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”.