When Apple called a press conference to announce how it planned to pay back to investors a chunk of its staggering $98 billion in cash holdings in the form of a stock buyback program and quarterly dividend, it was as much about Wall Street as it was about Main Street.
While investors on Wall Street would like Apple to put its cash to use as efficiently as possible, consumers on Main Street are more concerned about the values of the company and the message that its cash hoard is sending to the world. At a time when Apple has the ability to sell 3 million new iPads in the course of a weekend, the company has come under mounting pressure to put its cash to work, creating new jobs and new opportunities, rather than letting it earn interest in a bank account.
Welcome to the new reality of global capitalism, where the companies comprising America’s technology elite are being held to stringent standards not only by the world’s investors, but also by the world’s tech consumers — whether in the Bay Area or Beijing. In the past, it was America’s multinationals — companies such as Coca-Cola, Nike, Proctor &Gamble and McDonald’s — that were responsible for presenting the face of American-style capitalism to the world. Now, it is the tech giants of Silicon Valley. In a world where, according to systems company Cisco, soon there will be more mobile devices than humans and where it is more likely that a person anywhere in the world will conduct a Google search more often than they eat a Big Mac, it is easy to understand why so many people are eager to weigh in on Apple's nearly $100 billion in cash.
This sense of corporate responsibility that led, at least indirectly, to Apple’s cash dividend and stock buyback program is also responsible for the global brouhaha over the conditions of Apple's overseas factories where all of the company’s wonderful new gadgets are actually made. While Apple’s products may be designed in California, they continue to be manufactured in places such as China. The latest flare-up was Mike Daisey’s dramatic but largely debunked recounting of the conditions at Foxconn, where some workers were reportedly committing suicide and suffering unbearable indignities. Suddenly, Apple was being held up as a poster child of everything that is broken in the world’s global economy. Getting the next cool iPad gadget didn’t seem as cool if it meant workers toiled in sweatshop-like conditions.
It’s not just Apple that’s being held to higher standards. Other major tech companies have been forced to explain everything from their take on privacy to their willingness to accept government censorship policies. Take Google, for example. As the company has pushed into lucrative markets such as China, it has faced a growing firestorm of controversy over its willingness to acquiesce to censorship demands from the Chinese authorities in exchange for a potentially lucrative opportunity in a fast-growing economy.
Facebook, too, has faced similar problems as its social network expands to 800 million people worldwide. In many people’s eyes, Facebook’s take on privacy becomes symbolic of America’s approach to privacy. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Twitter has become the communications tool of not just new tech innovators, but also of democracy and human rights protesters, suddenly enabled by a 24/7 communications network beyond government control. (Full disclosure: Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief xecutive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.)
Like it or not, tech companies have become more than global arbiters of taste in consumer gadgets. They have become America’s most potent symbols of global capitalism. They stand for freedom of speech, for responsible work conditions and for the right to equal participation in society by all groups regardless of gender or income. As these tech giants continue to pile up cash and extend their global reach, this responsibility is transforming from a market imperative into a duty and an obligation.
We once thought of companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s as symbolic of the American way of life. Now, it is tech giants such as Apple and Google that are symbolic of America. In a global economy, there are some places the invisible hand of the market can’t seem to reach. But these are places companies such as Google, Apple and Twitter can reach, thanks to the ubiquity and magic of the Internet.
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