Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Internet's Little iDeath for Steve Jobs

Note: Mark Brendle is a former media critic for, 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.