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CMV: Tim Cook is right that Apple should speak up on social issues

Apple CEO Tim Cook is noted for speaking up on social issues, expressing views on such topics as immigration and diversity.

That’s something that some have criticized. For example, Fortune executive editor Adam Lashinsky questioned whether companies should focus solely on commercial issues. Cook vigorously defended his stance, and said that Apple expresses values rather than taking political stances …

For Apple, we’ve always been about changing the world. It became clear to me some number of years ago that you don’t do that by staying quiet on things that matter […]

Business to me is nothing more than a collection of people. If people should have values, then by extension a company should have values […] We don’t get into politics with any of this. We stick to policy: how are people treated, what is the immigration policy. These are things that we stick to. We work with people from both parties and no parties. At some points, one party will like what we do, other times the other one will.

I think that’s an absolutely valid perspective. While there are those who would argue that, as the most valuable company in the world, Apple is now just a money-making corporate entity, I think that’s not quite the case. Apple does have values, and it’s willing to back them with money.

Apple does have values

For example, Apple is a firm believer in accessibility. The company is on record as stating that the work it carries out in making products usable by as many people as possible probably costs more than it makes, but it doesn’t care. It does it because it thinks it’s the right thing to do.

More broadly, Apple sees itself as having a mission to use technology to enrich people’s lives. Steve Jobs famously called a computer ‘a bicycle for our minds.’

I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. Humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list […]

That didn’t look so good, but then someone at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle, and a man on a bicycle blew the condor away. That’s what a computer is to me: the computer is the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

Jobs often talked about Apple’s technology being a tool to enable people to express their creativity and realize their dreams. Apple still uses that message in its marketing campaigns today.

Of course, cynics might say that while Jobs may have envisaged people using their MacBooks to write the great American novel, or their iPads to create artistic masterpieces, the average Apple customer probably uses their devices to view cat videos and arrange drinks with their buddies. Today, they might suggest, it’s all just marketing.

But the company does at least back up its lofty goals with practical steps, like ad campaigns that are designed to inspire people, and free workshops to help people achieve their creative goals.

Apple is an important voice

I also think it’s great that Apple lends its voice to those who might otherwise go unheard. The Dreamers, for example, have little political power or visibility. It’s easy for Trump to change the rules to their detriment.

Apple has a loud voice. When the company speaks, people listen. When Apple speaks up about net neutrality or children being separated from their parents or freedom of expression or the right to privacy, that generates media coverage. People hear those messages.

As Edmund Burke wrote back in the 18th Century:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

The more influential you are, I would argue, the greater your responsibility to speak up. Apple is incredibly influential.

Dealing with counterarguments

There are five main counterarguments I’ve heard, so let me address these.

The ‘focus on Apple products’ argument

One oft-heard comment is that, rather than taking time out to comment on social issues, Cook should spend his time fixing whatever the commenter is most concerned with in Apple.

Please focus on your products and services which have declined in quality on your watch. MacBook keyboard design flaws, removal of MacBook ports, buggy iOS 11, failure to update many Mac models. Aren’t these issues what you are paid to solve?

The problem with this argument is that it’s what’s known as a false dilemma: an either/or mentality that ignores the fact that it’s perfectly possible for a human being to do more than one thing.

If Cook were an engineer, working crazy hours to fix something, you could maybe argue that he shouldn’t take even 30 minutes out to comment on something else. But Cook is the CEO. He is responsible for things like policy and budgets, not hands-on troubleshooting.

If you think Apple should be, for example, focusing on designing a more reliable MacBook keyboard, Cook’s role in that would be calling in Dan Riccio – Apple’s head of hardware engineering – and instructing him to make it a priority, authorising the necessary budget to do it quickly. That would take all of about five minutes out of Cook’s week.

So this argument is a non-starter.

The ‘Cook cares more about politics than about Apple’ argument

A related view I’ve heard expressed is that Cook appears to care more about politics than about Apple.

This argument at least isn’t suggesting he can do only one or the other, but that he is more vocal about one than the other. There are a couple of things I’d say about this.

First, and most importantly, it’s self-evidently not true. Listen to Cook in keynote presentations, and when he is interviewed about Apple products, and it’s abundantly clear that he is passionate about both the company and its products. He’s an introvert, so we shouldn’t expect any Ballmer-style ‘I love this company!’ screaming, but his belief in the importance of what Apple does shines through.

Second, there is much Cook says that we don’t get to hear. Sure, he does some interviews on social issues, but he spends his working days dealing with product issues. We don’t get to hear what he says in one-to-one meetings with senior execs, at board meetings, in internal presentations. But you can bet that most of it is very focused on Apple.

Cook’s views are his own, not Apple’s

A third criticism I’ve heard is that Cook speaks for himself, not Apple. He expresses his own opinions, and uses the power of Apple to amplify them.

The problem is Tim Cook is using his position to promote his opinions to further his personal agenda, and that’s unacceptable.

To which I’d say three things. First, Apple has long-established values – such as combining technology and the liberal arts to fulfil human potential – and what he says on social issues seems to me entirely consistent with those values.

Second, Steve Jobs personally selected Tim Cook to be his successor. In doing that, he considered not just who was best able to run the business, but also someone who reflected the company’s values and beliefs.

Third, perhaps the single biggest responsibility of a chief executive is to set the tone of the company. To ensure its employees knows what it stands for. So if Cook does express views that he’d like to see the company get behind, that’s literally his job. He was hired, by Steve, to lead.

Apple is hypocritical

A fourth argument I hear is that Apple is hypocritical. It speaks up on some social issues, but remains quiet when its own interests are threatened.

For example, some point to reported abuses in Apple’s supply chain: child labor, illegal overtime and so on. Apple should, they say, put those things right before the company pokes its nose into other issues.

I have sympathy with this view. Apple should indeed put most energy into getting its own house in order. But there’s plenty of evidence that it does this. It conducts regular supply chain audits, publishes transparency reports, has penalties for suppliers who breach its standards and so on.

And we’re back to: it’s possible for a person, or a company, to care about more than one thing at a time. Sure, Apple should fix its own problems, but it should also care about broader ones.

Every view expressed alienates half of Apple’s customers

The final tack I’ve heard people take is a pragmatic one. The market comprises people at every point on the social and political spectrum. Apple is trying to sell to liberals and to conservatives. There are Apple customers who are strongly in favor of the rights of the Dreamers, and there are Apple customers who think they should have no right to stay.

Every time Apple takes a stance on a social or policy issue, it will, runs the argument, alienate as many people as it pleases. It’s commercially safer to say nothing.

To which I have two responses. First, I suspect that much of the brand loyalty people feel toward Apple is precisely because of its values. Apple expressing the values it does likely wins more business than it loses.

But even if that isn’t the case, we’re back to the Burke quote. Apple shouldn’t remain silent in the face of things like children being separated from their parents, even if it loses some customers by doing so. Apple has a responsibility to use the power of its position to speak up on behalf of those who might otherwise go unheard.

Change My View

My argument, then, is Tim Cook is absolutely right to speak up on behalf of Apple on important social and policy issues. There is no contradiction between that and running the company properly. If you think that Apple is neglecting the Mac mini or failing to build the right products for creative professionals or not paying enough attention to software reliability, none of that is because Cook spends a bit of his time speaking up on social issues.

Am I right? Or totally wrong? As always, make your case either for or against. Check out our Change My View guidelines, which can be summarised as: play nicely. Be respectful of those expressing opposing views – and ideally curious about why they hold them. Debate the issues, not the people.

Over to you …

Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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