Apple, Capitalism, and doing things for free

Apple today held a press conference to address concerns over reception issues with the new Iphone G4. The technical factors of cell phone reception is not a topic I find particularly interesting – however, other things about the presentation are of significance. Specifically, the many times repeated love of Apple for their customers, and the sense in which pleasing the customers is the motive for all the hard work done by the many engineers at Apple.

Now, the Marxist in me immediately wants to point out two things. First, isn’t the motive not the good feeling of pleasing customers, but profit? And while the engineering done on US soil is certainly labour, what about the labour done by foxxcon – the outsourced manafacturer of iphones, which has had many worker suicides, and has recently had to replace its factory and double wages.

But, this is too easy. While I think that’s all true, and that Steve Jobes is more than happy to conceal the less happy features of apple product production from the magic of macworld and other public addresses, something is going on in his repeated assertions that “everyone” (read: not everyone) at apple is working really hard to make the product as good as possible for the consumer.

The fact is, it’s not unlikely that many people working for Apple, at least on US soil, are highly motivated by the desire to satisfy customers. This short film about motivation gives us a sense why – in cognitively heavy tasks, people are more motivated by purpose, autonomy, challenge and mastery, and making a contribution – rather than profit. The fact that apple products excel, both in the market and in objective excellence, suggests that the people working there are not merely profit motivated, but motivated by the purpose of improving computing and smartphones.

Apple is not like Linux – people at Apple do not work for free. And yet, the line between jobs people are willing to do for free and jobs people are paid for is likely to falter in the advanced high tech industry. Specifically because, if purpose-motive gets you the best talent and the best productivity, money will logically cease being the central factor in success of companies.

It’s essential to remember that this sector of the economy more motivated by purpose than profit is limited to jobs which are cognitively based, which are not limited to simple menial tasks. At the same time, technological automation means less and less manuel labour is (or at least could be) required to satisfy the world’s needs.

What can be learned from this story is, I think, the beginning of an idea of an economy not based on money – but where money ceases to be an issue. Instead, people would work on meeting needs primarily motivated out of making a contribution. And, since the need for continuous profits would no longer be necessary, we could do away with the public relations industry and its practice of constructing and producing needs in subjects in order to push forward conspicuous consumption.

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