Countercultural values

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak speaks up in favour of countercultural values as contributing factors in Silicon Valley’s commercial successes, and as providing keys to creativity. Thinking for yourself, wearing the clothes you like, dropping out, innovating, and rebelling against conformity go together.

Of course, there’s a conflict between the “think different” slogan (promoted by Steve Jobs) and the powerfully corporate, hyper-organised, controlled and controlling world of Apple. Is there a theory of successfully organised non-conformity?

Flat marble surface covered in lipstick and graffiti

The cool, modernist, minimalism of contemporary Apple design (via Jonathan Ive) puts one in mind of the Platonic forms, and hence Platonic idealism. Plato also hinted at the way organisations operate. For Plato, there are those people who tend more towards reliability. These people are like the sturdy, organised, parallel threads (the warp) deployed in the weaving process to make fabrics. The more decorative elements, the woof (or weft), are looser and threaded between the straight stuff. Both are required to create a smooth and “well-woven” fabric (Statesman, 311c). By this reading, any organisation needs radical as well as organised elements (see Network Notion). Perhaps the non-conformists are ok so long as their activity gets channelled and directed to good ends.

It’s common to think of media organisations, games developers, architects, and R&D setups as organised roughly into two parts. There are the reliable organisers, the accountants, the planners, the legals and the project facilitators. On the other hand, the design teams, the creatives, are the ones who come in late, work into the evening, and dress as they like. Their manners are sometimes brusque and unpredictable, but tolerated. The warp of the organisers supports the tangled web of the slightly dysfunctional but highly creative “woofs.”

But here’s a slightly different view of the relationship between organisation and creativity … The philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari referenced Plato, and developed a philosophy of organised non-conformity … or perhaps it’s disorganised conformity.

They endorse the idea of two kinds of “structures.” There’s tree-like organisation where things connect in a hierarchical manner. The trunk holds the branches, which in turn support smaller branches, and twigs. All the parts lead back to the authority of the leader (the trunk).

A more rhizomic structure is one in which there is no sense of a leader, and parts are interconnected in dynamic and indeterminate ways, much as we now think of social networks (on and offline).

I don’t think theirs is a theory of Platonic balance, control, and harmony between the organisers and the creatives, but about accepting a set of relationships that are always fraught. Neither is it about two groups of people, but an endemic condition within all of us, and within any system.

Deleuze and Guattari think of a rhizome as parasitic on established structures. It grows from within to eat away at the edifice of the tree. The trappings of bureaucracy and the keeping of accounts operate as trees (arboreally), but creative subversion “can begin to burgeon nonetheless, throwing out rhizome stems, as in a Kafka novel” (p. 15). Institutions are prone to disturbances to their own operations and authority from within.

On another tack … any system is perverted by ill-formed and deviant flows: “A mutant flow always implies something tending to elude or escape the codes” (p. 219). Their metaphor of the rhizome draws attention to a disruption in the flow, “a system of interruptions or breaks (coupures)” (p. 36).

everything functions at the same time, but amidst hiatuses and ruptures, breakdowns and failures, stalling and short circuits, distances and fragmentations, within a sum that never succeeds in bringing its various parts together so as to form a whole (p. 42).

Perhaps their most profound point is that the human condition, politics, language, art, history, and institutions are best understood through the idea of the rhizome and of the machine running amok, a self-destructive or intensely self-transforming movement without beginning or end.

Back to the Apple tree: The recent BBC documentary homage to Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs – Billion Dollar Hippy) hints at this unsettled movement, conflict and contradiction, in one organisation at least.

Theirs is a political rather than an organisational manual, but I often think Deleuze and Guattari provide a good starting assumption for any manager, whatever your position in the tree. Don’t think of your organisation as a statically ideal system where everything is in its place, from which it occasionally deviates and to which it must be returned. Organisations don’t only occasionally suffer from outside interference. They are already unsettled, and from within. But then we don’t need Deleuze and Guattari to tell us that (or Silicon Valley non-conformists and entrepreneurs). It’s really just about facing up to the way things are, and being pragmatic.



  1. qingzhao says: was the ultimate arbiter of Apple products and his standards were exacting. To his understanding of technology he brought an immersion in popular culture in his 20s; His worldview was shaped by the 60s counterculture in San Francisco Bay Area.

    Jobs push company to the counterculture image in 1997. He said: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Innovation has no limits. The only limit is your imagination. It’s time for you to begin thinking out of the box. If you are involved in a growing industry, think of ways to become more efficient; more customer friendly; and easier to do business with. If you are involved in a shrinking industry – get out of it quick and change before you become obsolete; out of work; or out of business. And remember that procrastination is not an option here. Start innovating now!

    We can try our best to deny them but can’t to ignore them. Iphone and Ipad have ended pc era. I think he not so much invented a series of products but changed the relationship between human and technology as well as lead them to new digital culture.

    Counterculture is the prolongation of business management and a kind of corporate culture. Some company wants to copy Apple to manage their firm, but they found “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Apple has a unique way of marketing management as well as elite designers and technique group. If they intend to copy they will not become Apple. Because the core of Apple is creative power.

  2. Xiaoting Han says:

    I am quite agreed with some opinions in this article. First, it is important for us to think for ourselves, dropping out, innovating, rebelled against conformity go together, it’s a key element for creativity. Second, I do believe that just because apple thought really in a different way, can they controlling most of the ordinary people. They created something that couldn’t be dreamed by most of the public in the past, they got the courage to break the rules in cell phone & laptop, as rewards, people accepted them, trust them and gave them the power to control. It is the theory of successful and apple never disappointed his loyalty.

    Thirdly, for my own point of view, rhizomic structure can be a better way to inspire creativity. Once there is a leader, the authority can be restricted to the workers creativity that they may afraid of offending him/her. For the purpose of self-preservation, they may hide their different ideas to cater to the authority. Fourthly, it is so difficult to find a balance between the control and creativity. Only if the competition exists, workers can be inspired to break through, creativity can be encouraged. Fifth, I hold the viewpoint that there are two dimensions exists in our world at the same time, one dimension is the rhizomic structure, the other one is the trunk structure. Take website as an example, both the online and offline world are organized as the rhizomic that each user is an independent unit, they do what they like and almost no leader exists. However for a company, a leader or CEO is essential that important decisions must be made and all risks must be undertook by him/her.

    Then, I do agree with the fact that doesn’t think of the organization as a statically ideal system where everything is in its place, organizations don’t only occasionally suffer from outside interference, but from within. Creativity can burst out in a really unrestrained and opened environment that people can dream and think freely, without any worry about job and safety. What’s more, the interferences that from within has much more power for creativity.

  3. kimo says:

    There is curse in most of the primary schools, that the most naughty child in class, will be one of the most successful person in their adulthood. Just leave the definition of “success” for a moment. It hints that the characteristic of breaking the law bravely is a quality to be distinguish.
    In my opinion, a person who break the law, actually understand more about the law. Everybody (unless he is totally going to give up everything) doesn’t want to put themselves into a tough situation, so when he plans to do something “out of the grid”, he will try to figure out where is the limitation of it. During the process, by grasping the principle, they can break it in some way. It just like we are conducting grid design. It might look stupid in the beginning, but consistent “practice” until he grows up, it is a highly possible that he can learn how to break a law in an elegant way.
    As to our naughty classmates who did close to us at that time and fail to be a good law- breaker after growing up, it is reasonable for us to have no idea where they are. I guess it can be an insight relevant to this topic, as Steve Jobs might be just too excel at LAW, and he plays it like a game in a way we even can not realise.

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