Apple, Amazon, and the Future of Capitalism

There I was, furiously hammering out yet another daily essay, when my “O” key popped out of its cozy little square in defiant rage, flew through the air while I watched in horrified amazement, and — wham!!! — hit me squarely in the nose. As if to say “Oh, no. Not today, Umair. I defy you!! No more torture at your hands!” (which is how I imagine you too, dear reader, sometimes.)

It was time for a new laptop. Cue Jaws music. Not being a geek, events like this fill me with a little dread. What’s a SATA? A terabyte is…bigger than a gigabyte? I need how many cores? You don’t say. I hoped I’d just do what I always do, every few years or so. Try to ignore it all, cruise over to Apple, order the newest laptop, more or less the same as the old one. Phew. Done. Easy. I’d have a few years until my new laptop got angry enough to hit me in the nose. Sweet relief.

Now, I do basically three things on my computer. Reading, writing, and music. Lucky for me, weirdly for me, this time, I did a little research. And I discovered that the 2018 Apple laptops have some kind of ruinous audio bug (at least if music involves external stuff, like speakers.) So I figured, hmm, maybe I’ll splurge and get an iMac Pro, like a grown-up. I’ve always wanted to be one. Then I discovered that all the 2018 Apple computers have that ruinous audio bug. Then I discovered the bug has been around for a year, only Apple doesn’t seem to care at all, even thought it affects every single computer Apple makes. Wait, what the?

Well, my friends, after a day or two of bafflement and confusion, during which I pondered — horror — getting a PC, I made a strange, funny compromise. I bought a new Macbook — but I had to buy a year-old version. The latest one was too buggy, too compromised, for me to buy — even though that’s the one I wanted. How, well, Microsoftian is that? Can you remember the last time you had to do that kind of thing — deliberately downgrade — when it came to Apple? I can’t.

Now, the reason I tell you this story isn’t so that you shed great, wailing tears for me. Go ahead if you must, though, I won’t stop you, it’s always nice to be appreciated. It’s so that we understand Apple’s latest profit warning, which is the first since 2000 and something. It’s been a long time since Apple was anything but the most successful company in the world. So is that changing? Has Apple peaked? Ouch! My “O” key just hit me in the face again! Conspiracy? That’s the wrong question — twice. A better way to think about it all, if you ask me, is this.

Apple and Amazon (Facebook, Google, etc) — they represent two very different things. Futures. Possibilities for capitalism, human enterprise, creativity, labour, ideas. And if Apple doesn’t get its act together — or if it can’t — then which one is winning, happening, more likely?

The Amazon — Facebook — Google future is a weird, gruesome, outlandish, freakish dystopia. People work in warehouses where their bosses are algorithms — but don’t have decent healthcare, incomes, savings — all so that other people can have stuff delivered in two hours, versus two days. Then they come home, where their “communities” are also algorithms — algorithms tell them what to think, who to befriend, whom to date, what to read, what to buy, and so on. In this future, people aren’t really human beings anymore — they are just interchangeable commodities, just “information”, whose digital representations are endlessly “arbitraged”, bought low and sold high — who are exploited at every turn. First for their physical labour, then for their intellects and creativity, then for their emotions, relationships, sexuality, curiousity, empapthy, and sociality. All these are strip-mined, and what’s left is a smoking, carved out wreck — of a society, democracy, planet, person, future. In this future, people are a little deader, crazier, angrier, dumber, meaner — doesn’t it feel that way a little bit already?

Is the Apple future different? Is there such a thing as “the Apple future”, or is that an absurd thing to say? Think about the world roughly a decade ago, in 2006. Watch a movie from that time. Things seem strangely, oddly antiquated — like people are living in a prehistoric world. Why? No iPhones. Apple really did change the world, my friends. So are Amazon, Facebook, and Google. But not in the same way.

Apple is more or less the best that we can hope from capitalism. That doesn’t make it perfect, or even good. Just the best that we can hope for, really. Or at least it has been. It treats its employees pretty well. It tries to ensure its contractors treat theirs well. It takes its environmental impacts seriously. And of course it makes beautiful and useful things, which it sells for relatively high prices, sure — but not exorbitant ones — ones which change the world. Insulin costing you as much as a laptop, because some hedge fund decided it could — that’s predatory, unfair, terrible. Charging you a few percent more for a laptop — that’s reasonable. Nobody’s put into life-crushing poverty because they needed an iPod, or they’d die (no matter what your preteens say.)

But that thing, that laptop, has to be the best one in the world. It has to be a thing of genuine beauty, grace, truth, and power. It must be well thought out, cared for, nurtured. It has to be a little life-changing. Can you do all that for, through, a “product”? I’d say Apple did — for a while. But it appears to be slipping lately, doesn’t it? It isn’t just the weird bug that made me buy last year’s MacBook. It’s also the Apple Watch (sure, maybe you, like my dad, have one and love one — but it’s not been a raging success), it’s also the last Mac Pro, it’s also the HomePod. It’s also lacks of things that should be there, but aren’t, absences. My shiny new Macbook doesn’t have any USB ports. Argh. What the? Planned obsolescence has always been the Achilles Heel in the Apple future. You see, in this brighter future of capitalism — where companies actually do remarkable things which change the world in positive ways — the catch is that they must constantly do them, for profits to grow. They can’t merely appear to do them, market them, say they do them. It feels, though, as if that’s where Apple’s headed. Why?

Apple and Amazon are the world’s first trillion dollar companies. That’s no coincidence. They are flip sides of a coin. They test two very different hypotheses, about two very different futures. Apple is testing the hypothesis that as an institution like a profit-seeking corporation grows to become larger than many government, countries, societies — it can still keep its ideals, its élan vital, its founding character, its spirit of rebellion — while keeping a sense of responsibility. That it can still take care of its people like a family — while treating its customers like one, too. These are hard things to do, my friends. They are conflicting, competing concerns. It’s all too easy as an institution grows that large, that powerful, to simply toss them all aside, and cash in your chips — and become the same old kind of baleful, gross, evil monopoly that capitalism has always been made of, from Standard Oil to Goldman Sachs.Apple is testing the hypothesis that higher prices equal better things — not just better products, but also better jobs, ideas, benefits, stores. That world is a little more costly — but it is also more beautiful, true, fun, cool, and above all, human.

Amazon, on the other hand, is testing the hypothesis that none of the above matters. Nothing does, really. Not just to it — but also to you. That the only thing that matters is the lowest price, in the fastest way. That’s it, period, full stop. How many times have I ordered something from Amazon in the last year just because it was dirt cheap, and it was delivered lightning-fast? I can’t even remember. It’s terrible — but it’s also a little stupid, because I’d say about 99% of that stuff has ended up being junk, either defective, unusable, or shoddy, often all three. But Amazon doesn’t care. Why should it? It’s like the world’s biggest, worst, sleaziest mall. Hey, there’s a stall selling widgets for 99 cents!! Stampede!! Nothing matters but the cheapest stuff — the fastest. Even if it’s ugly, dispiriting, dismal, gross, useless. What’s that world like? It’s not a very nice one. In it, people don’t have decent jobs. Decent benefits. There are no stores — there’s just one website, and it’s not exactly pretty. Creativity, beauty, truth, genius — none of these things count, endure, matter in the Amazon future. (That’s not to say that Apple’s future is made of Einsteins and Michelangelos and Ingmar Bergmans. Just that it’s a little fuller of the things that matter — that’s the best, remember, we can hope for from capitalism, really.)

These two futures stand in stark opposition. Ugly, gross, and meaningless — but convenient and cheap. A little truer, more beautiful, fun, interesting, human, and real — no, not like a great book, just like the first iPhone — but also a little more expensive (and thus better paid.) The world’s two first trillion dollar companies are really competing hypotheses, that are testing which one the world will settle for. Is there “room for both”? Sure there is. But not in the way that you think. Apple can’t exist as a company like Faberge once was — making super-duper diamond-covered eggs for tzarinas and baronesses. That’s hyper expensive — and hyper useless — and you can only really serve a tiny, tiny number of ultra-wealthy that way. Apple can only exist as a company which makes things which are beautiful, useful, expensive, but also affordable for most people. It’s very, very hard to do all four.

You see, in the end, it’s easier to be Amazon than Apple. It’s easier to set up the world’s biggest, most crowded mall — and sit back and laugh as the herd stampedes to whichever stall, in desperation, cuts prices to rock bottom today, because there will be another one tomorrow, and tomorrow, and you’ll only ever get richer. You don’t need to do anything really — quality control, marketing, branding, relationships, finance. You just keep on adding space to your mall, and renting it out.

Being Apple is harder. It’s always going to be harder. And it’s never, ever going to get easier. It’s going to be just as hard this year as it was last year, and the year before that. It’s always going to take being the best. The most creative, the most empathic, the most attuned, the most fiercely dedicated, the most uncompromising, the most rebellious, the one who really wants something better. As far as capitalism will allow, anyways. That was Steve, remember?

And that difference is the danger, my friends. It’s much harder to be an Apple than to be an Amazon. We’d be poorer without an Apple, and yet it’s easier to sit back and exploit people into the ground. But if capitalism can only give the world two kinds of Amazon, in the end, if even companies as interesting and remarkable as Apple end up like the same old monopolies that have ever been — then it has failed in yet another way, too.

January 2018

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