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The Apple exposé

Not everyone loves Apple. In fact a lot of people loathe the company for reasons both compelling and idiotic. But mention of Apple almost invariably elicits an unusually strong reaction one way or the other. This in itself explains why so much is written about Apple in the media. People who love the company will read along to bask in the glory and possibility of a new earth-shattering way to give up their money and ignore/transcend their immediate surroundings; people who hate the company will follow along so they know what to rail against, to identify that which threatens their values or worldview, and to plan ahead for a day when a more suitable, somehow less evil global corporation can provide them with a reasonable copy. In between the extremes, plenty of intelligent and rational people find other reasons to follow Apple’s every move. Educators and policy-makers, journalists and media companies, graphic/web/industrial/fashion designers, software developers, artists, authors and musicians, activists and advocates, enterprise IT managers and small business owners alike; all have something at stake because they all accept the premise that Apple is leading the way forward (not to assign a moral or prognostic value to that particular direction).

It’s a rare day when I pick up a publication of one sort or another and don’t read (or page past) an article about Apple. Whether it’s The Chronicle of Higher Education or various ed tech blogs, all of whom seem to vacillate between staid ambivalence and unquestioning optimism about how the iPod/iPhone/iPad/apps will transform education ©; or open culture activists (not to mention content industry lobbyists) lamenting that Apple’s way of doing business is a leading threat to personal (or capital) liberties; or newspaper pundits and pop philosophers opining the decline of attention, of deep knowledge, and the art of face-to-face conversation. These are all fascinating – and often important – discussions. They are discussions that rightly revolve around Apple because Apple is the company that created the new markets in which we participate, they invented the new gadgets that we (literally and metaphorically) dissect and study, they unwittingly crafted the cultural and economic forces that, for better or worse, have shaped the first decades of the 21st century.

So it is no surprise that Apple has become a lens through which we look at other issues — issues that are much older than Apple; issues that are endemic in and emblematic of global capitalism as it has evolved over time. Exploiting 3rd world labor rates in China and elsewhere is not “an Apple problem.” I mean, if the whole Mike Daisy debacle reminds me of anything, it’s “The Jungle” a century later, done totally wrong. The identification and use of corporate tax loopholes is not one of the shiny new things Apple invented. Maintaining ridiculous cash reserves and high profit margins is not exactly unheard of in late capitalism. Manipulating strategic supply chains to your advantage is hardly frowned upon by the sorts of people who consume mainstream business news, let alone the sort who own the media corporations that publish that news. And how many companies are held responsible for the source of their electricity? And yet much of the coverage would have us believe that these are stories that can only be told about Apple. They surely do often include caveats that admit the misdirect at play, but those caveats don’t cancel out the headlines or the public perception. For one, it’s because the headlines draw in the readers, they sell copy, they increase click-through, ad revenue, etc. Lots of Apple fans have pointed to this problem in the company’s defense.

But I see no reason to defend Apple; they neither need nor deserve my defense. I’m not worried so much about Apple’s reputation as I am about the general idea that one can somehow avoid contributing to the problem by buying some non-Apple alternative. Remember that one Bruce Springsteen song about all the well-paid American union workers making Zunes and Android tablets? Yeah, me neither. The truth is, at least as far as I can tell, Apple is no better or worse (ethically/morally) than other hardware companies when it comes to putting their own self-interests before those of the labor and environmental resources they use to build their product. This is what corporations do. It’s what they are legally-mandated to do. It is tempting to say that exposing Apple is important to making the larger cases; that it will open the public’s eyes to unfair labor practices, monopolistic behavior, environmental degradation, and so on, but I just don’t think that’s what is actually happening.

I think that there is some larger impulse at play that keeps these stories coming. Something that makes people read them when they wouldn’t read a comparable story about, say, General Electric, Kraft Foods, Comcast, or Wells-Fargo. I think the public is shocked and moved and drawn in by stories about Apple because they genuinely see the company as a force for, if not good per se, then at least progress of some sort. Apple represents our clean, polished, perfect future — in our heart, we want this to be true, even if all the facts reveal that Apple is also at least equal parts our filthy, dangerous, exploiting, industrial past.

In light of the truth, journalists write the Apple exposé stories as a sort of apologia for their embarrassing adoration. We read them for the same reasons.

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