Future

Is Apple Evil? This Silicon Valley Honeymoon Must End

It is time to start asking harder questions about the world's largest company, both how it runs its business and how it conditions our lives.

What is this giant force that governs our everyday life?
What is this giant force that governs our everyday life?
Philippe Boulet-Gercourt

-Analysis-

NEW YORK — The first Mike is on the left, at the top of the steps by the entrance. The second one is standing just a few meters away.

The first Mike is a painter. He browses around in the Apple Store in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, looking at the new Apple Watches. "I don't really see the point," he says. "The stopwatch, maybe." The craggy-faced artist is curious, but he's also suspicious. "These things eat us up. They poison our lives."

The second Mike looks to be about 20 years younger. He is clad in the royal blue T-shirt worn by all Apple employees and, based on his facial expression, seems fed up with all the stupid questions he keeps having to answer.

"The Apple Watch has many functions," he says. "I'm not gonna show them all. We’d be here all day." That's a taste of the Apple attitude.

We fiddle with the scrolling wheel, press the screen. Mike the Apple employee puts it around my wrist for a second. "How are you going to convince me I need an Apple Watch?" I ask. "I'm not gonna try," he retorts. "Nobody needs one. It’s just a cool thing to have."

How many people emerged from Apple stores with this new gadget on launch day, April 24? Not as many as predicted. There have been production delays, so except for pre-orders, the shops won't have any stock until June. The million-dollar question, in other words, has yet to be answered: Will Apple’s new creation be a triumph or a flop?

The answer is probably neither. The two million pre-orders are encouraging, but teenagers and young adults don't seem all that excited about the product. Steve Jobs is probably turning over in his grave.

A mountain of money

Everyone everywhere wants to know whether Apple's magic touch can survive the death of company's founder. But there are other questions, in the meantime, that people aren't asking, questions that could or should have been raised a long time ago. Only that we were all too mesmerized by the wizard of Cupertino’s shiny gadgets to care.

What is this giant company that governs our everyday life? How does it manage to influence our every moment — and to such an unbelievable extent? Who are the people hiding behind the impenetrable walls of one of the most secretive companies in the world? And what kind of philosophy do they follow? These are not trivial questions.

Apple has always projected an image of non-conformity that is deeply rooted in 1960s counterculture. It sells itself as a company that abhors bureaucracy and "thinks different," a company that not only wants to sell products but also to make a "significant contribution to society," as CEO Tim Cook recently put it.

But how can it be countercultural when it's grown to be so huge? Apple is the biggest company in the world by market value, representing $727 billion, about twice as much as the second-largest U.S. company, ExxonMobil. In the last three months of 2014, it sold 34,000 iPhones per hour. Over the last four quarters, it has achieved a total turnover of $200 billion and a net profit of $44 billion. It's sitting on a mountain of cash, $180 billion it can deploy at any moment.

Bound to the corporation

These are stunning figures, unprecedented profits. But Apple is far more than just a matter of dollars, and people wouldn’t be so passionate about it if it just sold cars or cookies. Apple has become the fetish of a worldwide middle class that sets itself apart with the status it derives from purchasing these products.

Apple is an overdriving engine of our century. With its minimalist design and the intuitive simplicity of its products, it completely changed our relationship with technology, which used to be only for nerds. This impression of simplicity turned us all into technophiles. It’s an illusion, of course, since these products conceal an amazing complexity and a link far less idealistic than it seems with the company that makes them.

"People who think they understand their products are completely mistaken," says Fred Turner, an associate professor in communications at Stanford University. "All technologies are entry gates that tie us to a corporation, and when I use an iPhone or an iPad, I am nurturing a relationship with Apple. They're using my data."

Our relationship to technology is only one of the many aspects in which Apple is influencing our lives. And it's not even the most important one. The real revolution is how the company has upset our daily lives.

"The Apple design is far more than the exterior shell of its computers and other devices," writes German essayist Thomas Wagner in his book Apple Design. "It also embraces the way we experience a whole series of activities, from working, communicating, presenting, watching movies and videos, listening to music and many more. In this respect, Apple is in line with modernist utopian projects such as Bauhaus."

"Built to know you better"

This is particularly true with the iPhone — and the other smartphones that followed. Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Stanford University, describes it as "a portal to cyberspace" that, more than any product ever invented, "blurs the gap between the real world and the virtual world."

The Apple Watch, which includes sensors, pushes the boundaries even further. "We're heading inevitably for a world in which the virtual world and reality overlap completely, a world in which it'll be impossible to say where one begins and the other ends," he explains. "The next step will be objects integrated inside our bodies. Apple is heading in that direction.”

Our smartphones are a first step. They’ve become an extension of our hands that we pick up 221 times per day on average, according to 2014 Tecmark study.


In the Apple world, the words "intimate” and "personal" are repeated like a mantra. But with the Watch, the promotional material goes further. It describes an object that is "built to know you better" and will "reward you for reaching personal fitness milestones." This personalization is not only an individual experience that explains the incredible loyalty of iPhone owners (90% of them don't give up the brand, a Morgan Stanley study suggests) but it also influences our feelings regarding the ultra sensitive issue of data and privacy protection.

With Facebook or Google, which are more "exterior" to our lives than these objects we handle all day long, the fear of seeing our intimacy publicly exposed or our data exploited by unscrupulous companies is greater. But with Apple, which cleverly branded itself as the champion of sacred respect for its users' privacy, we are under the (false) impression of being in a friendly and safe place.


This intimacy with Apple even has political consequences. In May 2013, Tim Cook was summoned to a congressional hearing over Apple's exotic — to say the least — fiscal practices. Far from being grilled, he was welcomed with flattery. “I looooooove Apple,” Sen. Claire McCaskill told him. "It was surreal, an extraordinary moment in the history of American companies," says Margaret O’Mara, a historian and Silicon Valley specialist at the University of Washington.

Faith in technology

Apple's colossal might and influence over our lives would seem problematic if we dared to be a little more critical. Let’s look, for example, at how its products turn users into addicts of something that's designed to be obsolete one or two years after the fix.

The company doesn't deny that people these days spend most of their time glued to the screens of their devices. So what solution does it offer to make our engagement with technology "a little more human?" The Watch, the new gadget that's supposed to free us from the slavery of our iPhones, though we'll need those iPhones to use the Watch.

This headlong rush is obviously encouraged by the Silicon Valley’s almost religious faith in technology, the belief that technical innovation can solve all problems, even the ones it creates. But it's also a convenient way to dodge the issue, and a typical move for Apple.

Apple likes to show off as a company that's respectful of culture, values and ethics — when it suits them. For instance, Tim Cook’s intervention in the debate about anti-gay legislation in Indiana largely contributed to the bill being dropped. But on many other issues, like the place technology holds in our lives or that of economic giants in our societies, Apple is strangely quiet and conformist. In many respects, its behavior is even diametrically opposed to the exceptionalism it claims to embody.

Ben Farrell, an Australian middle manager who recently resigned from Apple, made the extremely rare step of breaking the company's code of silence, denouncing in a blog post an "inconsistent, moody and erratic" management that ignores the illnesses of employees or of their families, sacks people without the slightest qualms and treats its community of contractors, resellers and partners with "utter disrespect."

Apple is a modern-day Narcissus. And like other Silicon Valley giants, though with more sophistication, it nurtures a little clique of journalists who know that whatever entry gates that are half-open to them will shut at the first ungracious sentence.

A very secretive company, it's also a closed ecosystem, a "walled garden." This was Steve Jobs' wish, in the name of his products' superiority. But the intransigence with which Apple dictates its conditions to exterior developers and subcontractors is often problematic.

"They claim to defend "counterculture" ethics, but their developing codes have always been among the least accessible and they protect their material with an incredible legal ferocity," Fred Turner explains. "Their products are extremely difficult to fiddle with. They're not made for hackers, although they’ve become a symbol of the hacker ideology. Apple is the perfect example of a closed company, operating in a very traditional way, but which has nonetheless been successful in maintaining counterculture's cool patina.” Apple and its double-face: pirate and king, anarchist and capitalist.

"Double Irish"

Apple is a steamroller, brutal and unscrupulous. Sure, under Tim Cook’s leadership, it has put an end to the worst abuses reported in the Chinese factories of its subcontractors, abuses that Cook himself endorsed when he was Jobs’ sidekick. But what about the rest?

Apple likes to project an image of a company that's not obsessed with profit. When talking about the Watch, designer Jony Ive said he was more concerned by "how we can make it as good as possible than how many we'll sell.” In reality, Apple has established an incredibly aggressive "fiscal optimization" strategy, a modest way of describing how to pay as little tax as possible. It was one of the first multinationals to adopt the "Double Irish and Dutch Sandwich," a trick that enables it to pay very little tax by transferring profits to its Irish and Dutch subsidiaries before parking them in the Caribbean. And even though Ireland last year killed the "Double Irish," Apple continues to pay less than 10% in taxes.

These past few weeks, the prestigious Harvard Business Review published two articles by Juan Pablo Vazquez Sampere. In them, the economics professor writes that Apple might be losing its magic on its biggest pride and joy, innovation. Its latest invention to short circuit banking business, Apple Pay, is not only far from being a replacement for credit cards, but is actually "helping to perpetuate a credit card payment system that is obsolete, overly expensive, and absolutely unnecessary in the present day," he writes.

To him, the Apple that used to "disrupt" and revolutionize whole industries "isn't there anymore." Even the Watch fails to impress him. "Look at the way they launched it on the market. You'd think Procter & Gamble were in charge of marketing. It's a very classical marketing, dated even," he says.

Too harsh? Apple has too often been prematurely written off for us not to be dubious about death notices. The Watch could end up changing our lives, like the iPads and iPods that at first blush seemed pointless to some. But in any case, that shouldn't keep us from examining with close and new scrutiny one of the biggest commercial juggernauts in history.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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