My Saturday column in The National (online edition), July 25th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
What next for capitalism as Apple keep the must-have gadgets coming?
OUR gadget-girl friend came round the other night, to officially show off her new iWatch. The family gathered round, oohing and ahhing, tapping and flicking. Dress us in pinafores and waistcoats, and you’d think it was the first crystal radio set in the tenement.
But desirable? Like the geek said: Hell, yes! Apple have this way of insinuating themselves into the space between your intentions and your actions. They do it by making their devices not just connected and information-rich, but as well-fashioned as the favourite tool in a tradesman’s kit-box.
When you need to know, or arrange, or buy, or say something, so usable is an Apple appliance that it’s your first port of call. Never mind the person standing right next to you.
Surprisingly though, as I commandeered my friend’s wrist, I felt a buried but tangible aversion. What – more portable stuff to lose or break? More messages and notifications? Enough, enough… The anxiety became clearer the moment I strapped it on. It began to immediately measure my heartbeat, then send me physical nudges from our pal’s iWatch-wearing pals.
OK: it’s now on my skin (not forgettable in a pocket or bag). It’s unexpectedly touching me back. Capturing my body data. Sending it to a medical provider you know about – or a government agency you don’t.
I took it off, slightly relieved. But will I eventually succumb, as I have done with all the other “i”s – Mac, Pod, Phone, Pad? Christmas will tell.
I have very hard-core tech mates whose contempt for my Apple appetite is limitless. “Fisher-Price toys for self-infantilised adults”, they mutter. “Program or be programmed. Code, or be encoded thyself”. They then slam down their bitter espressos and leave for darker business, the Wolfie Smiths of the post-Snowden era.
But, as critique, that’s just not good enough. Apple are now so successful that when they announce record-breaking quarterly profits, as they did this week, they still lose $50 billion from their stock-market valuation – because they haven’t provided quite enough detail on their iWatch sales.
By any measure, it’s a rosy picture. For example, they’ve doubled their iPhone sales in South Korea, the very home of Samsung. Their CEO, Tim Cook, expects the rising Chinese middle-class to graduate to their products, as an aspirational marker.
There are well-evidenced rumours – given the amount of automotive talent they’re signing up – that Apple’s next big device will be an iCar, in tune with Silicon Valley’s current fever for self-driving automobiles. (What a patsy I’ll be for that, as a bohemian dumpling who’s never learned to drive. To the next salon, Robo-Jeeves…)
Other than the intermittent flurry of stories about the workforce at their Foxconn factory in China, chucking themselves off tall heights as the pace and conditions of manufacture intensify, it's hard to see how Apple’s round-cornered, softly glowing juggernaut could be in any way halted or even dented (except by its avid competitors).
I was harbouring these not-very-radical thoughts as I sat on a panel a few days ago with Paul Mason, Channel 4’s brilliant and energetic economics editor, whose great synthesising tome on what he calls "postcapitalism” is just about to come out.
I thought I had a near-spiritual faith in the powers of the open internet to shake up everything from manufacturing to democracy. But in PostCapitalism Mason goes one better, deploying hard data and eclectic theory to suggest that an end to capitalism (as we know it) is practical and do-able. And the evidence comes from the ways we already share, copy and collaborate through computers and networks.
I’ll explore Mason’s book more thoroughly – and how it can inform Scottish progress – in the Bella Caledonia blog this coming week. But deep in the dwam of my Apple-philia, I’ll repeat some of my critiques on the day.
Essentially, it’s this: What the seductive power of Apple, Google, Amazon and all shows is how a revived, turbo-charged “info-capitalism” is just as likely as a sharing, non-monetary “post-capitalism” over the next few decades. The one useful fact I’ll ever remember about the internet is that it could have been built entirely differently.
Deep nerds will know the name of the computer programmer Ted Nelson. Nelson’s Project Xanadu was the first to use the terms “hypertext” (the “H” of “HTML”) and “hypermedia” in the early 60s. But Nelson’s intended “network” was very different from the sprawling, open, contagious structure that spun out from a variety of places from the mid-90s onwards. Nelson wanted a Net in which people tightly managed what they sent out; where they got a royalty when anyone used their content.
Nelson wanted an internet of pay-per-click, no matter how small the amount. He was (and is) deeply opposed to what actually emerged – this near-organic combination of infinite phone-lines meeting endless photo-copiers, whizzing content free across the world with no in-built controls, and damn the consequences to its originators. Mr Nelson is not, in short, a fan of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web.
Now, as you juggle your various Cupertino-designed devices, you’d have to admit that, in the present day, Nelson’s vision is at least competing hard with Berners-Lee’s. Apple, in particular, are brilliant at getting money out of us, by matching our common-sense behaviour with our information devices.
It’s mostly those wee Apps. For the price of a decent sandwich these little squares can help you catch your train, curate your photo memories, pay your bills. And that’s info-capitalism for you – making sure the price is right, and the product is of enough utility to justify the price. Ka, and furthermore, ching.
But where Paul’s case that a post-capitalism “can surely do better than this” lands with me is when I go to my Amazon Kindle app (which, in a very Star Trek way, can be read across all three of my Apple devices).
I have a bad vibe about Amazon; I really don’t trust them. To be sure, for an ideas freelancer like myself, Kindle has often been a godsend. No bookshop could be better stocked, or always available at the moment when no decent bookshops are around.
But some of the prices! Amazon (and the publishers who work through them): do you think we’re mugs? Why should something which is a squirt of zeros and ones down a cable retail for only a few pennies less than a paper-and-ink product? Also: why can’t I easily lend one of these e-Books to my friends? Also: how do I know you won’t change the terms-and-conditions, and start charging me by each page read: Nelson’s micro-payment dream realised? And another thing…
You get the point. Mason’s ambition in his Post Capitalism book is to intensify these banal frustrations into a grand realisation that conventional economics is over. Given that digital information is intrinsically abundant, asserts Mason, with the potential for infinite copying and sharing, doesn’t every biz model that tries to manage it as a “scarcity” verge on the absurd?
With the right mix of social experiment and state policy, Mason holds that the amazing fecundity of cyberculture could increasingly give us many services we need for close to nothing – what he calls a “zero-marginal cost” – by comparison with the market system. He may be right.
We need some tangible wins, though. For example, what stops Kindle – an attractive but endless money pit, in my experience – having a “public library” channel? To some degree, it is territorial, state or governmental regulators who should have a bit more confidence and sense of the public good about them.
Will this bolshie spirit of taking back the networks from the new mercantilists also dispel the stupor of Apple-zoids like myself, mouth-breathing intensely as we wait for the new shiny-touchy thing from 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino?
I hope so. I just took a selfie on my iPhone 6. Frankly, it’s not a good look.