Universalisms, hype and straw men

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.”

14 Responses to “Universalisms, hype and straw men”

  1. One small correction, and some further thought on the matter later: What I said (and I don’t mind at all if you use my name, Walt) on Friendfeed was:

    “Walt, I really think you’re just setting up a straw man here. Obviously, Jobs doesn’t believe that every individual has a smartphone and a laptop. He’s not an idiot. When I say things like that, it’s not meant _literally_. It’s marketing hyperbole when he says it, and when I say things like that, I usually mean something like “devices are becoming more affordable all the time, and Moore’s Law says that eventually we’ll see them in everyone’s hands”.”

    Note that I said that Jobs is marketing in his statements. In your above, you use “he” in such a way that I’m not sure if you mean that Jobs is marketing or that I am marketing. “The librarian offering this theory actually said that, when he uses universalism, he doesn’t mean it–he’s “marketing.”

    I most assuredly do not think of what I do as “marketing”, in as much as I’m not selling iPads or anything else to anyone.

    As to specifics, I’m struggling to remember ever making statements like “everyone does/has/thinks X”. When I present a technology, I try very hard to justify its use by looking at actual usage numbers and how said technology is trending. This isn’t to say that I’m not above a hyperbolic statement or three about print vs electronic texts or other trends.

  2. GeekChic says:

    Steve Jobs (and others like him) may not mean their universalisms “literally” – but they shouldn’t balk when such marketing pap is misunderstood or misinterpreted.

    I tend to take Mr. Jobs’ statements to mean something like: “Everyone that’s _worth_ anything has a smart phone.” Universalisms sound arrogant as well as ridiculous.

    Say what you mean – mean what you say. Otherwise there is no basis for a conversation or a discussion.

  3. walt says:

    I also received email about this–email that made a good point. And a virtual friend has suggested that I look like a fool when I say certain things. Both of which may be true.

    On the other hand, GeekChic suggests that I’m not alone–that at least one other person (fool?) believes that universalisms come off as arrogant as well as ridiculous.

    In fact, I do believe that, in Jobs’ world, everyone that matters has a smartphone and a notebook. I could, of course, be wrong, but I’ve certainly never seen any sign of it.

    Jason: One reason I didn’t name you is because it’s hard to parse compressed FF messages, and I wasn’t sure about pronoun use. Do you ever universalize? I suspect you do (and as the email pointed out, so do I–and when I do, it weakens the point I’m making). (Are you marketing? Well, you’re marketing your visions, and many of us do that to some extent.)

    Yes, maybe I should just shut up about absolutes and universalism…but I probably won’t, at least not completely. I do believe they cheapen discussion and stall intelligent debate–all the more so when people are called fools areor accused of raising strawmen when they object to the tactics.

    Maybe this happened partly because I was writing an essay yesterday that is, in part, about the Taiga4 statements–and encountered a case where, if I’m reading right, one person involved essentially said that nobody involved believed one of the statements–which were nonetheless issued without context. If people say things they don’t believe, and aren’t held to task, then we really are just talking past each other. That bothers me, a lot.

    (What else bothers me a lot–and yes, Jason, you do this from time to time: The continued rise of “Or thinking”–of X being “the death of Y,” of there not being room for both. Heck, you have “the App” and “the eReader” both dying in 2010… Yes, I know, “decline” isn’t as dramatic as “death.” Maybe real life shouldn’t be all drama, all the time.)

    Maybe I’m just arguing for nuance. Maybe there’s little room for that any more, particularly with “discussions” at the speed and length of Twitter and FF. Maybe I’m old…

  4. T Scott says:

    For what it’s worth, Walt, I am entirely on your side with regard to the careless use of universalisms. Sure, Griffey is correct that Jobs is using marketing hyperbole — but it’s still a sloppy use of language and sloppy use of language is evidence of sloppy thinking.

  5. bill says:

    Not sloppy — deliberate. Jobs is no fool, he knows who his target market is and how to pander to them. “Everyone has a smartphone” means “everyone as hip and attractive as YOU has a smartphone, O valued cult member”.

    People like Walt (and me) who find that off-putting were never going to buy an iPhone anyway, so Jobs doesn’t give a shit about us.

    Eh. Maybe I’m just old, too.

    (Disclaimers: I like Mac OS but use Windows because I can’t afford the money for a Mac or the time for a Linux machine. I do have an iPod, a friend gave me his old one and I like it so much I’d probably replace it if it broke.)

  6. Leigh Anne says:

    Oh, what the heck. Let’s all be old together!!

    Thank you for writing this.

  7. GeekChic says:

    I’m happy to be considered a fool (even an old fool) on this subject.

  8. Hmm … let me put it this way … I think it’s sometimes better to address the ideas behind a hyperbolic or poetic-license statement, rather than to stress it’s not literally true.

    Case in point: I often get grief if I say something like “Why should I bother to write a well-researched blog post on [whatever] – NOBODY WILL READ IT!”. Now, I know very well that the number of readers will not be absolute zero. The statement really means something like “The number of readers will very very low, and thus the post will have an inconsequential effect which will not justify the time and energy involved”. So why don’t I say that? Because I think it loses some vital emotional tone of the former version, even if the latter is more accurate.

    Basically, universalism CAN BE shorthand or misleading or puffery, etc. But I think never using them is too constraining, per above.

  9. Walt,

    Let me chime in with those of us who respect you (and are also fans), and say (with a little humor), you are absolutely right!

    In another life I often worked with teens, and I would use this statement: I never use absolutes. What does that do? Well, in addition to being a humorous oxymoron, it gets us to think about how we use the phrase “everybody does….” I want to know whose mother *never* said “Well, if everybody [or all your friends] jumped off a cliff, would you too?”

    Thanks for helping to keep us both thinking and honest in what we say.

  10. walt says:

    Thanks all–and I find two interesting contrasts. Not sure what to make of either of them:

    1. The previous post (on a possible OA book), something I really care about and consider potentially important, has received one comment to date. This relatively trivial rant has received a bunch…

    2. Comments here have been mostly supportive (which, admittedly, is common for blog comments). The thread on FriendFeed…well, not so much.

    Oh, by the way, I’m pretty sure my mother never said that. My parents were very strong on leading by example, and (as far as I can remember) very light on explicit advice of that sort. Maybe because I was the “bonus child,” nine years after my brother, five years after my sister? My sense, even from an early age, was that they trusted me to be at least moderately rational in decisions.

  11. Steve Lawson says:

    Thinking about point number one above: fighty rants are fun to comment on and take sides on.

    Questions about “should I do this project” are less fun. Unless it’s something about which I have already thought “I wish someone would do X,” I would probably stay out of it–if you don’t feel strong enough about it to just do it, why should I try and talk you into it?

  12. walt says:

    Steve: While I certainly concede the first point, I wonder about the second. What I was doing in the post was market research of a sort–after all, there’s little point in putting the essays together and doing even a nominal index if nobody’s likely to download/read it.

  13. Walt,

    Although the size (and apparent markup complexity 🙂 of your document might toss in a few hiccups, I’ve been having great success using a free ePub generator called Calibre. I convert everything to RTF before feeding it to Calibre (to, hopefully, strip out the worst Word/MS secpific garbage code). I do this because I hate all the default viewers for office documents on my droid, and the free epub reader I use makes reading long texts much easier!

  14. walt says:

    Robert: I’m not sure your comment belongs with this post, but: I’ve downloaded Calibre (after looking at possibilities), and will give it a try, although working from either filtered HTML or PDF, since RTF would lose way too much of the markup. (The markup’s not terribly complex, but it’s a very long book…)