Aug 16 2012

The Apple Social Psychology Experiment

Actually it wasn’t as much an experiment as a demonstration. Lukasz Lindell recounts on his blog how he and his coworkers threw a little bit of innuendo into the internet stream to see where it led.

One afternoon we sketched out a screw in our 3D program, a very strange screw where the head was neither a star, tracks, pentalobe or whatever, but a unique form, also very impractical. We rendered the image, put it in an email, sent it to ourselves, took a picture of the screen with the mail and anonymously uploaded the image to the forum Reddit with the text ”A friend took a photo a while ago at that fruit company, they are obviously even creating their own screws ”.

It didn’t take long for the internet to respond. Articles and blogs started appearing with headlines such as, “Apple May Be Working On A Top Secret Asymmetric Screw To Lock You Out Of Your Devices Forever.”

The picture that Lindell and his friends created was just a regular screw with a strange top, as described above. I’m not sure how this turned into an “asymmetrical screw.” I’m not sure that even exists – I assume that means the screw can tighten but then not be loosened, so you cannot open up a case closed with such a screw. There is nothing in the diagram that suggests this.

The idea is also odd. There are ways to close a case so that it cannot be opened without inventing a new type of screw. Just rivet the things closed.

The more interesting thing about this little prank is how people responded. Lindell also reports that 90% of comments following reports of the asymmetrical screw believed it entirely, while only 10% expressed skepticism. Also, the farther away from the original source the piece was the greater the percentage of believers over skeptics.

There are a few potential lessons in this episode. The first is how such stories arise in the first place. The trigger was certainly provocative, but it was also vague. The details that were added (apparently just invented) were those that made the story popular, and I think that this is because those details fit an existing narrative.

That narrative is that Apple (and large corporations in general) is a huge megalomaniacal company that tries to control its products and the market at all costs. There is some truth to this – why can’t I open up my iPod and change the battery? There is a bit of contention between consumers and Apple over such things, and consumers generally feel helpless and at the mercy of a large company. Perhaps this helplessness is magnified by the fact that Apple products are awesome and we have to have them.

This narrative is already out there. So when Lindell tossed a little pebble into that pond it was quickly consumed by the existing narrative. This also made the story that much more believable (until you actually think about it for awhile) and compelling.

I think this is part of a larger phenomenon. In an interview I did with Christopher Hitchens (available here) he commented that he does not get any of his news from other reporters. Generally reporters are working off an existing narrative, and then they fit whatever facts come their way into this narrative, rather than actually investigating and finding the real story. The narrative is that Mother Theresa is a saintly woman, therefore that is the story that everyone tells, regardless of the truth.

The internet, blogs, Twitter, etc. just make that process faster and more democratic. Everyone, now, gets to pass along rumors that fit their existing narrative.

The other, more obvious, lesson is that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. Just because something is claimed in a headline, and repeated dozens of times, does not make it true, or even truthy. It could have been entirely fabricated. This is nothing new – the rumors and gossip of the village square. It’s just bigger and faster with the internet.

Of course, I am repeating a story I read on someone else’s blog because it fits my skeptical narrative. Take that for what it’s worth.

20 responses so far

20 thoughts on “The Apple Social Psychology Experiment”

  1. MikeB says:

    Awesomely interesting. I immediately think of the way fear stories about genetically modified organisms spring up on the Internet like mushrooms after a warm rain.

    Remember how “GMO” grass killed cows? Not really, but it was everywhere.

    The existing narrative: “genetic modification” = corporate evil. This fit that to the T.

  2. elmer mccurdy says:

    “he commented that he does not get any of his news from other reporters.”

    How is this possible?

  3. elmer – he would go to primary sources. That was his full time job. He had lots of connections. He might hear about a story in the news, but then would check it out for himself. He made a comment to the effect that there is no more useless task than reading the newspaper.

  4. elmer mccurdy says:

    I see. Hitchens, eh?

  5. addisontree says:

    For the record I don’t use any apple products – not even iTunes.

  6. Jim Shaver says:

    Steve, I haven’t seen anything about this story except your retelling of it, but my first impression when I read the phrase, “Apple May Be Working On A Top Secret Asymmetric Screw To Lock You Out Of Your Devices Forever,” is that the “asymmetric” reference is just referring to the head of the screw, not implying anything unusual about the threads. The “asymmetric” head would require another unique driver tool, one that you may only be able to obtain if you work for Apple. Apple and other companies have certainly used that tactic before, although the non-standard driver shapes they use are not quite so strange as the faked one.

  7. tmac57 says:

    Concerning the high percentage of people who believe something false that they read on the internet that fits their preconceived narrative,it seems like the email inbox has become one of the primary routes for spreading misinformation and propaganda,especially during this election cycle.
    There is scarcely a day that goes by that I don’t get forwarded some sort of ‘outrage’ email that in 99% of the cases turns out to be either overtly false,or distorted way out of proportion to the facts.
    Interestingly,on several occasions,the email would include a line such as “This is TRUE!!!I checked it out on Snopes!!!”… and would include a link to the related Snopes article which directly contradicted the content of the email…sigh.
    The really sad thing is that by the time that those emails got to me,they had been read and forwarded to many thousand of people who never bothered fact checking them because it felt right in their gut.

  8. Jacob V says:

    The circumstance of fitting facts into existing narratives is certainly a fascinating habit of humans that not only explains the persistence of spurious or irrational views and beliefs, but the silence of many in the face of unreasonable and harmful notions as well.

  9. ConspicuousCarl says:

    In an interview I did with Christopher Hitchens ( available here)

    I am never able to come up with exactly the right words to describe the experience of hearing this piece of audio recording. It’s definitely not like anything else you are likely to hear, and you can get it for three bucks. That cup from Starbucks is the same price, and it’s going to taste just like the one you had yesterday.

  10. lofgren says:

    I’m not sure how great an illustration this is of our tendency to invent narratives. They deliberately planted almost every aspect of this story. The only assumption added by others was that this screw is for the iPhone, which is hardly a huge leap. Besides, this would not be the first time that tech news had leaked in this form.

    I’m also curious how sourced the articles written about it were. They could easily have linked to the original reddit post from within the article so that readers could judge for themselves whether it was credible. If it were a legitimate leak from Apple, this would constitute tech news, and in this day and age even potential news gets reported on.

    Another thing I wonder is whether or not tweaking elements of the story would have changed the level of critical thinking. This is a basically meaningless prank. Not only does it not particularly impact most people – you have to both be planning to purchase a nextgen Mac gadget AND planning to open it AND not recognize that this screw could be defeated by an ordinary flathead screwdriver to actually care much – it really doesn’t impact even the people it does affect very strongly. If you’re a Mac tinkerer who doesn’t come up with a way of circumventing that screw in less than 30 seconds, then your next thought is “Crap, guess I’ll have to buy a new screwdriver when the next iPhone comes out.”

    I’m saying, maybe people didn’t employ much critical thinking on this topic because it would be a waste of valuable time and brainspace. Make the screw harder to defeat, and you might get more of a reaction because more people are concerned about it. Make it a screw being produced by the military, and its impracticality would become a major concern because our taxes are paying for it. Make it a screw that holds together two pieces of a cyborg killing machine with Skynet level intelligence, and suddenly everybody and his mother wants to know more about it. In each of those cases, of course, you would get more people parroting the story as if it were true, but I think because there is more incentive to put more effort into thinking about the story, you would also see a big increase in skepticism and critical thinking.

  11. Calli Arcale says:

    I agree that the asymmetric screw myth wasn’t claiming it somehow couldn’t be removed but simply that you’d need a proprietary screwdriver to operate it, and that because it was asymmetric would foil a lot of attempts to use other drivers. This isn’t that unreasonable a guess, since most everyone has seen screws that are designed to be difficult to remove without the proper tools — just pay attention the next time you’re in a high school bathroom. Some public restrooms do this too; it depends on how much they trust the people who will be using the restrooms. Special screws are used which cannot be unscrewed with a quarter or a normal screwdriver. They’re asymmetrical, although the two sides do match. A simple flat screwdriver can only screw them *in*; instead of a round top with a slit for the driver, the halves of the head are beveled so that a flat screwdriver can only engage when turning clockwise. Go the other way, and it just slides off the screw. This is done to prevent certain forms of youthful mischief, such as removing all the doors on the stalls, or loosening them so that an unsuspecting mark can be exposed at a critical moment by someone simply slamming the adjacent door.

  12. SARA says:

    It was my general skepticism about forwarded emails that led me to the skeptics movement. Stuff like this that goes viral and everyone believes. I’m the girl who looked it up and then emailed back the real information. One day while researching an email I came across a skeptics blog – Bad Astronomy.
    The rest is history.

    I wonder if the person who added the entirely made up story actually believed that story or knew they were just making up stuff. I think it’s a gradual shift where no one is deliberately trying misrepresent.

    People make a lot of inferences and assumptions when things are vague. The first person to change the story might say something like “Sounds like Apple is trying to screw us again.” Next person takes that information and adds in – “I Bet they are trying to lock us out.”
    Then someone gets it and just assumes all of that into fact instead of acknowledged assumption and a story is born. And voila.

  13. petrossa says:

    The unscrewable screw has been with us since a while now

    You can only screw it in, never out due to the sloping slot.

  14. eean says:

    I’m not sure how this turned into an “asymmetrical screw.”
    The ‘original’ email mentions that it is asymmetric.

    what’s amazing is that the reddit thread wasn’t actually that popular. But I guess the apple subreddit has a lot of relevant journalists reading it.

    The Internet just means the whole cycle goes faster. The comments from Hitchens are quite important here.

  15. superdave says:

    Apple has used rare and hard to find screws before, which gave this story an air of plausibility.,2817,2376069,00.asp

  16. tmac57 says:

    petrossa- Shouldn’t that be an un-unscrewable screw?
    Apple is famous for being inscrutable.

  17. daedalus2u says:

    I had the same response as Rikki. The top was simply not suitable to be the top of a screw. I briefly thought of ways to try and make it so (rare earth magnets) but dismissed that as implausible. I also remembered the earlier time where Apple did replace original screws with screws that took a non-standard driver. I was, so what? I don’t use any Apple products any way.

  18. meiguizi says:

    I didn’t read this through when I saw the headline and read through the first couple paragraphs, as watercooler chat earlier in the day has let me in on the story. So when I heard further discussion of this item on the SGU, I wanted to offer some information on the screw itself. I work at a university with a pretty extensive installed technology base to coordinate things between the other international campuses, and to allow faculty the widest realistic support for instructional technology.

    The ‘asymmetric screw’ idea has nothing to do with the screwing being only one way. It is simply a variation of a common security screw, albeit taken to a semi-believable, yet ridiculous extreme. A couple other examples of currently employed security screws can be found here:

    The idea, in universities, is to prevent theft for vandalism by requiring a special bit to remove a monitor or projector, or any other equipment. Most people would not have a bit able to remove the screws, and hopefully the expensive classroom technology will stay put. On devices, similarly complicated screws are routinely employed to keep people from modifying or tampering with their devices.

    Hope that make sense.

  19. jsmusgrave says:

    I thought this was an interesting conversation, though it was taken a bit to the extreme in that you guys even denied that there are screws on the outside of the iphone. Apple did change to pentalobe screws on the iphone 4 and uses them on the air. This is defense in depth sort of strategy. It doesn’t keep someone out who bothers to go to sears or to ifixit, but the average person isn’t going to bother buying a specialty screwdriver.
    The more interesting thing, for me is how this ties in to how the modern blog driven media ecosystem is inherently good at amplifying stories without any veracity. I recommend Ryan Holiday’s book on the subject. It’s a bit self-serving, but it does illustrate that this sort of story insertion is done for profit and that the amplification effect seen here can happen spontaneously.

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