Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Internet's Little iDeath for Steve Jobs

Note: Mark Brendle is a former media critic for BarnesandNoble.com, a short-fiction writer and the author of both book reviews and the Criterion Recollection series for Et tu, Mr. Destructo?. Today he takes a break from books and cinema to address the first great humanitarian crisis of the 21st century: the potential that Apple gadgets might become less awesome before you've paid off your iPhone 4. You can follow him on Twitter.

Last week, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs stepped down from his position — a purely formal change in the Apple Corporation's executive management — it struck a chord with many people who feel invested in Apple, despite having no shareholder investment. Why this over-response about an insignificant event in a private company? Because, as even email and Twitter spam can tell you, the latest Apple release is the commodity-object of our time.

Apple proponents often cite innovation as the reason behind both their idolization and Apple's success. But what does innovation mean in this context and what has Apple innovated? Mp3 players? Tablet computers? Touch screens?—these existed long before their Apple versions came out. One would be hard pressed to find a single significant innovation on a fundamental level made by Apple computers since their very early days.

Despite this, Apple has innovated since, and it is this innovation that dominates their markets and the minds of their fans. What initially set the iPod apart from the numerous other Mp3 players with identical functionality was its coolness.

Apple campaigned heavily for the iPod, in much the same way they did for the iMac, forcing connotations of coolness, taste and style onto the device. It is through what David Riesman calls marginal differentiation that Apple innovated and continues to innovate. This marginal differentiation expresses itself through form (everyone has heard Apple products called "sleek"), through social consumer-competition (kids don't want an Mp3 player; they want an iPod) and through self-referential endorsement (our heroes in the film, music, art and publishing industries often use Macs).

This differentiation does not significantly impact the quality or functionality of the object itself. Apple enthusiasts may argue that they prefer the way in which their Apple device operates, but whatever actual differences exist in the mode of operation, they pale in comparison with the intentional campaign of personalized differentiation that Apple wages on consumers.

Owning an Apple device carries with it a very specific, very ubiquitous connotation. When one wishes to lampoon the "bourgeois liberal" stereotype, one need not say much more than, "On my MacBook at the fair-trade coffee shop," relying on:
common awareness of the higher price for Apple products, which associates it with more affluent users;
common awareness of Apple's larger market share in creative fields, often rightly or wrongly associated with liberal politics;
Apple's "counterculture" connotation — e.g. Steve Wozniak and the original rainbow Apple logo, as well as the famous 1984 television commercial, depicting Apple's role in individualization, rebellion and democracy.

Apple has turned a semi-organic phenomenon into corporate bread and butter, selling consumers a share in the status of Apple User. Recall the "PC/Mac" commercials. Without even watching them in motion, the human representations of PC and Mac personified the social connotations of owning an Apple computer: they made the stereotypically nerdy realm of computing something okay for people with style, wit and coolness. Apple's functionality brings personal computing to non-nerds: the famous user-friendliness of the Mac OS and the insipid "personalization" of all its applications, including the very iNaming gimmick, offer its consumers a sense of ethics, of individual triumph over the "cold gray" world of computing. It says, "This is all about you; this is about your tastes. This device is an extension of your uniqueness."

This kind of personalization offers only the formal appearance of freedom, only the shallowest notion of choice. In essence, Apple consumers want the unbearably successful paradox of a product that speaks to individual needs, yet also initiates them into a pseudo-exclusive subset — confirming one's individuality and simultaneously one's abstract sense of belonging.

One of the greatest ironies of this liberal connotation lies in Apple's own manufacturing techniques, which rival other megacorporations in exploiting the abuse of human rights in developing countries. Anyone who thinks it's hip to operate an Apple device should be pointed to the numerous articles about Foxconn, Apple's (and others') manufacturing stooge, where laborers are treated so poorly and paid so little that some would rather commit suicide. Yet this influx of manufacturing labor into countries like China is exalted as bringing economy and income to those who would otherwise not have it. This is like the whole "income dependent on experience" thing in job applications: when one's experience, or previous quality of life, is at ZERO, raising it to ONE may be an improvement, but it is a premeditated exploitation of an already existing suffering.

This criticism can be leveled at almost any major company. Apple serves as a model par excellence of contemporary corporate culture as well as the frightening disconnect between production and consumption. As jeans-clad elites like Steve Jobs "bring the world the iPhone," they also engage in amoral and ruthless business practices. These conditions, that more than a dozen employees have deemed worse than death, are supposedly "pretty nice," according to Jobs. Meanwhile, liberal consumers outraged in theory over these kinds of abuses consume the very products that ensure this exploitation.

I've often heard Apple enthusiasts say that part of their reason for choosing Apple rests on a desire to stick it to the man, which in this particular case is Microsoft. There are many valid criticisms of Microsoft, but saying you prefer Apple over Microsoft for that reason is like saying you prefer Hitler over Pol Pot. Which you might as well, if you have a favorite genocidal maniac. Apple controls their product in a way that Bill Gates only wishes he could. Completely proprietary, with ultimate discretion as to which third-party applications are allowed on their system (an edifice already used for censorship), Apple ensures a corporate hegemony that prevents any piecing out of their product for use, any impurity in their calculated system. One cannot buy a "white box" PC and load the Apple OS on it. Why? One cannot virtualize the Apple client OS, because totality is crucial in maintaining Apple's image — their real product. Any attempt to break it down into component pieces would destroy the whole's illusion.

Only recently have Macs been able to run the Windows OS, when they moved from the proprietary G-series processors to Intel. And although it is far cheaper to use independently produced processors than to continue proprietary manufacture, the relative cost of Macs went up. The entirety of that cost savings became profit. Even running Windows is a subordinate function, supported but not endorsed. It's also cost-ineffective; one might as well run a non-Apple machine. It is a cold, hard fact that the world of PCs is more democratic, more cost effective, less proprietary and more open to competition and innovation than the monolithic Apple.

Other recent news about Apple involved the undocumented tracking of people through their iPhones, with data sent to Apple for undisclosed purposes. This should not surprise anyone; it serves as the basic paradigm to which businesses have shifted. In exchange for nearly infinite functionality, or a seemingly free product, companies now gather information about their users which they sell indirectly and in advance to advertisers. All of this violation occurs under the umbrella of the EULA, the end user license agreement, or Terms of Service.

Terms of Service, an offshoot of legalese that has infiltrated our daily lives, offers corporations a catch-all for potential litigious action: "We take no responsibility if...." In addition to pre-empting possible lawsuits, it also offers companies a chance to literally offer you their terms as an ultimatum. Here is what you sacrifice for the privilege to use our product. Apple is notorious for altering their terms of service often, casually asking a reader to wade through 60 pages of unintelligible legalese before accepting. We all know that none of us read these terms; we skip to the end and click ACCEPT — which is exactly what these policies are designed to make us do.

By increasing the difficulty of comprehension and increasing the ease with which to bypass the attempt, Apple ensures that the overwhelming majority of their users will not be informed about the terms by which they use Apple products. Even if one did manage to read the terms of service, one's only alternative to accepting the demands of Apple is to not use their product. This might appear to be a fair deal, but when all companies offer the same terms of service — either through collusion or separately concluding that this is the most advantageous tactic — one is left with the choice of accepting the conclusion that by using a company's products we are at its mercy or must deny ourselves the functionality that such devices offer.

Apple innovates in the realm where human beings project their emotions and relationships onto objects — the realm of alienation. Average citizens define themselves through the products they consume. The Apple logo is indeed an apple, which in our primordial brains resonates as a symbol of naturalness, of harmony, of the bounty of the earth. Modern man sees himself as the aggregate of the products he utilizes, and an Apple bumper sticker connotes a specific type of consumer.

Yet, while one may choose which type of consumer one is, one may not choose to be something other than a set of choices among marginal differences. Being an enthusiast for any product or corporation belies an unaware susceptibility to intentional manipulation. This, fundamentally, is the trap into which those who worship Apple — those stylish people different from The Others — fall. And Apple has innovated many things to help them on their way down.

37 comments:

  1. What a bitch article. Way to take things out of context. I suppose your argument (what argument?) could not be furthered any other way.

    You're just mad Apple is #1.

    You're just mad your PC is broken again.

    You're just mad Windows and your Gmail account also have enormous terms documents.

    You're just mad your 3DS is made in the same building.

    You're just mad you don't know shit about Motorola and the G4.

    You're just mad you can't control.

    That LE IDIOT believes the Company's logo is made to resonate "naturalness" suggests to me you're not really mad about anything.

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  2. Anon,
    You don't actually make any substantive point at all. About anything. You literally have zero points worth farting about. Way to write a bitch reply. You're just a bitch who makes bitch complaints. Bitch.

    I had sex with your mom.

    Bitch.

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  3. Something else that might be worth mentioning: Bill Gates is one of the world's most generous philanthropists, while Steve Jobs has never publicly given any money to charity and actually eliminated Apple's charity arms.

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  4. I think the thing that frustrates me the most about Apple fans is how unwilling they are to admit that they are forced into using the same programs and equipment as every other Apple user, no matter what. I got sick of Apple because when I wanted to use my computer for something other than what Steve Jobs uses his for, the operating system would just hamstring itself until I returned to the fold.

    If I wanted to use Safari and Garage Band and iTunes, I would spend the extra money to buy an Apple. But since those programs blow; and I want to use Chrome, ProTools and WinAmp instead; I'll use a PC. Which is exactly what it says: personal.

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    1. Your ignorance is appalling.

      We have OTHER programs we can use--AND ALWAYS HAVE, you fricking cretin.

      Only the typically stupid PC user doesn't know that.

      Delete
  5. But Apple IS #1, though.

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  6. I'm not invested in Microsoft, Windows, Google, or any other company, product, or technology any more than I am in Apple. I made it abundantly clear throughout this article that these criticisms can and should be leveled at most, if not all, of the major technology companies. Apple stands as an exemplary case, one by which all the others can be criticized.

    But it shouldn't surprise anyone that Apple enthusiasts would be irrationally butthurt about any criticism of their idol. They have invested their self into this abstract combination of symbols, products, people and ideas and therefore interpret any criticism against it as a criticism against them and naturally seek to defend themselves. This idea that "Apple is #1" amounts to saying that "I am #1 because I purchase and use Apple products". It's a sad and trammeled self-worth, one designed in a boardroom of advertising executives and psychologists.

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  7. Apple is not my idol.

    I believe Apple makes better computers. I'm pretty certain of it. I'm sure you could point out my certainty proves I'm blind, but whatever.

    No one ever bitched about Apple when Apple was not this popular. But now it's the cool thing to do. YOU are the elitist.

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  8. As someone who rails against Apple on a regular basis, I'd take issue with the claim that the ipod was not better than other mp3 players. Do you remember what other mp3 players looked like at the time? (http://www.woopop.com/images/jb6k.jpg) The real innovation wasn't the actual player, which had innumerable drawbacks (not generic storage, no fm radio, etc etc), it was the bundling of itunes and the ipod. At least in the beginning itunes was well-written, which allowed any idiot to get their tunes onto their pod.

    And then there's the iphone, which you barely acknowledge. If you can't at least admit that the iphone completely revolutionized mobile computing, you're on denialist crack. In 2006, the idea that carriers would allow a device to run *arbitrary code* that would access *their precious networks* was anathema. Remember WAP browsers??? (and yes, I remember that the iphone didn't originally allow third-party apps. But at least Apple allowed itself to realize that mistake.)

    So yeah, Jobs is a dick and was full of hot air, and regularly reduces people to tears and/or ruins their lives, but he did some things right.

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  9. Reminder that all religion is a social construct, life is inherently meaningless, and disappointment and failure make up the vast majority of human existence.

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  10. Of all the religious zealots in the world, technology brand zealots are the most annoying, if also the most harmless.

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  11. The suicide point doesn't strike me as particularly damning, at least absent context. 12 workers out of how many? What's the suicide rate in the general population?

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  12. I'm a Mac. I'm a PC. I'm my fucking khakis.

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  13. Upload me into my computer so I can become my anime. Make it happen, Dead Steve Jobs.

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  14. To be fair, OSX is significantly more stable that Windows 7, and their are a myriad of minor user and technological improvements that does make 'APPLE BETTER' in some pure engineering sense.

    But none of that excuses the people who worship at the altar of Jobs, and even less the continued exploitation of human beings for a fatter bottom line.

    And that apple logo thing is just some straight up new age bullshit.

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  15. I will never forgive for removing the stop button. Sleek? So fucked up to remove the crucial square.

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  16. Yo Peter, if slightly less people than those in the average national suicide rate killed themselves in your presence, I wouldn't think there's any causation in place at all!

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  17. Pretty sure I read about Foxconn factories having to install giant nets to keep people from jumping out the windows during the workday

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  18. Raised an eyebrow in the first paragraph at the argument that Jobs' title change is "insignificant," which, given the underlying reasons for the change, it's not, and then at the reference to Apple as a "private company," which, again, it's not.

    Made it as far as "very ubiquitous," quit.

    FWIW, I dislike the Apple cult and the cultists, and am willing to concede the possibility that this post turns awesome after the early misjudgement, misstatement, and poor writing.

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  19. As a white cis-male typing this on a macbook, I do represent the typical mac user. And yes, we are the worst people on this earth.

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  20. Raised an eyebrow in the first paragraph at the argument that Jobs' title change is "insignificant," which, given the underlying reasons for the change, it's not, and then at the reference to Apple as a "private company," which, again, it's not.
    Jobs wants to remain as the chairman and has stressed that he will remain involved in creative input, design questions and a general advisory capacity, meaning that Apple isn't losing any of his skill set or, really, that the company will undergo a significant change. That's the purpose of smoothly transitioning in this way, keeping Jobs' input while everyone gets used to someone else at the helm: it's meant to prevent the sudden dislocation from his leaving. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" is the entire point, to keep from panicking shareholders.

    Speaking of which: yes, you're right, it's a publicly traded company. That's owned privately by its shareholders. Brendle's distinction is that it's not a public trust; it's not an organ that works for the benefit of the general welfare; it's not an entity in which every American has an investment stake. It's a profit-generating business whose allegiance is to its shareholders, who are the only people on earth with an invested relationship with it. That people are moved and stirred by changes in its corporate structure despite zero meaningful relationship with the company is a testament to its innovation as a commodity-object, irrespective of actual value, but...

    Made it as far as "very ubiquitous," quit.
    ...that point gets made by paragraph four, at which point you were saving yourself time by bailing out, I guess, yet still taking more time to write about something you didn't read? As for "very ubiquitous," that's a matter of style, which is as permissible/impermissible as "heavily saturated" or "widely pervasive" or anything else that acknowledges the idea that the commonplace can become oppressively, noticeably so. You don't have to like it, but that's a reeeaaaally particular quibble.

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  21. Amazing post... For those of us who are too lazy at the moment to read Baudrillard, could you explain the last bit about alienation? Enthusiasts who confuse their identities with brand image (e.g., "emotional" Apple consumers) are alienated from -- themselves? Society? And is this a universal phenomenon, or are technophobes and other "it's-easier-with-Macs" consumers somewhat exempt from this alienating process?

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  22. Anon, to (not-so) briefly answer your question, alienation first described the effects of capitalist production on the laborer, namely a disconnect between labor and end product, between autonomy and direction.

    In later Marxist thought, like Baudrillard for example, given the consumer-based turn late capitalism has taken, alienation is also used to describe the effects of capitalist consumerism on the consumer, which in a nutshell is to replace the relationships between people with the relationships between commodity-objects.

    I would describe alienation in America today as VERY ubiquitous ;). It comes part and parcel with the present mode of capitalism and is by no means isolated to technology markets. It mainly comes into play in advertising, where human emotions for other humans are cathected into whatever product the ad is trying to sell.

    For Apple specifically, it is the very idea of identity that is transferred onto the product. Establishing one's identity is a difficult and necessary process, one that never really ends, yet the subtext of every Apple marketing campaign is that Apple Product X will resolve the struggle for self-identification, will give you the tool to overcome this hurdle and feel confident about yourself and who you are, as well as provide you with a physical sign to let other people know what kind of person you are (because consumers, unlike real individuals, can be categorized easily). Of course people aren't wholly susceptible to this and have other motives for purchasing Apple products, but it does exist, and Apple (and every other company) thinks it is worth millions or billions of dollars to research, organize, and implement these tactics, which perhaps sheds light on their total efficacy.

    Reading Baudrillard does take some time and it isn't exactly light reading, but the payoff is huge. The System of Objects is the most coherent, comprehensive takedown of consumerism as an ideology that I have yet read. It clocks in around 220 dense pages. If anyone is interested in exploring further the idea of how consumerism has changed and is changing our basic interactions, I would highly recommend reading it, along with other milestones like Riesman's Lonely Crowd or Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.

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    1. Oh for pity's sake!

      You act like everyone who buys an Apple does so for mindless reasons, while implying that other computer users are the only ones who make rational decisions.

      Why don't you, you know, ASK some of us why we use Apple, and why we like them so much that we recommend them to other people?

      Why don't you be original and question why you idiot PC fanbois constantly have to trash Apple, at the slightest provocation? What, you can't stand it that people don't march in lockstep with you?

      It's like a psychosis with all of you.

      It simply hasn't occurred to you that the reason some Apple users are super-loyal to their brand is because they feel besieged by the scumbag behavior of the average PC user who gets utterly stupid and psychotic at the notion that someone else might--you know--like using something else, for whatever reason they have!

      As this hysterical article so amply demonstrates.

      Delete
    2. these are really good points are you a Genius?

      Delete
  23. Very interested in the image of a boardroom conference between advertisers and academics. Curious now what untold brushstrokes of insight to the psyche has been milled directly into the hum of corporate interests.

    If the most robust and contemporary academic thought on the mind is being kept under corporate-contract agreement, would it not stand to consideration that the balance has power may have slipped irrecoverably in the direction of plutocrats? It seems a terrifying thought, that the very minds who could forge weapons of subversion and defense against new unfolding kinds of manipulation, have themselves already been bought into the system.

    I hope i'm just dramatizing the conflict here, it was just an image that resonated with me, Tony Robbins.

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  24. What is the Mr. Destructo people's opinion on Naomi Klein?

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  25. 8/10, if she's wearing the glasses. Also, The Shock Doctrine is pretty good.

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  26. Are you guys going to update this for the folks who are now really sad that the guy who oversaw the creation of their consumer electronics is dead?

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  27. Well, I just read this based on your posting on Facebook, and while I think it's solid when it comes to your arguments about Apple's marketing and human rights abuses, it's pretty bad when it comes to actual technical detail.

    Your point about Apple's refusal to license their software for use on third-party hardware is a common one. However, Apple is as much a hardware company as they are a software company. The reason it took a while for other manufacturers to create "iPhone-like" devices is because Apple payed for much of the startup costs of the factories necessary for the production of the touch screen displays, and in return, they received exclusivity for a period of time. They did the same thing recently with the unibody Macbook design. Apple can afford to do things like that only because their hardware hasn't become commoditized—and it hasn't become commoditized only because they restrict the use of their software. If they didn't, their products would not be as good as they are.

    A good example of the fruits of something like this: I can write iPhone apps with complex animations, and not worry about it—all iPhones contain a GPU, and will be able to handle it. The same cannot be said on the Android side, as many phones don't have GPUs, and won't be able to handle those animations, and so I'll have to make an app that doesn't look as nice. Either that, or provide some conditional coding so that the app will gracefully degrade on some devices—but that takes time, and increases my costs.

    Much of this post was about Apple's terms of service and disrespect of privacy, and as evidence, you point to their famous geotracking scandal. In the post, you state:

    "Other recent news about Apple involved the undocumented tracking of people through their iPhones, with data sent to Apple for undisclosed purposes. "

    Not true. The data was kept in a local cache, and not sent to Apple. That cache wasn't a record of the iPhone's location, it was a record of the location of cell towers that the phone had connected to. Because this data was kept locally, it helped to get a quicker approximation of a user's location, while the phone was waiting for a more accurate (but slower) GPS coordinate. As a computer programmer, I can understand how this kind of scandal might happen: you've got a local file that's using a tiny amount of space, and so you don't write code to remove old data, not thinking that people would regard that as an abuse of privacy. It should absolutely be fixed, but I do think the public response was disproportionate.

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  28. Cool post. I dunno if Brendle will want to argue any of it, but I enjoyed it. Thanks, Chris.

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  29. Product differentiation is a long-established business strategy (i.e. it's not just what David Riesman calls it). The market for athletic shoes is the classic example. The point didn't need a namecheck to back it up. A minor quibble on what is otherwise a fine precis of the Apple phenomenon.

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  30. this is a really good article in its own right and the comments are cool as hell too lol

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  31. Wow hella edgy troll Brendle hope you get picked to arrange the footnotes for My Tank Is Fight II

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  32. Mac may have a bunch up on Windows. Neither of them have shit on Linux.

    User-friendliness != power. I'm not begrudging anyone their choice of UI: you like Macs, use a Mac, you like Windows, use Windows. But don't act like the suitability of your UI makes your platform superior. I worked in tech support for a public university for several years. We offered basic repairs for personal computers. We had as many Macs come in for repairs as Windows, the difference? Most of the Windows computers went back working: the Macs were almost universally lost causes. I have never known anyone who has made a Mac last longer than a PC of equal specifications and roughly 1/3 of the price. These are trifles: chances are, the statistics of Macs hardware unreliability won't affect you. However, they are indeed significantly underpowered computing machines. Like Swoboda says, they are good for doing what the late moneybags used his computer for: it's perfect if you're a scumbag hipster who needs to record his latest jam in his dorm room and post it to youtube, it's pretty shitty if you want to develop powerful software. It eats half of its processor power animating that stupid UI, it exclusively runs programs that are designed for a retarded child, and it responds to any attempts at reconfiguring or doing serious system maintenance with recalcitrance at best, and catastrophic failure at worst.

    Use it if you want, but don't act like you did anything but spend money on a garish toy. Steve Jobs didn't revolutionize computing, he just put it in a shiny box.

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  33. i liked the article and the comments and here's a similar article i saw http://imgur.com/hIcgm.jpg

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Et tu, Mr. Destructo? is a politics, sports and media blog whose purpose is to tell jokes or be really right about things. All of us have real jobs and don't need the hassle that telling jokes here might occasion, which is why some contributors find it more tasteful to pretend to be dead mass murderers.