Fruit of the loons?
CULTURE:Is Apple the offspring of the counterculture or just another corporation? Luke Dormehl’s book can’t make its mind up
The Apple Revolution: Steve Jobs, the Counter Culture and How the Crazy Ones Took Over the World, By Luke Dormehl Virgin Books, 505pp. £12.99
IT WAS A comforting 1960s myth that personal revolutions were microcosms of wider social change. It’s an idea that Apple sells to its customers to this day: that in personally benefiting from its products, they are passively part of a wider revolution. Luke Dormehl initially seems to take this suggestion at face value, and in his book The Apple Revolution, he alternates clear-eyed analysis of the Apple countercultural creation myth with sporadic sips from the corporation’s own mind-altering Kool-Aid.
The evidence he collects actually suggests that Apple was never particularly countercultural, and what he ends up recounting is really a familiar narrative of corporate growth. There are several problems with trying to tell the Apple story in Dormehl’s intended terms. The first is that to do so convincingly involves defining clearly what the counterculture is and what the significance of being a countercultural company would be. Dormehl never clearly or consistently does either, and so the counterculture comes across as a grab-bag of beards, rock music, psychedelic drugs and yoga. And yes, if these things are the counterculture, then Steve Jobs was countercultural.
The real question is whether Jobs’s half-baked countercultural ideas (for example, his one-time obsession with living a mucus-free existence) are relevant to the fully baked one that is Apple. Dormehl seems unsure of this himself. He’s eager to link Apple’s pioneering technologists to alternative lifestyles, from the egalitarian nerdiness of the Homebrew Computer Club, to which many of them were affiliated, to the genuinely crazy attitudes of some, but by no means all, of the early innovators, such as the phone-hacking anarchist John “Captain Crunch” Draper. But he also occasionally suggests that the counterculture was never particularly radical anyway. Early in the book, for example, he quotes cyber-libertarian John Perry Barlow: “There were two main wings of San Francisco counterculture. One of them was definitely Marxist and the other was largely apolitical and more of the view that whatever worked to empower and liberate was fine, and capitalism was not necessarily a tool of enslavement.”
Dormehl himself goes on to write that “for the most part, the hippies were actually progressive capitalists; fiercely espousing the free-market libertarian views that would become the prevailing ideology of the western world as time went on”.
This is an idea that has been slow to be accepted when it comes to Jobs, Dormehl’s publisher Richard Branson (it’s a Virgin book), yippie-turned-yuppie Jerry Rubin or any of the long-hairs who subsequently became wealthy entrepreneurs – the idea that the heightened capitalism of the 1980s was a direct offshoot of countercultural desire and not a betrayal of it (a libertarian, as the old joke goes, is just an anarchist with a job). But this is a narrative that writers still struggle with. Disappointingly, Dormehl is no exception and leaves it hanging, even though it is the only coherent and credible way to thread his countercultural MacGuffin through Apple’s dubious corporate history.
It has always been a decidedly un-utopian company. By the early 1980s, as some employees fretted about the company losing its “hacker roots”, Apple’s stock options were divvied up in a decidedly unfair manner while the suits prepared for a big employee cull known as “black Wednesday”.
The third part of Dormehl’s thesis, that the “crazy ones took over the world”, is belied by the fact many of the true eccentrics were ousted when they became unpredictable liabilities (such as the aforementioned John Draper).
Jobs himself comes across as almost comically sociopathic. He tantrums, hissy-fits and showboats his way through the book like a bearded toddler, often taking credit for the works of others. At one stage, he took to parking across two disabled parking bays until an anonymous note saying “Park Different” was placed on his windscreen.
Co-founder Steve Wozniak was a bit less nefarious and in the 1980s founded the infamous Us festival, but he seems to have been politically naive. “I try to have a simple peaceful life now,” he told a journalist while hosting a party featuring 100,000 helium balloons in the shape of rainbows, a $4 million garden with koi ponds, oak trees, sensor-triggered animal noises and a large man-made cave filled with fossils and dinosaur remains. (If man-made prehistoric caves, sensor-triggered animal noises and musical vanity projects are countercultural, then Wozniak is as countercultural as they come.)
Furthermore, Apple has not always behaved well. It “borrowed” big ideas from the more truly hippified Palo Alto Research Centre, run by Xerox, and by the noughties it was outsourcing operations to the notorious Foxconn factories in China (this only warrants one mention later in the book).
And yet, as the evidence against any sort of coherent social vision builds, Dormehl continues to shoehorn in increasingly irrelevant countercultural references. A section called ‘Sex, Drugs and Pixar Animation’ contains no sex and few drugs, and each chapter begins with quotations from the likes of Timothy Leary and the Whole Earth Catalog’s Stewart Brand, which bear no relation to the anecdotes of corporate growth and product development that follow. Indeed, much of the evidence from the interviewees flies in the face of a countercultural thesis.
“I know all about his going to India and I know all about his vegetarianism, but I’d never seen anybody named Steve Jobs that matched the kind of person that I think of as countercultural,” says Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, who subsequently fell out with Jobs.
And although Dormehl continues to highlight superficial nods to radicalism (such as the use of 1960s rock bands to soundtrack product launches), The Apple Revolution increasingly resembles an old-fashioned capitalist tale of Schumpeterian creative destruction: an old model of production is replaced by a new. A bunch of old white business guys is edged out by younger white business guys with longer hair and better music collections.
Apple’s much-vaunted counterculturalism really begins with its marketing department and ends with its balance sheet. The grammatically horrible Think Different campaign co-opted Einstein and Martin Luther King, and solidified what former marketing director Michael Mace called Apple’s “snob factor”. This flattered Apple’s users with the notion that they were a social and intellectual vanguard, and created a perfect marketing tautology: we make amazing products because you are amazing and you wouldn’t have chosen us otherwise.
But as former employee Michael Grothaus asks: “What exactly are countering? They are the culture now.” By the end of an illuminating book with an unconvincing argument, Dormehl admits that “today it’s difficult to think of Apple as a countercultural entity”. The truth is, despite Dormehl’s entreaties to the contrary, it was difficult to do so all along.
Patrick Freyne is a writer at The Irish Times