Dictatorship and democracy - which can engage the citizen?

02 Feb 2017

The autobiography of Steve Jobs is a gripping read, especially for someone who loves technology. It has a lot of fascinating insight into human nature.

One of my favourite stories concerns the early days of Apple when they hired a top Japanese CD drive technician, behind the backs of his big-name employer. He was at work in the Apple office in Cupertino one day when a top executive from his company arrived unexpectedly on a visit. The poor technician was summarily pushed into a cleaning cupboard to keep him out of sight during the visit. When his colleagues eventually released him from the cupboard with profuse apologies, he remarked: "No problem, but you Americans have a funny way of doing business."

Jobs' vision of an online music store (iTunes) and the way he managed to get the big music companies like Sony to agree to have their music for sale in it, is particularly remarkable. Sony had all that was needed to create their own integrated music universe - the hardware and the songs. Yet Apple's iPod and the iTunes store delivered what Sony was never able to deliver.

Among the reasons why, according to the biographer, was that Sony was a vast company subdivided into multiple divisions which had great difficulty working together. Apple, on the other hand, was ruled by one man who could see the big picture and made decisions quickly.

Sony is a sort-of (but inadequate) metaphor for democracy, whereas Apple is a sort-of metaphor for dictatorship - at least in regard to decision-making. While political dictatorship is often more efficient than political democracy, it ultimately fails because it shuts the ordinary citizen out of the political process.

Yet democracy today seems to be moving in a similar direction through the alienation of large swathes of voters who feel disengaged from the activities of a political elite. Arise Mr Trump, a political dictator who has swept to power on the back of the democratic engagement of millions who felt disengaged and want better.

Time will tell whether his dictatorship and their democratic aspirations can continue to flow together.