Protecting Greatness from Unthinking Memes

By | 2019-01-07T21:40:41+00:00 January 7th, 2019|
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In a letter to investors last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook revised the company’s first quarter earnings forecast down by about $9 billion, largely due to lower-than-expected iPhone sales. Predictably, Cook attributed the weak sales to macroeconomic trends outside of Apple’s control, including the strength of the dollar, rising trade tensions with China, and economic weakness in the emerging markets.

But Cook also noted that the weak iPhone sales could be partially attributed to a special iPhone battery replacement program that Apple had offered last year for a limited time. Instead of buying new phones, users were getting the batteries in their old phones replaced.

This program was in response to the “Batterygate” scandal, in which it was revealed that Apple slowed down CPU speeds in old phones. Apple claimed that it did so to prolong the lives of old devices. Many customers did not buy this explanation, particularly as the slowdowns (at least anecdotally) seemed to coincide with new product releases.

Apple, in a rare admission of culpability, responded by temporarily slashing the price of battery replacements in certain older iPhone models. And now the company’s CEO is complaining that this move ended up hurting sales of new iPhone models. Which might make a cynic think that the initial CPU throttling did have something to do with selling new phones.

Anyone who has paid attention over the past decade has noticed that Apple is starting to rot—and not just in its business practices and increased impersonality. Aside from a general deterioration of quality with increasing software bugs and hardware defects, the Cupertino, California-based tech giant has stopped being a leader in the industry. It is telling that the latest iPad Pro looks far more like an old Microsoft Surface Pro than a next-generation Apple product.

The iPhone stopped being innovative a long time ago and has increasingly been forced to play catch up to the competition. Many of Apple’s new innovations have been . . . well, less than compelling. As some wags have noted, the latest phones might be considered “$1,000 emoji machines.” Perhaps if the latest iPhones had new features that people actually wanted, people would buy more new phones instead of simply getting their old batteries replaced.

Some, no doubt, would argue that Apple’s woes are attributable to large-scale economic changes and a necessary slowdown in technological innovation. Apple is just too developed—there’s not much more innovation that it can do. This argument sounds similar to one many economists make about U.S. growth and innovation—that we, as a developed economy, should start to expect slower growth. Many economists, on both sides of the aisle, laughed at the notion that the country would ever again sustain 4 percent annual economic growth. The general consensus was that we could only expect an average of 2 percent growth for the foreseeable future. The United States just didn’t have the growth opportunities that other emerging economies had. We were just too developed.

Tools for the Job
But before we accept these pessimistic explanations, it may be useful to look at a few of Steve Jobs’ key talents to try to understand what made Apple so great in the first place.

His first talent: the reality distortion field. Many have described it as a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement, and persistence that Jobs used to make himself and others believe nearly anything. In particular, Jobs used this ability to convince his employees that projects previously deemed impossible were actually trivially simple. This new freedom to think outside of the bounds of what people thought was possible allowed Jobs to truly innovate and change the world. Also, the copious amounts of acid he dropped as a kid probably didn’t hurt.

People always react to expectations. The more rebellious will try to subvert or exceed them. The more docile will fall in line. But continually lowered expectations lead to complacency and malaise. Even the most stubborn rebel can get worn down by constant pessimism. Jobs knew his job was to inspire those around him, raise the standards, and push everyone to be their very best. It didn’t matter if his expectations weren’t reasonable—if some bean counter somewhere who had never innovated a day in his life had a 20-page academic paper to explain why they were impossible, that just made the challenge more enticing. It was better to have exceedingly high expectations than mediocre low ones.

His second talent—well, more a philosophy—was his belief that the world was malleable and that the thing most people call life “was made up by people that were no smarter than you” and that you could change it, influence it, and build your own things that other people could use. This way of thinking allowed Jobs to buck conventional wisdom and question even the most basic beliefs that others had. After all, some of the best innovations come from questioning things that most people take for granted. Smart people often do not like asking obvious questions—there’s a fear that if the question is obvious, the answer is probably just as obvious. People do not like looking stupid, especially if they pride themselves on their intelligence.

The strict adherence and unquestioning acceptance of hidden assumptions often impairs creativity and leads to stupid decisions. A lack of rigorous criticism is extraordinarily dangerous. And hubris can be particularly insidious when it comes to the things we take most for granted. NASA once lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because different teams working on the project used different units of measurement. These engineers were no doubt highly educated and competent experts in their field. One seemingly dumb question (Yo, stupid question, but, we’re using feet, right? Oh, we’re using meters? Oh, OK, cool) would have saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. And that was just a small technical mistake based on a minute faulty assumption that was quickly spotted because the parameters of success were so well defined. In the murky waters of business and government, faulty assumptions such as these are even more treacherous.

No matter how much social scientists believe that they can quantify everything, they can’t. And while the laws of physics seem to be static, the rest of the world shifts very quickly. An assumption that might have worked yesterday may no longer work today. And so, it becomes increasingly difficult to spot these errors of thought and to correct course. Without constant vigilance, it is practically impossible. Complacency and hubris can quickly lead people, corporations, and entire nations astray. Too many either completely disregard tradition or regard it as gospel. But too few truly respect it by understanding that it is a rich yet often fallible source of knowledge that has to be engaged in order to impart actual lessons. Respect requires criticism. Otherwise, it is simple sycophancy.

The Lazy Lure of Aestheticism
So, how did Apple go so wrong after Jobs’ death? Well, it was in the same way that the Republican Party went so wrong after Reagan left office. The company took the superficial solutions that their mythologized leader had given them and tried to apply a pat formula in every case with little critical thought.

Reagan’s pragmatism was recast as a dogmatic and principled strain of conservatism that was practically a caricature of itself. Jobs’ design choices in the context of a particular era of products morphed into a design language that would perversely pit usability against sleekness and require users to buy dongle after dongle just to use their existing peripherals with their new device.

The Republican Party looked for a while as though it was following Reagan’s lead. And Apple looked for a while as though it was following Jobs’ lead. But in both cases, they were simply copying the most superficial manifestation of these two men. They were just reproducing their aesthetics without ever fully grasping what made them great in the first place.

Aestheticism, or the undue attention to and replication of superficial details at the expense of the underlying qualities, is pervasive in the world. And it’s nothing new. Thoughtless meme culture has been around for a very long time.

Memeing After Trump
During the 2016 presidential campaign, many candidates tried to copy Trump, both in style and substance. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) started caring far more about immigration than he ever had before, unindicted former federal official Hillary Clinton started having second thoughts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which she incidentally helped negotiate in the first place), and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tried to replicate Trump’s insults by making fun of his spray-tan and supposedly small hands.

Needless to say, those attempts fell flat.

While they may have succeeded in the superficial copying of Trump’s mannerisms or a particular talking point, they were not capturing the essence of the campaign. And the essence of the campaign was what made it successful. The aesthetic frills were just that—frills. They weren’t the heart of the phenomenon. Few people supported Trump because of his insults, though for some it was certainly a satisfying bonus. They were supporting him because he spoke to the concerns and frustrations that they had experienced for decades. And a deep and genuine understanding of those concerns and frustrations is very hard to copy in the course of a fast-paced and contentious campaign.

But a couple years have passed since the 2016 campaign. People have had time to stop and think about Trump’s candidacy. Aside from an occasional Mitt Romney op-ed and Joe Scarborough’s constant whimpering, the NeverTrumpers have largely faded into obscurity. Many of the same Republicans who bemoaned the impending destruction of Western Civilization under Trump now have happily fallen in line with the Trump Administration. Some of them even bought the same bright red hats that they once so mercilessly mocked. People start treating you with a lot more respect after you win.

If Trump wins a second term, there’s no doubt that the Republican party will accept “Trumpism” (for lack of a better term) as a winning strategy. The only problem is that many won’t understand what Trumpism was in the first place. Don’t be surprised if some future Republican candidate parrots many of the same slogans or phrases. He might even copy Trump’s aggressive style. The only difference will be that he will be reading his lines, written by a highly paid political consultant, from a teleprompter.

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

About the Author:

Karl Notturno
Karl Notturno is a Mount Vernon Fellow of the Center for American Greatness in addition to being an entrepreneur, musician, and writer. He recently graduated from Yale University with degrees in philosophy and history. He can be found on Twitter @karlnotturno.