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culture tech

Tribal malfunction (rooting for tech companies is silly)

Humans are instinctively tribal. Our fierce, hard-wired clan loyalty has its advantages; in the prehistoric age of hunter-gatherers, tribal commitment could make the difference between surviving together or dying alone.

That same tribal instinct drives our social behavior today, too. We’re driven by irrational devotion to sports franchises, political parties, and, yes, multinational technology companies.

In the last case, we’re bound to our “team” not by geography, ideology, or genetics, but by past purchases. Once we decide to invest thousands of dollars in one platform over another, we feel tremendous pressure to see that decision justified, to see “our side” come out on top. Hence, we see Apple hordes descending upon tech sites that don’t give Cupertino the credit it deserves.

Such brand affinity is a malfunction of our tribal programming, and it works against our own best interests. Google and Amazon will never return my allegiance, and their success is largely irrelevant to my own happiness. So why should I bother defending them, or deriding their competitors?

If anything, we should root against any one company—even our “favorite”—from dominating the market. Apple customers should celebrate the successes of Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Amazon at least as enthusiastically as Apple’s own victories. We need viable ecosystems and trend-setting products outside of iOS; competition is good for the industry, good for consumers, and good for Apple.

So, when Google debuts a phone like the Pixel 2, the logical response from Apple fans should be “That camera is incredible!”, not “Neener, neener! Apple was right about the headphone jack!” When Apple announces another record-shattering quarter of profits, Android afficianados should cheer, instead of prattling on about “sheeple” buying whatever Jony says is good.

Let’s leave the tech cheerleading to those on these companies’ payrolls. Let’s step back from the arena and let the tech giants duke it out themselves. And let’s look forward to the innovation ahead, no matter whether it comes from Mountain View, Cupertino, Seattle, or Redmond. ■


  1. Foam finger artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

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Why no electronics at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts?

Hogwarts is a no-gizmo zone. The Harry Potter books make it clear that electronic contraptions simply don’t work within the magical castle’s confines. But why not?

The ever astute Hermione Granger offers an explanation: “All those substitutes for magic Muggles use–electricity, computers, and radar, and all those things–they all go haywire around Hogwarts, there’s too much magic in the air” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Fair enough; maybe spells and potions create electromagnetic interference–shorting circuits and stymieing radio waves.

But why would Potter author J.K. Rowling conjure up such an arbitrary complication? Why impose this limit? What does she have against electronics? Is she a technophobe, weaving her gizmo-hateinto the story? Consider: Rowling prefers writing by hand and resisted publishing the Harry Potter series in eBook form until just a few months ago.

But Rowling is no Luddite. Or if she is, I doubt this explains why she banished gadgets from the Hogwarts grounds.

Instead, Rowling’s writing suggests that tech has a sinister side. For example, she links modern conveniences with Muggle oafishness. Consider Dudley’s birthday from Sorcerer’s Stone: “It looked as though Dudley had gotten the new computer he wanted, not to mention the second television and the racing bike. Exactly why Dudley wanted a racing bike was a mystery to Harry, as Dudley was very fat and hated exercise – unless of course it involved punching somebody.” Here, electronics made you dull and brutish and wretched.

Another possibility: maybe Rowling wanted to preserve Hogwarts as a world unto itself. She recaptures a lost, golden age of British education–the boarding school, completely secluded from wider society. Before academies were perforated by digital communication–social networks, email, texting, instant messaging–each school was a self-contained universe. Here, the social world was all, and children could become kings, queens, and villains.

Harry Potter, then, is about rediscovered relationships–kids escaping from gadgetized distraction and plunging headfirst into the joys of actually connecting with other real people.

If that’s true, then Rowling eschewed technology at Hogwarts for the same reasons the Amish do.

These “Plain People” famously reject electricity, telephones, and computers from their homes. Often, they are lampooned for this “backwards” lifestyle. But there is purpose to the Amish people’s caution. Many such technologies threaten to disrupt the sacred cohesion of the community-at-large. The mobility that cars make possible, for example, disconnects us from our immediate neighbors. Telephones distances family members from one another. By banning such inventions, the Amish recover a relationality often lost in modern American culture.

In the same way, banning technology from Hogwarts doesn’t just make room for the wizards’ magical escapades. It also reintroduces a shared life that communications technology has banished from most modern academic communities.