Last week, world media drew attention to a huge glass globe bedecked with the familiar Apple logo and colours perched on top of the water in Singapore’s iconic Marina Bay Sands. It is Apple’s first floating flagship, its fourth international headquarters. By pure coincidence, the same day that breath-taking photo appeared, I arrived in Houston where I learned that the world’s leading high tech firm had shuttered its other (also glass) flagships in the US as a result of the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, and simultaneously that its net worth had surpassed two trillion dollars.
In an article in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 12 August 2018, I cheered Apple’s success at setting a new one trillion-dollar benchmark for wealth, and noted that other companies, such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google (Alphabet), were following close behind. Sure enough, within two years they, too, crossed the one trillion-dollar threshold, while Apple led the way towards the second trillion. It took the tech giant several decades reach its first trillion but only two years to reach its second. Two years ago, Apple was worth more than the top five banks in the US, more than all the major automobile manufacturers in the world, more than the major defence industries in the US, and more than all the major US media companies put together. By the turn of this millennium, it had become clear that digital firms, with their products and the wealth they generate, were generating a revolution in the forces of production that would have an impact on human civilisation no less sweeping than the agricultural revolution that began in Egypt and Iraq and the industrial revolutions that began in Europe and North America. Apple and its peers have changed humankind. Not only have they given us the personal computer and its related products and communications systems, they have created a revolution in “intelligence”: in human intelligence, machine intelligence and in the relationship between the two.
Needless to say, this article is not meant as publicity for Apple or to mourn the disappearance of its retail outlets in the US. Its purpose is to show that amidst all that has been happening so far in 2020, in a world gripped by the developments related to Covid-19, other developments are steering humankind in new and original directions. Note, Apple does not possess oil wells or gas fields, diamond or gold mines, or iron, copper or uranium deposits. The main source of wealth of the firm that started out as a computer manufacturer is not on or under the ground, but in the online Apple Store which accounts for 80 per cent of mobile phone application sales and a third of the music sales in the world. Google has the browser that nine out of 10 users surf through. Facebook has three billion subscribers. Amazon, alone, garnered half of all the money Americans spend on electronics. We are speaking, here, of the largest market in human history.
Apple opened this decade with a sweeping renovation process. Where will it take us? It will probably not be long before we are treated to a surprise in the form of an unprecedented innovation in one of its products or, perhaps, a new product altogether. Press releases from Apple these days tell us that it is proceeding in three directions at once. Firstly, it is freeing itself from dependency on other firms, such as Intel and Samsung, by incorporating the production of all the parts and applications it needs. Secondly, it is updating all its hardware and software to accommodate the G5 communications system. Thirdly, it is rebranding itself as truly “global” with a global clientele. The new floating headquarters in Singapore is, perhaps, a harbinger of a new world in which “little countries” can become the most important countries in the world. In the past, such countries had reputations as bases for dubious banking transactions. Today, they have the opportunity to become the base for companies that only need a sovereign foothold where they can work, produce and export. The US and China are not necessarily the best places for this.
The new Apple — one can ask, here, whether the word “new” is right for a company that is constantly renewing itself — might reflect a much broader phenomenon in the framework of what essentially appears to be a mad and furious race between a virus that has multiplied its ability to spread and infect, and digital technology firms that not only aim to multiply their wealth (and of course that of their owners) but also to increase the ability and the speed with which they expand, store and process information and, of course, take over companies that are smaller but no less talented. Despite all the talk about the “end of globalisation” against the backdrop of a pandemic unparalleled since the Spanish Flu (1918-1922) and a global economic crisis worse than the Great Depression in the 1930s, the move towards globalisation has not ground to a halt. Far from it. New technologies are filling its sails, not just in the coastal waters of Singapore but in seas and oceans across the planet. Surely it is no coincidence that companies such as Amazon and Tesla have set their sights beyond planet earth. The former envisions a space station on the moon, the latter a fleet of interplanetary passenger spaceships bound for Mars. Between earth and new celestial destinations are endless processes of research, develop and production that should contribute to making human life better and easier. Perhaps one of the first fruits of these processes are “self-driving” electric cars.
When Covid-19 first struck, people wondered whether the world would ever be the same as before, or whether the pandemic exposed profound changes that were already in progress, such as the rise of China. However, reality appears to have proven more complex. Anyone who has studied Marx would know that the forces that move history are not class conflicts, which are more of an effect than a cause, but the instruments, engines and other forces of production that generate classes within society and among nations. What will the new revolution bring in this regard?
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly