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Thinking Differently about “Think Different”

by Michael D. Richards on Oct 23, 1997

Michael D. Richards

Apple Computer, Inc. has opened an ambitious, brilliant advertising campaign featuring the slogan “Think Different,” with images of Buzz Aldrin, Muhammad Ali, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Martha Graham, Rosa Parks, and Pablo Picasso. The campaign probably will and should win some awards, but it strikes one false note for those who know the history of the 20th century.

Gandhi, the revered leader of the Indian independence movement, is featured in a stunning ad on the back cover of the Oct. 13th issue of The New Yorker. He is the only person in the campaign who is not an American or a European. He fits the theme of “Think Different” well, but Apple and their advertising agency, Chiat/Day, may find his way of thinking differently is not quite the same as theirs.

The ad consists of a black and white photograph of Gandhi, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a sparsely furnished room reading. The Apple logo provides the only color. The text reads simply “Think different.” At the bottom is “”

Take a closer look at the ad, however, and you see, edging into the photograph on the left, a spinning wheel, a charka. Gandhi thought Indians should make their own cloth rather than purchase it from English textile mills. His major concern was for village India, for the millions of Indians living in poverty. He asked himself how their lives might be improved. The answer was not, in his opinion, industrial technology, but the kind of technology that poor, uneducated people could apply directly to their lives. This is not, of course, the sort of technology for which Apple has become famous.

When Gandhi became the major figure in the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, he directed the attention of the other leaders of the Congress party to the problems of the villages of India. Congress changed from a small party of educated, often wealthy Indians into a mass movement that challenged British rule by refusing either to cooperate or to resort to violence, no matter what the provocation. His methods, usually labeled by the term Satyagraha, depended on the willingness of Indians to risk beatings, imprisonment, even death for the cause of independence.

To be fair to Apple, Steve Jobs concludes his letter to employees about the campaign with this paragraph:  

“Apple’s core value — that people with passion can change the world for the better, in large and small ways — is as relevant and unique today as it ever was. This campaign is very emotional for me. I hope you love it as much as I do.”

What Jobs apparently does not know is that the historical Gandhi, while certainly a person with a passion to change the world for the better, saw a very low level of technology as the right means for doing this. At most, Gandhi barely accepted 19th century technology — that is, he did ride on trains and sail on steamships.

We cannot know what Gandhi might make of computer technology, although it is entertaining to play with the fantasy of having him return to lead one last Satyagraha with the Microserfs against the new empire on which the sun never sets, Bill Gates, Inc.

If Gandhi has something to say to us in connection with the “Think Different” campaign, it might be this: millions of people around the world desperately need different thinking, but that different thinking will have to meet yet another set of needs, as compared with the needs of those who like what Apple technology has to offer.

Apple means to honor “those who have changed the world,” as Jobs notes elsewhere in his letter. Fair enough. Just note that many who changed the world in this century did so with simple ideas. Let’s celebrate thinking differently, then, but also resist associating it exclusively with high technology. So look for those bus shelters, walls, billboards, and posters with their images of different thinkers and remember to think differently about “think different.”

Michael Richards teaches modern European and world history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and is a writer for the History News Service.