Apples for the students? Beyond good or evil

Posted on February 18, 2013


We’ve got a new Mac suite at work.  We intend to use it for teaching operating systems, networks etc, as well as a platform for developing for the iOS.

On our department facebook page an interesting debate has been raging, started by the following question:

I’d like to know (and I know of others who feel the same) what the Polytech intends to teach students about Apple’s business strategies (such as <a href=””>these</a&gt;) now that you have this “new Mac Suite”?  Does the Polytech condone what this company is doing to our planet with the practice of intentionally producing minimal lifespan, non-upgradeable, environmentally unsustainable products in order to maximise profits?

There are 96 comments, mostly a paragraph or two of constructive debate.  Perhaps surprising is that the level of  ‘fan-boy’ accusation is remarkably low.

Here are my thoughts:

Otago Polytechnic has a mission of education such that “every graduate may think and act as a sustainable practitioner”. The main part of the “think” is being able to recognise the problem and have coherent discussion – so well done IT students.   The “act” means being “change agents” – so what to do?

My favourite definition of sustainability is “ethics expanded in space and time”.  This ethical basis means that there are no clear cut answers – sustainability does not come in black and white (see the famous trolley dilemma). While it might be simpler to do so, it doesn’t really make sense to claim outright Apple is “good” or “evil”.  Even if we did assume evil it is not a simple matter of yes/no having an Apple suite.  Several analyses have shown that while the negative impact – or “footprint”- of computing is huge and needs to be reduced, the potential positive impact – the “handprint” is far bigger.  To change the world we need to find our biggest lever and pull on it (to borrow from Archimedes).  The Polytechnic has a purchasing policy that details consideration of supply chain effects, but our far bigger lever is producing students who can make a positive difference.  Last year our top scoring project was a framework for producing smartphone apps in the field of citizen science – involving people in the environment. The first application of that was an iPhone app that will soon be released to every NZ school in the next few weeks with the goal of getting all kids onto the rocky shore and caring about the environment.

Is there an impact of engaging with Apple?  Yes. Are we making a positive difference – yes.