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The Strangest History Of Apple Ever

Posted by: Mark Gimein on November 30, 2011 at 7:35 AM


Reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the history of the economics and ethics of debt by David Graeber, I stumbled on one of the oddest histories of Silicon Valley you’ll ever see. Graeber is the anthropologist who is in some ways the intellectual father of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Debt is not precisely an academic monograph, or a popular book. It’s what in the 19th century would probably have been thought of as a treatise on political economy. And it covers a lot of ground. Including, on page 96, this bit:

The greater the need to improvise the more democratic the cooperation [within companies] tends to become. Inventors have always understood this, start-up capitalists frequently figure it out, and computer engineers have recently rediscovered the principle … Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.

Especially after the saturation coverage after Steve Jobs’ death, it’s not really worthwhile going over what’s wrong with that last sentence. Yesterday I sent a tweet asking about this with a big “!?” Here’s the ensuing Twitter dialogue.

@markgimein David Graeber,Debt,p96: Apple was founded by engineers from IBM who formed little democratic circles of 20-40 with laptops in garages.-HUH?!

@davidgraeber: oh ask Mr Wolff

@markgimein: You mean Tom Wolfe (this ?) But he was talking about HP, not Apple.

[I though Graeber might have had in mind Tom Wolfe’s essay about the origins of Hewlett Packard and Silicon Valley. That was somewhat closer to the description in the book.]

@davidgraeber: no I mean Richard Wolff the Marxist economist whose student did a study of the origins of Apple and never published it

@markgimein: Don’t know about Wolff. But I don’t think Apple was founded by IBM refugees. And when it was founded there were no laptops.

@davidgraeber: the laptops thing was a result of a compression of two sentences, that was silly

@davidgraeber: Richard Wolff actually and I think he led me astray

@davidgraeber: yeah I know I think Wolff was just kind of wrong about a lot of this; I tried to check with him but he didn’t answer the email

@davidgraeber: it’s upsetting; it’s also possible he was talking about a different early start-up; anyway won’t be in the 2nd edition!

Give Graeber a pass on the laptops. I’m prone to typos myself, and know how irritating it is when I make a hash of what I meant to say with a quick last minute rewrite that introduces mistakes. Graeber is old enough to remember that there were Apples long before there were laptops. Still, the sentences about Apple in the book do elicit another “Huh?”

The questions that Graeber broaches about how moral worth became entwined with the values of the marketplace are important. The values of the market pervade our social interactions. We discuss paintings in terms of price and books in terms of Amazon’s sales rankings.

Morally, this is a problem. Economics alone is a terrible guide to ethics. But questioning the moral equivalence of wealth and worth can’t require dismissing economic facts—whether it’s the history of Apple or of the bank bailouts—as an artifact of “conventional” thinking. Not even having finished Graeber’s book yet, I’m not going to start making conclusions here from a couple of sentences about Apple. But they do bring to mind a deeper question: is there enough agreement between Graeber and the folks on the other side (read: Wall Street) on economic and historical facts for a reasoned debate to happen?

Update: Hat tip to Anna Gimein (yes: related), who pointed me to the Richard Wolff lecture some of this seems to be drawn from. You can see some echoes here:

Over the last 30 years, every year, hundreds and in some years thousands of engineers in that little strip of land between San Francisco and San Jose called Silicon Valley, have done the following interesting thing. They quit their jobs working for big companies like Cisco or IBM or any of those, and together with a few friends, having walked away from those jobs, they set up a little enterprise amongst themselves, working out of one of their garages. . And they come to work each day, not wearing a suit and tie, the way they used to when working at IBM, not taking their orders as to what to do as software engineers from a supervisor, whom they didn’t like. Instead they came to work, with their laptops in tow, at the garage of their friend, wearing Hawaiian shirts, grasping a Frisbee, maybe with a dog, maybe with a toddler, and having a wonderful time in a new little enterprise.

Based on this alone, I don’t think it’s really fair to blame Wolff here. Most of what he says in this passage is fairly general and not really objectionable (though I’m not sure all that many startup engineers came from Cisco or IBM, or that every startup is such a wonderful time).

Also worth noting: I’m not the only one to notice this section of Graeber’s book—the blog Unfogged also pointed it out.

Reader Comments


November 30, 2011 11:30 AM

I started reading this book when it came out but I stopped after he said Susan B. Anthony silver dollars are designed to look "vaguely like gold" pg46. That's wrong, it was the Sacagawea dollar. The Susan B. Anthony dollar was just copper-nickel alloy which has the same color as a quarter or dime. It really made me question the "academic rigor" of the book to make an obvious mistake like that. Luckily a background in numismatics let me catch that right away but what other things that I haven't studied as much might sneak by? That Apple one is a real joke and probably would have made me throw the book in the trash instead of dump it on ebay. To think Graeber has all these conspiratorial excuses about why he didn't get tenure at Yale. If this is the kind of work he does then it shouldn't have been a surprise. I lean left and wanted to like the book but it read more like some polemic on an anarchist blog than real scholarship.

W P Gardner

November 30, 2011 1:13 PM

I noticed this Apple gaffe myself (but I used to work at Apple and it's not clear to me how much outsiders really know about the company's past -- Graeber wrote before the reason Steve Jobs book by Walter Isaacson).

I think the book has some interesting insights, especially about the anthropology of debt in the distant past. No one should read it to learn about economics or recent US history.

My advice to David Graeber is to issue a new edition of this book with a lot of these mistakes cleared up. Hire a grad student as a fact checker and improve this book; it could add a lot of value.


November 30, 2011 1:57 PM

Don't you love how he tries to blame Richard Wolff? What does Richard Wolff have to do with it? Makes you wonder if his work in Africa wasn't equally shoddy and we just don't have enough familiarity with Madagascan culture to expose it! You might be able to cut corners with obscure African tribes but Apple is just too well documented.


December 3, 2011 6:23 PM

The endnotes to *Debt* are riddled with obvious typos and other editing errors. It's unworthy of even a semi-academic book and I hope it's cleaned up for the second edition.


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"The Wealth Debate" is a running discussion of wealth, poverty, the economy and income inequality in the U.S. and the world. It was started shortly after the Occupy Wall Street movement sparked a global protest about the fallout from the financial crisis and money in politics. You can reach the editors, Dan Beucke and Mark Gimein, by email, or follow BloombergNow on Twitter to keep up with posts.

Analyses or commentary in this blog are the views of the author and or commentators, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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