August 19, 2007

Do Apples Dream in Black and White?

While I was away, I missed a Mac developers’ conference right in my backyard.  While I’m not a programmer myself, I enjoy such events, because most independent Mac developers (as well as those who cover the platform) are very bright, literate people who are a blast to be around.  Little did I know that this conference would stir up a debate more appropriate to a John Randolph Club meeting.

A blogger who goes by the name of Drunkenbatman (who organized his own successful Mac conference a few years back) chaired a panel on Saturday night which has variously been described as “boring,” “controversial,” and even “racist.”  The accounts I’ve read by attendees whom I trust confirm the “boring” and “controversial” descriptions, while clearly dispelling the “racist” one.

So, what happened?  Drunkenbatman chose to try to start a discussion by putting up a slide that read “Black People Don’t Use Macs.”  As John Gruber of Daring Fireball described it:

“There’s a fine line between a moderator challenging his panelists (good) and ambushing them (bad). This came across as the latter; an unanswerable ‘Do you still beat your wife?’ question.”

If Drunkenbatman had left it at that, probably no sane person would have accused him of being a racist; but in the course of the conversation, he stated, according to Gruber’s notes, that “The only black people at Macworld are outside begging for change.”  That’s clearly a stupid line; it’s also clearly the sort of thing that someone who is completely unprepared to discuss the very topic that he brought up might say if he finds his back against the wall.  And all of the discussion of Drunkenbatman’s supposed “racism” hinges on something like the following formulation: “Why would someone say such a thing if he is not a racist?”

While Gruber and others have correctly pointed out that this topic really had no place at this particular conference, no one that I’ve seen has addressed a more fundamental question: What difference does it make whether blacks (or any other ethnic group) are underrepresented (or overrepresented) among Mac users?  Clearly, Drunkenbatman’s broaching of this topic contains an implicit assumption: More black fingers on Macintosh keyboards would qualitatively change the computing experience for other Mac users.

If that isn’t begging the question, I don’t know what is.  To be honest, I don’t know what the ethnic breakdown of Mac users might be (and I doubt that Apple does, either).  In any case, it’s very hard to see how that breakdown affects me when I sit down in front of my computer to get some work done.

As an Apple stockholder, I’d be just as pleased as Apple’s board of directors would be if every black family in the United States bought a Mac or two—Apple’s market share would increase dramatically.  (Along the same line, however, I’d be very displeased if Apple were to spend significant revenue targeting any niche market today, when, with a 5-6 percent market share, gains are more likely to be made by targeting the general audience, regardless of race.)  But that’s clearly not the argument that Drunkenbatman was failing to make.

Much is made of the “Cult of the Mac,” and I have to wonder if there isn’t some of that at work in this discussion.  There seems to be an expectation that Apple is supposed to spend money to reach out to everyone, whether that’s a good use of marketing dollars or not.  Christ told His disciples to preach the good news to all nations.  But Steve Jobs isn’t Christ, and the Mac is just a tool.   People choose the tools that they find most appropriate to their task.  If my neighbor chooses a different tool from the one that I use, how, exactly, am I harmed?

For good and ill, Americans are obsessed with race, and this little tempest in a teapot simply shows how deep that obsession goes.  We’ve long since passed the point where all could agree that the removal of formal barriers was the formula for racial equity.  (After all, no one is preventing anyone who has the money to do so from buying a Mac.)  Now, it seems, people such as Drunkenbatman are suggesting that companies have a moral imperative to integrate their market share numbers.  Where might it all end?

Why, on Capitol Hill, of course!  If I recall correctly, Teddy Kennedy was, at one time, the only U.S. senator with Macs in his office.  Perhaps he could sponsor the Equal Access to Macs Act of 2007, providing tax credits to all ethnic groups underrepresented in Apple’s market share.

I know; that’s clearly a ridiculous idea.

But I think I’ll buy a few more shares of AAPL, just in case.

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