Cities are Not Computer Brands

I love Eve Picker's passion for making Pittsburgh better. I love her willingness to put herself out there, to invest her time and her money in her vision.

But her recent "utterly opinionated" post -- "Pittsburgh = Apple" (borrowing from a Coro fellow who was born in Cleveland) -- is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Eve makes the following metaphorical claim, drawing on what she believes to be the secret to Apple's (relative) success:

First, there is Steve Jobs:
A purposeful, visionary man, he did not allow anyone to bend him from the course he was determined to take. Just ten years ago I remember having altercations with PC users. They were arrogant and certain that PC was the only way. But I kept buying MacBooks and iBooks, seduced by their beauty and their supremely perfect design and functionality. I clung onto the hope that Apple Inc. would one day conquer the world as good Design and Vision should.
And then there is Pittsburgh:
If we want Pittsburgh = Apple, we must map our vision and relentlessly, unforgivingly, pursue it. It should be a vision of immense creativity and beauty. Let people laugh on the sidelines. Let people scoff at why we were selected for the G-20. We should ignore them and steadfastly move towards our vision so that Pittsburgh too, one day, will conquer the world.
But, but, but:

Apple hasn't conquered the world. It has persuaded much of the world that Apple is cooler than Microsoft, but Steve Jobs' alleged unwavering devotion to Design and Vision hasn't kept Apple in the game. What kept Apple in the game? iTunes. And what is iTunes? A beautifully executed but entirely opportunistic move by a company that was just starting to recover from the brink of extinction. Steve Jobs isn't a single-minded visionary. He is a magnificently nimble chameleon. If Pittsburgh really wants to take a cue from him, it should be on the lookout for other companies cities missing the competitive boat, big time, just as the music industry missed the pay-per-download model that was theirs for the taking in the late 1990s. Instead of innovating, the labels sued Napster, and now they're toast, watching Apple (which invented a business to go with the iPod) and now the videogame industry have them for lunch. By the way: Good luck with the whole gaming thing, Steve. That's the biggest entertainment market of the 21st century - far bigger than slick handheld computers. The iPhone may be the next big gaming platform. Will Apple let that happen?

But, but, but:

Cities aren't computer brands. There is no way for the Pittsburgh "we" to manifest unwavering devotion to anything. This is related to my point in earlier posts: Whatever neat stuff has happened in Pittsburgh over the last decade, that neat stuff doesn't mean that "Pittsburgh" has reinvented itself. There is no "Department of Reinvention," no place or person or committee that you can point to or apply to for its magic reinvention dust. Cities, American cities most of all, are fantastically fragmented, open, dynamic places. They are, in the jargon of the computing world, open systems, platforms where anyone and any group can plug in and get their application running. Pittsburgh isn't Apple, from this point of view; Apple, as brand and technology, is a closed system. The Apple icon represents Apple as czar, telling people what they can and cannot do. Want to build an application that runs on a Mac? On an iPhone? You have to get Apple's permission. (Sorry, Google!) No one in Pittsburgh (or in any city) has that power, and no one should. (Cities faithful to master planning czars are, on the whole, pretty soulless places.) Pittsburgh might be Windows instead, a platform with its APIs available to anyone who wants to build something new to run on the machine. Does that make Pittsburgh sleek, virus-free, drool-inspiring, and sex-on-a-chip? Absolutely not. But that can make Pittsburgh interesting, challenging, and diverse, the way that cities are, with the potential to grow and change in unexpected ways -- some of them great, some of them lousy, some of them just weird. "I'm a Mac" is a brilliant ad campaign because it validates the vanity of the Apple-owning choir. I love the I'm a PC campaign even more, because you just never know what you're going to get next. ("I have a beard?" What's with that?) And yes, I know how the ads were produced.

But, but, but:

Pittsburgh isn't really Windows, of course. (Pittsburgh is bankrupt, and Microsoft is cash-heavy - but I digress.) Windows, like Apple, is a brand as much as -- probably even more than -- it is a machine, and Pittsburgh is a brand far less than it is a process, or a work in progress. Once upon a time, Windows was an abusive monopolist, supplying the technology that powered the world. (Wait - didn't Pittsburgh do that once?) More important, even today, Windows the machine is still controlled from Redmond. Microsoft lets others build applications, but MS defines the core, and persuading others that Microsoft has to be allowed to define the core -- because Microsoft has to ensure the quality of the overall experience -- is what makes Windows the brand that it is. Windows is an open system compared to Apple, but just like Apple, at the end of the day Microsoft has a stifling control fetish that's wrapped in the concept of the brand. We're love slaves either way.

No, if Pittsburgh were a computer system, it wouldn't be a brand at all; it would be a changing technology. It would be Linux (yes, I know that "Linux" is a trademark), an operating system that's genuinely open, where anyone with a bit of skill can open up the core and tinker with it, make changes to it, add to it, extend it, change it for their own benefit. Linux isn't easy; it's not slick; you have to sweat a bit to make the relationship work. No one thinks that Pittsburgh is, will be, or should be slick. Pittsburgh doesn't come easy, and it never will. And lots of people think that Pittsburgh is clunky and/or geeky - in a good way.

The open source metaphor for a big city doesn't mean chaos. If you know software, then you know that open source methods can support giant, robust, effective, and competitive products. Linux, like any open source software program, comes with a set of governance rules (a license), and there's a crew of keepers of the Linux flame who make sure that the core functionality of different flavors of Linux remains intact. Pittsburgh isn't and shouldn't be Houston, which is the Wild West (or Wild South) of the land use planning world. But the control fetish is absent; the keepers of the Linux flame are there to ensure that the core remains open for everyone, not to ensure that the brand remains the brand. No one is a Linux love slave. If you don't like the relationship, then change it. Or to quote one of my favorite pop philosophers, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." The same goes for Pittsburgh. Ironically, of course, this is precisely what Eve herself has been doing for the last few years, with some spectacular results.

Pittsburgh doesn't need the style of Steve Jobs, in other words. It needs the stewardship of Linus Torvalds.


6 Responses to "Cities are Not Computer Brands"

Brad Fisher said... 9/03/2009 8:49 AM

I recently took an old, worn-out, heavy-metal laptop which the most recent Windows upgrade had passed by, wiped the drive and, thinking what have I got to lose, loaded a freebee copy of Ubuntu Linux on it. You're right, it took a little effort and a little getting used to, and it was ... different. I ran my business on it for a month, pretty much for nothing, until the shiny new overpriced MacBook arrived. I almost *almost* canceled the Mac order, it was that cool. A handmade Renaissance, and not a bad persona for our region at all.

Schultz said... 9/03/2009 2:36 PM

Great post, Mike. Eve is great for Pittsburgh. She is another one of those Pittsburghers who wasn't born there but has adopted the city as her own. She is very passionate. I will make a note, however, regarding your the "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own" quote that you use. Eve has done a great job of making he own news, not just from her new blog but from her marketing of the city's strong points through initiatives like CEO for Cities and Pop City. Both are great marketing vehicles for Pittsburgh and, to a fault, they make it really easy to gloss over the issues that are holding the city back. Being a real estate developer there is an obvious incentive for her to do so, and there is nothing wrong with that, but the aggressive marketing of the Pittsburgh brand is a double edged sword for progressives like Eve, who aren't happy with leadership and the overall direction of city government. If people like Eve, the guy from the NY Times, and others continue to market Pittsburgh as a true greatest city in the US, then there is no chance of voting a Luke Ravenstahl out of office. A change in leadership is what Pittsburgh progressives like Eve really long for, but it isn't going to happen when the city has so many positives going for it.

C. Briem said... 9/03/2009 3:12 PM

The story at the time was that when Mac's iPhone first came out, Pittsburgh was the only market that was not sold out the following morning. FWIW.

Jerry said... 9/04/2009 9:18 PM

Also, people who know Pittsburgh really well, like people who know Linux really well, are notoriously sensitive about its faults and rather prickly on the whole subject lest anyone should point out said faults.

Mike Madison said... 9/09/2009 6:55 PM

The following comment was submitted by Audrey Russo (Pittsburgh Technology Council), and I am posting it on her behalf:

Pitts has a noteworthy cluster of extremely smart people, working diligently & sometimes feverishly, solving hard problems which have and will continue to impact the world at large. Pitts has had the pleasure of being recipients of an enormous amount of state and local economic development $$ (so if you enjoy high taxes, move here!) over many years, paired with generous foundation(s) investments. None of which has truly resulted a linear path of return, but has attracted some great minds as well as spewed (and continues to spew) enormous waste. Innovation requires investment and repeated failure. Pitts is a mosaic which has no pure art form but is rooted in a culture of grit, simplicity and a collective aura of self deprecation. As a result, it may take us longer to acquire the momentum needed for change. There is evidence of pervasive hunger which simmers below the surface yet most recently I have begun to hear some conversations changing Hence, I can give you hundreds of examples of people who have started companies and are changing the complexion of the city and region.

Eve has been the force driving some of this change, with her own nickel and her relentless vision and uncanny ability to execute.

Eve Picker said... 9/18/2009 10:21 AM

Sorry I'm so late coming to this conversation. Work kept me away.

But Wow - I didn't think there was so much to talk about. I say to you all, lighten up! It's just an analogy and a fun one at that.

I would like to point out that Chris Schultz doesn't know me very well, and his assumptions about me and my purpose(s) are incorrect.

Nice to know you all care enough to comment ... :)

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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