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Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Ambiguous Apples

The apple is one of the most accessible forms of food for human beings. It grows on smallish trees, and when it is picked up from the ground or plucked from the tree it is ready to eat. Apples of different varieties mature at different times from early summer to late autumn, and many varieties can also be stored well into the winter; though it is well known that if one apple in a barrel goes bad, it quickly causes the rest to rot: hence the phrase 'a rotten apple' applied to a disruptively antisocial person.

When people in the earliest stages of civilisation created their accounts of how society came into being, they built up a marvelous story of the creation of the world, of humanity being set into that context as a uniquely competent species, and how that species developed a power to be destructive as well as constructive. The tale that of the first woman, Eve, being tempted to eat the forbidden fruit - an apple - and leading her male partner to do the same is still fascinating as an insight into human nature. The idea that there are good and evil impulses in humanity, derived from the fatal decision of the first people to break the orders they had received from the universal creator, became well set in religion in the 'fertile crescent' in the middle east [the area now being devastated by 'Islamic State'] and thence globally. The humble apple remains a symbol of the power that human beings have to use their abilities constructively and creatively, or destructively in terms of how their actions impinge on other people.

Isaac Newton apparently really did get the idea that the force of gravity is universal by exercising his imagination on the simple question of why do apples - among all other terrestrial objects; and with the earth's moon - tend to descend towards the centre of the earth unless that progress is stayed by some intervening force or structure. Thus the apple is recorded as part of the origin of scientific thought.

Today the corporate results for Apple are due to be published, which are forecast to confirm that it has been consolidated as the biggest business in the world; by turnover, profits and the valuation of  its stock by the markets. The apple - with a human bite taken from it - was chosen as the logo of a business which was not a substantial processor or manufacturer of any material commodity. While the huge oil companies and motor manufacturers sold billions of dollarsworth of material commodities, many of which were processed into final products by the application of manifold patents and sold under copyright brand names, their ultimate dependence on material resources was unambiguous. Apple grew by franchising out the manufacturing processes, and thus the capital that had to be tied up in material manufacturing facilities came from other sources. Apple could incorporate products - some of them highly sophisticated - that were devised by other firms into the products that they sold, and thus maintain the momentum of their inventiveness without the burden of investment in factories or in the sort of human resources management that inevitably attaches to material production.  

Apple, Google and the other leading brands in what is [rather strangely] called the 'technology' sector of the economy are not dependent on the ownership of materially productive facilities. Most of the 'hardware' through which customers access their intellectual property are made by other corporations. The assets held by the tech companies include billions of dollarsworth of financial assets that have been accumulated from their past profits, alongside their ownership of the patents and copyrights and trademarks and brands that are defended at huge cost from 'piracy' by anyone who tries to make illicit use of their technology.

The essential difference between these 'tech' companies and those that trade in material assets is that the companies in the material sphere, exemplified by the big oil producers and by the firms that make the components of the iPhone [and assemble the final product], are selling products made from finite resources of which reserves are limited. Constant exploration has so far found enough new resources to meet foreseen demand into the medium-term future, but the material components of the planet are finite and a growing population is capable of exploiting them to the point of exhaustion.  The assets belonging to Apple are capable of indefinite expansion. New ideas can be implemented all the time, new experiences can be offered to customers, and there is no obvious limit to that expansion as the collective of human minds appears to be capable of delivering an infinite expansion of intellectual property. There is a potential limit to the physical facilities through which intellectual concepts and processes can be accessed, of course, when the human race destroys the resources of the planet on which our material existence depends. At some point in that final self-destruction of the human economy the material ability to generate electricity will fail, and then the 'technology' sector will be unable to operate; but that point will be well down the process of societal and economic decay.

I was privileged to know the mathematician who served as a professor of English Literature and who explored the capabilities and ambiguities of the human mind in an unusually profound way; who wrote a book entitled Seven Types of Ambiguity. He could have selected more than seven types but his message was that the expression of human thought is infinitely flexible, and ultimately all concepts are ambiguous. That is the basis on which the 'tech' sector has been founded, and from which its continuing productiveness will stem.

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