Understanding Our Love / Hate Relationship With Products

In order to turn a product-based company around, we need to first explore why we need products to begin with? Do we need technology at all? Perhaps we should just abandon it all and go back to the quiet cottage on the countryside.

The short answer is that products are tools, much like a hammer or screwdriver. Whether we use tools to build a house, or a computer to type this article, they make it easier for us to complete tasks. But products also have the potential to help us do more.

People got tired of lifting something up with their own might, so they invented pulleys and counterweights. Circular wheels worked better than the square ones; and plows allowed farmers to do more in less time. But for all the benefits that products provide, they also run the risk of desensitizing us to our own talents and abilities. Someone who is an expert doesn’t need tools. For example a teacher in a classroom, if he or she is an expert, doesn’t need to rely on lesson plans. This expert teacher knows how and what to teach already. This is the same with every occupation. If someone is seeking tools, maybe they are like the teacher that prefer relying on ready-made materials?

The point is that tools and products have a place. But if the user is relying on them, this could very well be a sign that they are not an expert yet. For example: a not-so-great musician makes use of all sort of digital tricks during the editing stage. If someone finds themselves always looking for tools, they should probably look for another occupation in which they can excel.

A World Before Tools

What was it like in a world before tools? On the surface, it would seem excruciatingly difficult to complete any manual task. But it could very well be that people were more natural experts in their field. The medical profession is a good example of this. Today western medicine relies heavily on scans, x-rays, blood tests, etc… to determine how to treat the patient. The fact that doctors have these tools at their disposal leads to them becoming reliant on them. What then happens if you have a very good doctor, with years of experience, that intuitively knows that this condition is a sign of this ailment? His colleagues will likely still tell him to corroborate his expert “sense” with purely empirical findings. As one can imagine, this expert doctor will gradually learn to let the machines and tests become the deciding voice. One risk of the proliferation of technology then is the dulling of the senses. The reliance on the machines to think and do the work for us.

This essay is not to encourage the abandonment of tools, but instead to reposition them as they were intended. They are tools but not crutches. Objects that can make tasks easier to accomplish, but not a replacement for intuition.

The problem with a world without products is that people may become despondent over ever becoming experts. As we discussed regarding teachers, or doctors, sometimes tools are what is needed for the moment. Products in this content can then be seen as occupational therapy for the mind. Do something so that you don’t grow weary and bored.

While the road to becoming an expert begins with study and experience, for the meantime, products have their place. This is like the stories about all the innovative ways people are using iPads. From doctors being able to have easy access to patient information and x-rays, to teachers using it as a teaching tool in the classroom, these stories seem very compelling. But in light of our discussion, they are only a means to an end. The best approach is to emulate the product team themselves, deliberating diligently for hours to discover new ideas and insights. While the product is the outcome, the focus is always on the concepts they represent. Like the doctor that used to rely on intuition, or the teacher that used to bring excitement to the classroom without technology, if Apple has stalled, it’s because they have become reliant on the products they themselves have developed.

Selling the Stories

While the stories we hear in the Apple advertisements are exciting, the goal of the products should be to bring that excitement down into the real world. While the marketing presents sentiments that are universally accepted, the outcome depends on each end-user.

Everyone agrees that if technology could advance the medical or education professions, then it is serving a vital purpose. The distinction though is in its application. Obviously the intention is that Apple’s products be good for everyone. But there are also specific details that relate to each individual user. To combat the media, which is to show the veracity of new products, Apple should focus more on promoting these personal stories. Accounts of how people were directly benefited from using their products. The more stories that are collected, the greater the momentum for each new product offering. But the real success stories are from those that used iPads for a time, then learned how to implement the “iPad experience” in their own lives.

This discussion reverts back and forth between making use of products, and the motivation to put down or discard them. The motivation behind the title of this essay, is that while the product reminds us of universal concepts, the main point is to apply these concepts* within one’s own path of discovery. To a certain extent, the product needs to be seen as bitter (i.e. something hateful), although it can also sweeten your lives as well (i.e. beloved).

Making Products

The culmination of these thoughts is that the greatest product is experience itself. This is why personal stories are so telling. Like an expert doctor who has seen thousands of patients over the years, the more examples we see of people using the product, the more we can learn to live our lives without it. This is like the expert doctor who intuitively knows the treatment even before the scans, tests, etc… His tools of the trade are not something that can be bought on Apple.com. They are the product of his experience, gained as the result of years of effort and training. The reason personal stories are so marketable is because they show us the ways in which the iPad are beneficial. Like a doctor who has a roomful of treatments to choose from, these stories sensitize us to what people stand to gain from the product.

End-User Content

The primary example for this type of interaction is between a teacher and their student. The teacher teaches something, and the unbashful student points out what he thinks is a difficulty. The novelty we would like to bring out is that while the teacher presents the concept, it is still up to the understanding student to construct the tool or product.

Apple has always prided itself on delivering products that foster creativity. The greatest fostering, however, would be not to need these products at all. Maybe we could all read Wikipedia entries about speed, thinness, portability… all these universal concepts presented in the commercials. Maybe this would be enough? But as we said, students need to feel like they are doing something productive, and so tools or products are developed. The best result would be for the student (end-user) to come back to Apple and say you’ve got it all wrong. You should make the product this way, etc… At its heart, this is really what open API or the App Store is all about. For the teacher, programming suggestions and submissions are a sign that the student was listening well in class.

Inspired Products

Aside from the fact that the teacher (or manufacturer in this case) should be open to feedback, manufacturer-driven products also have another potential problem: they aren’t developed with the same degree of inspiration as user-generated content. A team of coworkers can come up with products, but their offerings cannot be said to fully “house” the concepts. As we said above, products are only a means to an end. They are there to train the students toward self-sufficiency, until the point that perhaps they are not even needed at all. The fact that the end-users are the ones most inclined to eventually throw away the product, also makes them the best ones to develop and update it.

When a person doesn’t realize the personal applications behind the product, then he or she is still stuck in generalities. This is like a person who is always enamored by the next product, the next run of advertisements, but fails to connect this general excitement to the particulars..

Like the doctor with his pharmacy full or treatments to choose from, each beneficial App tells a story. There was some difficulty with what the teacher first presented the student, so the student came back to their teacher with an apple. While millions of us were given products, it is our task to improve upon them.

Someone who is involved in counseling makes use of different psychological tricks and techniques in order to help their patients. This is why arguably the greatest story behind Apple products is the user-generated content. As we said, the students have two main advantages over the teacher: The first is that their questions are more inspired. The second is that they are the ones vested with the task of providing the tools.

The reason apps are so compelling is not just because they may come from a more inspired place. It’s also because, as we said above, the penultimate application for a product is best achieved by those who would like nothing better to discard the original. In the future, the truly beneficial applications will exist without the need for the original at all. The applications will exist without the needs for the iPad at all.

Jewish concepts behind this discussion:

“Introduction” Section:

Why do we need tools? At the end of the Torah portion of Beshalach, the Jewish people just before the War with Amalek, come to a place called Refidim. The sages say this place was called such because they were weary of learning Torah. Today there are people who are weary of learning Chassidut, and thus lift up their hands and cry out: Give us tools!!! But who needs tools? Only a person who is not well-versed in what he is doing. Someone who is an expert doesn’t need tools… If you find that your are searching for tools, then you should probably look for another occupation in which you will excel.

“A World Before Tools” Section:

… Many times the demand for vessels, for tools indicates a lack of expertise, beginning with an inability to meditate in the Chassidic way. Many people learn Chassidut today, but how many actually meditate, before davening (morning prayer), after davening. Who does this today? If you have a problem, what should you do? If you’re searching for solutions, the real solutions are through meditation. As it says in the Tanya, the greatest solution to everything a person may be suffering from is that “He who has mercy over others is given mercy Above.” This means giving tzadakah (charity).

“Selling the Stories” Section:

In Chassidut, there is a beautiful definition as to what light and vessel are. The exile in Egypt, all the stories we read in the Book of Shemot are all light; while the mitzvot are meant to give us tools to manifest these lights into reality. Now in Chassidut, one beautiful definition is that lights relate to understanding how things are the same/similar, while vessels/tools mean understanding how they are different… seeing differences.

The Zohar says that all the mitzvot of the Torah are like pieces of advice. There are pieces of advice that are universal, they are good for everyone, for instance giving tzedakah like we said. To be able to reach everyone universally, that is the essence of light, like the light of the sun that reaches everyone equally. But there are also specific pieces of advice, specific in the way that each person is different.

To be able to give particular advice, that requires an understanding in vessels/tools. One has to be a maven in differences between people. Light has the capacity to transmit what is universal to everyone. Relatively, light is a general concept, while the vessel is a particular instance. The Shulchan Aruch (The Code of Jewish Law) for instance, even though it contains thousands of particular halachot (Jewish laws), it is general, because it applies to everyone equally. But the particular has to reflect the difference between people. Hashem wants everyone to keep the Shulchan Aruch equally. But Hashem also wants each individual to properly treat their particular way of serving Him. What is a remedy for one poison, can be a poison for another.

“Making Products” Section:

The two universal tools are meditation and tzedakah. But now we are saying that tools and vessels come from having a sense, being a maven in particular situations. Where does one get such a sense, such understanding? Only from experience. It’s not really the product of having a toolbox. Someone who is an expert counselor, his toolbox won’t be useful for someone else. His tools are his experience, his immense knowledge. There is a principle in the Arizal that tools, vessels are formed when direct and returning light strike one another.

“End-User Content” Section:

The main example of this type of interaction is between a teacher and a student. The teacher teaches something and the student, who is not bashful, points out what he thinks is a difficulty. If the difficulty is not very good, then there is no striking of lights here. But if the student is sharp, and he has good taste and understanding, then the direct light from the teacher has awakened returning light from the student. They now meet each other, and by doing so they are described as striking one another. A vessel is formed from this. What we learn from this is that the teacher is not supposed to give tools/vessels at all. The teacher is supposed to give light. The tools/vessels are formed from the interaction between the teacher and the student. This is called the battle of Torah. About this it says that there is no one wiser than he who has experience.

“Inspired Products” Section:

The sages say that “I learnt a great deal from my teachers, and even more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.” From one’s teachers one receives light. From one’s students, one receives vessels. And since the root of vessels is higher than the root of the lights (inspiration), then it is considered more.

When a person doesn’t have particular knowledge, he can’t help others. Even if a person has been in Chassidut, learning for a number of years, and even if he’s tried meditating, but everything still remains in general principles for him. The same is true when it comes to science.

A person can be with enough knowledge for giving a shiur (Torah class) in a yeshivah (Talmudic seminary), but he doesn’t have enough particular knowledge to be able to give rulings, psakim. The difference in the end is the amount of particular points of knowledge, the number of details he hold in his head. This is relatively something external. It is not yet, how one gets a sense for helping others.

Excerpted and adapted from the weekly shiur given 14 Shevat 5773 from Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh.

*As we discussed in our essay “Should Apple Have Been Named Carob Computer?” the most primary concept is portable knowledge, and the ability to divide or measure bits of information into smaller and smaller parts)