat.
I agree completely, and can only add that it never ceases to amaze me how thoroughly people who consider themselves the intellectual and moral elite of their respective countries, the custodians of our modern, post-industrial civilization, discount this simple truth. Poke them a little, and none of them actually believes in democracy. That’s their right, I suppose, and no doubt they have their reasons, but I’d have more respect for them if they didn’t expend so much energy trying to convince me otherwise.