Haunted Empire - Biased Author or Biased Readers?
Mar 24, 2014 6:04 AM PT
What really surprises me about the book Haunted Empire, which predicts the decline of Apple, isn't that Apple fans don't like it. That's a given -- Apple fans only want positive books and stories. It is the level of effort that has gone into killing this book, and how much that apparently has accelerated sales. There is an old saying that the only thing better than bad publicity is no publicity, and Apple's effort seem to be driving this book onto the best sellers' list.
What also amazes me is how worked up some folks are getting about this book and how many unfounded attacks the author is taking. I've been where she is. Companies really don't like negative reports, and it is always more lucrative -- particularly for a company like Apple, with its huge fan base -- to write a positive report or book about it than a negative one. So, if the author were money-focused, she would have written a glowing book rather than one that forecasts a bad outcome.
As I write this, 21 Amazon reviewers have given the book 5 stars, 30 1 star and 6 of us are in the middle (I gave it 4 stars). Compare that to the Jony Ive puff piece -- massively 5 star but poorly written -- and it looks to me like Yukari Iwatani Kane wrote a balanced book.
I'll close with my product of the week, which is kind of ironic because it is an app called "SimpleDeal" that currently is seeking Indiegogo funding and runs only on iOS devices.
There is a book written by another technology reporter that I generally recommend when talking about bias. It's called True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. I've given it as a gift to folks I think are too invested in one party or overly religious about anything, because it basically proves that zealots are stupid.
I assume -- though I am often proven wrong -- that most folks don't want to be stupid. The book helps you see through folks who are trying to manipulate you and helps you make your own decisions. Personally, I think a ton more folks need to do this when they vote. Just saying...
Farhad Manjoo provides a famous example of this silliness in the book with regard to Apple fans and Walt Mossberg, who should be the poster boy for Apple lovers -- or at least was back then. A bunch apparently thought he was biased against Apple or that when he wrote anything even slightly critical of Apple, it was because he'd been bribed by Microsoft. However, Mossberg was the reporter Steve Jobs most loved to give scoops to and in return he always had Steve's back. Thinking Mossberg was anti-Apple was like thinking the Pope was anti-Catholic.
When you are passionate about a party, religion or apparently Apple, anyone who is moderate will appear biased to you -- and someone who actually is biased won't look a ton different. Reporters are trained -- well, they were before the whole blogging thing -- to be unbiased. Traditionally, reporters tend to want to report what they found and then draw conclusions based on that work.
That doesn't mean they can't be wrong -- nor does it mean they can't be biased. They just have resistance to the latter. You can be unbiased and wrong; for instance, a lot of reporters thought that Hillary Clinton would be president by now.
Ad Hominem Attack
One of the ways I can tell if a company is trying kill a report -- unflattering, but accurate -- is when I see it using ad hominem attacks. These are attacks that focus on some aspect of the author -- not on anything the author wrote. There's also the nitpicking dodge, in which the attacker points out a minor error and argues that if that part is untrue, the rest is untrue.
Tim Cook's response to the books utilizes a straw man argument and a variant of ad hominem. He basically alters the argument and then claims victory. He actually doesn't disagree specifically with anything the author wrote.
In fact given Apple's valuation, its lack of compelling new products, and his reference to "other books" like hers, Cook's comments support the theme that he may be delusional. Steve Jobs wouldn't have advanced that theme. Jobs never would have said what Cook said because he'd know it would only drive book sales).
Simply put, if someone disagrees with you by calling you names or uses examples that aren't part of the argument to disprove your position, that is an ad hominem attack and it is considered a false argument. Most of the responses I've read, and I clearly haven't read all of them, fall into three classes: positive, mixed, and we want to hang the author. This last response suggests a lot of people don't want to believe the conclusion, regardless of whether it is true.
I read the book. I would have written it differently myself, but I enjoyed reading it, and I learned things I didn't know. Even though it clearly was not designed to be a fast read, I don't feel either my time or money was wasted. Is it the best book on Apple you can buy? Maybe -- but that is because few companies want unbiased books written about them. They either want a glowing story or nothing and while that kind of book certainly is more positive, it likely will be less accurate.
Why You Should Read the Book
Now if we were talking IBM and not Apple, I'd suggest every Apple user read the book because investments in enterprise technology are huge and you are betting on the firm being around in 10 years. If the assessment in this book is correct, Apple might not be.
That said, we swap out tablets and phones every two years, and we are a good six years, at least, from Apple facing a going-out-of-business scenario. So revisit this in six years, and only buy the book if you are curious or interested in what is being said -- or if you believe in free speech. (I personally never like it when a company uses its influence to kill a book about it.)
However, if your retirement money is in Apple or you work there, you likely should read the book and then form your own opinion. If things do go south, you'll be screwed -- and you'll likely regret not making a more informed decision. I'm not saying divest or quit. What I'm saying is don't hide from negative reports -- make your own informed decision. Regardless of what happens, you'll be less likely to make a mistake or regret not becoming more informed.
The reason I feel passionate about books like this getting out is that I used to be in internal audit and competitive analysis, and my internal reports often were both negative and ignored -- with dire results. I've watched a number of CEOs I've admired and liked lose their jobs because they avoided or were "protected" from negative reports that could have saved their jobs and their companies.
It is so much easier and more lucrative to tell folks, particularly those in power, what they want to hear that you'd be shocked how many CEOs are clueless about what is actually going on.
What folks often forget is I that panned the iPhone on the Today show when it was launched, largely because I believed an attractive screen phone would cause a lot of kids to die in cars since they'd have to look at it to text. I'll always wonder how many kids would be alive if folks listened to my why and didn't just jump on me for being negative about what became an incredibly successful product.
Anyway, I like Haunted Empire, but if I were to suggest everyone read one book, it still would be True Enough, because it helps you to develop armor against those who would trick you into doing stupid things. If you do, you'll be more likely to see Haunted Empire as unbiased.
Product of the Week: SimpleDeal
Given the topic this week, I was taken by an email that came in just as I was finishing this, about a product called "SimpleDeal," which connects you with a restaurant near you and allows that restaurant to communicate its specials, what it is known for, its menu and any special offers, without going through services like Groupon or Yelp.
Over the years, I've stopped trusting Yelp reviews because so many -- positive and negative -- seemed false. I hear more complaints from stores that use Groupon than praise, though I've admittedly gotten some really good deals from that service. (I've mostly switched to Amazon Local though.)
My first jobs that paid real money (not allowance) were in food services, and I do think that SimpleDeal is good for restaurants. Were it offered in my area, I'd use the app. It made me feel good to give US$10 to help the developers expand to Android and more areas (check out the Indiegogo campaign). Given this app is designed to get around phony reviews, albeit for restaurants rather than books, it dovetails with my column nicely, and it is my product of the week.