Why Apple is No ‘Big Brother’



Apple started it. In the most famous and expensive TV commercial to date, the company hurled the first “Big Brother” accusation (not to mention a giant hammer) at IBM and the IBM-compatible world, as it was called at the time.

In the commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, an attractive blonde 80’s girl wearing Hooters shorts, a Mac T-shirt and the kind of ankle-length socks people used to wear back then with their “jogging shoes” smokes a gaggle of goons in an all-out sprint for the most depressing cineplex ever where she unleashes her sledgehammer at the screen with equal parts ferocity and femininity.

Since then, various other tech companies have accused each other of being “Big Brother,” and Apple is often the one accused.

Most recently (i.e. possibly this coming Super Bowl Sunday), Motorola will essentially accuse Apple of being Big Brother in this commercial.

The problem with all these “Big Brother” accusations is that they’re always based on sloppy, mushy thinking — including Apple’s original ad, which didn’t seem to have anything specific in mind about how IBM resembled Big Brother, exactly.

(Note that at least one of the ad creators says that the original Apple “1984” ad was not targeted at IBM, but Steve Jobs, who commissioned and approved the ad, said specifically that IBM was the “Big Brother” in the ad.)

Likewise, the companies (and writers) who compare Apple to “Big Brother” are equally guilty of muddled thinking.

In general, Apple is supposed to be like “Big Brother” because the company censors its app store, or because it favors a “closed” or “integrated” hardware-software platform over the more “open” or “fragmented” Google approach.

Never mind that the whole open-vs-closed thing is a charade. As I’ve argued in the past, all companies are “closed” about their money-making “secret sauce,” including and especially Google.

The question is: Does control over a software ecosystem or banning apps that show nipples make Apple like “Big Brother”?

The reference, of course, comes from George Orwell’s brilliant Mother-Of-All-Dystopian novels, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I suspect that most people haven’t read the book or, if they have, don’t remember it. Popular culture carries a faint echo of the novel in the form of several empty cultural clichés — one of them being the “Big Brother” idea, as the all-seeing, all controlling authoritarian dictator.

To call Apple “Big Brother” is to suggest that the trouble with life in Airstrip One was that there wasn’t enough nudity, or that you had to get permission from the Ministry of Truth to distribute your app.

I’m sorry, but the analogy is idiotic.

What made the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four so horrible was the total subordination of the self to the state — not just actions, but thoughts. Invasive surveillance and thought control, enforced by torture and execution for thought crimes, was what “Big Brother” represents, not generic “control” or censorship. Plus, you couldn’t leave. There was no alternative, no individual choice about opting in or opting out.

Of course, no tech company can be compared to “Big Brother” by this standard. But of all the companies commonly accused, Apple is by far the least like “Big Brother.” Here’s why.

Is a Gadget Part of the System, or the User?

A connected gadget — phone, tablet, laptop – serves as the interface between the “system” (Internet, network, company, etc.) and the individual human. And the gadget is part of either the “system” or part of the person, depending on your perspective.

The conventional business or enterprise view of the gadget is that it’s part of the system. Ideally, such equipment is to be sourced and provisioned by the IT department, and integrated into the company’s security policies and the like. The user-employee steps up to the company-owned and managed equipment and uses it as he does with the copy machine. The company chooses it, and the user has no say in that selection. Enterprise features are mostly about blocking users, and preventing them from accessing the wrong data, or breaking something.

The consumer view off the gadget is that it’s part of the human — a prosthetic device in the same category as eyeglasses or shoes or a wristwatch or a cup of coffee, which enhances human capabilities. The gadget is chosen based on the users’ needs, preferences and desires, not the company’s.

If you’re having lunch, and think of a great idea for your upcoming presentation, you might jot it down on a napkin and tuck it into a pocket for helping you remember the idea later. Or you might pull out a voice recorder your spouse gave you for Christmas and make a voice note. Or you might write on your palm, like Sarah Palin does. These data recording media are yours, not the company’s. They are your choice to use, and they remain under your control. They enhance your personal memory, and are not part of the “system.” The company can’t tell you to use them or not use them, and they can’t legally take them away from you. The consumer view puts gadgets in the same category.

Whenever you see companies like Microsoft make the case, as CEO Steve Ballmer did recently, that Windows 7 is a superior enterprise OS for tablets than the iOS iPad, he’s basing his assertion on the gadget-is-part-of-the-machine mindset.

To make a device enterprise-friendly is to weaken the connection between the device and the user, and to strengthen the connection between the device and the system. Making a device enterprise ready is to lock it down and enable the company to control and censor for the protection of the organization. All enterprise thinking about gadgets is about subordinating the desires and interests of individual people both inside and outside the company to the interests of the company and its shareholders or owners.

Apple’s view is that a gadget is “a bicycle for our minds.” To the enterprise mindset, a device may or may not be a bicycle, but is definitely not for employee’s minds. It’s for the company’s bottom line.

If you consider your phone, tablet or laptop to be part of you, to be part of your mind, a prosthetic accelerator, external memory and processing for your own thoughts, then the enterprise mindset of owning and controlling devices is an Orwellian attempt to own and control part of your mind. Your external mind is to be subordinated to the needs and objectives of the organization.

And it’s by this measure that Apple is the least “Big Brother” like organization of all the major tech companies. Unlike Microsoft or Google — or, for that matter, HP, Dell, Acer, Samsung or any of the others — Apple demonstrates almost no interest in jacking Apple devices into corporate back-end Matrix. To Apple, the iPhone, iPad or MacBook are part of the user, to be used for improving the human capabilities of the people who use them. (That’s the case for Microsoft’s or Google’s consumer products as well, by the way.)

Let’s look at it another way. Both Apple and any garden variety big company control information and censor. You could argue that Apple controls and censors in order maintain standards for the quality of user experience — at least, that’s what they claim. Corporations, on the other hand, control and censor primarily in the interest of the organization, not the users’ or employees’, and they don’t mind saying so.

What makes Apple so not “Big Brother” is that Apple takes a consumer view about enterprise computing. Apple wants enterprise users to use iPhones, iPads and MacBooks for work, and many do. The difference is that Apple isn’t bending over backwards to optimize these gadgets for company control.

Apple’s enterprise vision, if you want to call it that, is that users choose and buy Apple iPhones, iPads and MacBooks to enhance their whole life, including work. You take it to work. You take it home. You take it on vacation, and use it for whatever you like. It makes you a better and happier employee.

I’m not judging here. Securing and controlling devices on the network what a company should and must do. Nothing wrong with that. And Apple’s “bicycle” mindset about consumer electronics isn’t necessarily the best choice for companies.

My point is that the “Big Brother” accusation is more accurately leveled at companies that optimize their products for subordinating the interests of the user to the company, that make products that will be chosen by companies and not by users, and that are viewed as being part of or belonging to the company, and not the user.

By that standard, Apple is one of the least “Big Brother” companies in the industry.