I’d had a note on my “maybe blog about this” pad for a while about absolutes and universalisms. Today, I was pushed into turning that note into a post–a brief and ill-thought-out post, but a post nonetheless.
I objected to Steve Jobs’ statement that everybody has a smart phone and a notebook (as part of his introduction of the iPad)–just as I’ve previously objected to his assertion that nobody reads books (which came, to be sure, before he introduced a device well-suited to ebook reading).
And a library person said I was setting up a straw man and that when this library person says equally absurd “everybody” things, he means something else–he’s just marketing. I thought about that for a while and reached a conclusion.
Consider the following three absolutely false statements:
- Everybody uses Windows.
- Everybody has a cell phone.
- Everybody has a smartphone.
Guess what? If you used any of those statements in an advertisement, the FTC could (and probably would) be down on you like a hawk. I’m never quite sure what constitutes “marketing,” but ads and press releases are part of it–and you couldn’t get away with using any of those in either one, without drawing (at least) a lot of derision.
Now, did you recognize one thing about the three statements?
They’re in increasing order of falsehood. Around 94% of PCs in the U.S. run Windows (and most people own some PC of one sort or another). That’s not “everybody.” But it’s close. Let me run that statement by Apple and see how they feel about it…
Not everybody (in the U.S.) has a cell phone; last time I looked, it was around 80%.
As for smartphones: They’re a relatively small minority of cell phones, even in the U.S. I think it’s fair to suggest that fewer than half of Americans have smartphones, probably a lot fewer.
But it doesn’t really matter–they’re all false universalisms.
The strawman accusation
It’s really convenient to dismiss criticism by saying “You’re setting up a strawman.” When you can do that when somebody’s been quoted, you’re doing even better.
What you’re saying is, in essence: “You’re not allowed to criticize what this person’s saying–because you don’t know that they mean what they’re saying. And, you know, it’s OK to say any damn fool thing for marketing purposes, without being criticized for it.”
The librarian offering this theory actually said that, when he uses universalism, he doesn’t mean it–he’s “marketing.” But it’s OK for him to call me out for setting up “straw men,” where it would obviously not be OK for me to call him out on absurd universalisms–because, you know, he didn’t mean it. He just said it.
The death of discussion
At which point, there can no longer be any sort of reasonable criticism or discussion. If people can legitimately say “I didn’t mean that” when they’re correctly quoted, then the whole process breaks down.
From a personal perspective, I might find this interesting. Since I couldn’t really do Cites & Insights at all–after all, any commentary could be dismissed on the grounds of “X not really meaning what X said”–I’d give it up and catch up on reading. But I’m old. I’m not sure “what the hell, nobody really means what they say” works for younger folk.
Saying what you mean
If what you mean to say is “In another few years, anybody in a first-world nation who wants a smartphone can probably afford one”–well, you know, you could say that. (Which does not mean everybody will have a smartphone. Being able to afford something and choosing to have it are two very different things.)
If what you mean to say is “In another few years everybody will have a smartphone,” you’re just plain wrong, and should take a look at the demographics of the world.
In either case, turning that into “everybody has a smartphone” is nonsense–and justifying it by saying “it’s just marketing” or “it’s just hype” is, I think, worse than nonsense. It makes it impossible to carry on any serious discussion.
Oh, and saying “everybody” followed by much of anything other than “needs to eat,” “needs to breathe” or “will eventually die”? Almost certainly wrong.
Written in haste, after dinner, with little or no editing. But, you know, if you want to criticize anything I say here, be my guest. You won’t see me saying “I didn’t really mean that–it was just marketing.”