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Apple's Missed Opportunity to Think Differently

What we can learn from Howard Zinn and the misguided iPad hype. design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of...


What we can learn from Howard Zinn and the misguided iPad hype.

design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine. New posts every Tuesday and Thursday.

“And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
— Howard Zinn

I don’t want to act defeated; it’s not time to retreat. But last week, when the historian Howard Zinn died, a guiding light for divergent thinking went out. For many Americans, Zinn and his writings proffered a radically optimistic vision of what society could be, and now that he’s gone, those of us in the younger generation are clutching our own narratives with raised expectations.

Zinn’s best-known book is, of course, The People’s History of the United States—arguably a far more accurate history than the one commonly found in most high school text books. According to Zinn, those textbooks offer a skewed version of historical events and the American experience, so he sought to illuminate the revolutionary lives of laborers, civil right’s activists, and other undocumented individuals. Through his writing, Zinn was able to expose the fallacies of presidential administrations held in too high esteem, and reveal the misguided glorification of U.S. imperialist traditions.

Right up to the end of his life, Zinn was conscious of society’s hunger for a more comprehensive and inclusive account of history. He took the opportunity to reframe prejudicial perspectives, and he encouraged radical thinking even as the powers that be tried to silence it. Howard Zinn was a game changer.

On the day of Zinn’s death, Steve Jobs took the stage to introduce the iPad. Jobs has himself been called a game changer for the way he redefined Apple, and consumer electronics more broadly. Last Wednesday he had that opportunity again. He also had the opportunity and the power to refocus an entire industry to create some real social impact—the kind of change Zinn fought for. But Jobs didn’t succeed.

I am not criticizing the object itself; there has been enough of that. Nor do I want to call out the large portions of the tech community that have built an even larger digital divide with their misguided hype (Tech blogger Anil Dash eloquently describes it, with his own finger wag at Apple). Rather, I’d like to hold Steve Jobs and Apple accountable for not engaging the industry they reign over, and not “thinking differently.” If Jobs were truly thinking differently (or, better, radically) he would have used the media attention around the unveiling of the iPad to draw attention to social issues that go unnoticed by the nation at large—issues that could benefit from the tech community’s skills and attention.

Imagine it: Writers and journalists from all the major business, technology, and design publications are frantically preparing to live blog and tweet from their auditorium chairs. From his black leather chair Jobs rises, clutching his shiny iPad with a look of grave concern, and says: “California’s budget cuts have taken a huge toll on our public school system, all the way up to our universities, and Apple is going to change that.”

What if Jobs went on to suggest pumping money into the current school system, providing software and the new iPad to high-school students—especially those budding young designers whose art programs were the first to be slashed? Hell, what if Jobs set up 1960s-style “free schools”? He could have pledged to dip into Apple's wealth, or make a few calls to contacts in the interconnected Web of Silicon Valley, to find knowledge workers capable of teaching web development, technical architecture, industrial design, or courses on social entrepreneurship. iPad hype would be transformed into Apple’s actual engagement with the community that worships and trusts the brand that is so carefully designed to emotionally resonate with its users.

Jobs had a powerful moment, and he had enough momentum to build a movement. Instead of jokes about the tablet’s name, social networks could be abuzz with debate over a new paradigm that deepens the idea of “corporate responsibility.”

Although I think it’s time to hold Apple and Jobs accountable to the brand they are perceived to be—one that actually connects with its communities of followers—I don’t want to take Zinn’s lessons in vein. We ought not to look to one figure, one idol, as Zinn puts it, to save us from broken systems. It takes a community to do that.

Just as Zinn wrote about the collective experience of the American struggle, denouncing a singular leader’s constructed and skewed triumphs, we must write about the untold story that gets smothered in hype. To rival the complaints about the absence of Flash on the iPad, or our fixation with a prototype rife with strategic ad placements, we are the ones who have to train a spotlight on Haiti’s reconstruction efforts, war in the Congo, genocide in Sudan, gay rights in the United States, and other pressing social issues.

At a time when everyone is capable of being a producer by broadcasting their own content, it’s up to the civic journalist in all of us to form a network of support, and demand that those in a position of power will harness it for social equality and communal empowerment. I’m not asking for a grand utopian future; just a defiance of business as usual.