8 October 2011

The Apple of My i

Much of the debate surrounding the consumerist culture focuses on the way we are sold objects apparently to satisfy a certain need when really they satisfy a deeper and perhaps even subliminal desire. Beautiful women draped over fast cars persuade young men that they will acquire sexual allure as well as a set of wheels. In this way our desires and needs are themselves distorted, ultimately leading us towards lives of dissatisfaction and longing.

It seems to me that excelling in this process was at the heart of what is widely being called the 'genius' of Steve Jobs. Here is Julian Baggini writing in yesterday's Guardian:

'Jobs's success was built firmly on the idea that you should not give consumers what they want because they don't know what they want. No one thought they wanted the first desktop Mac, iPod, iPhone or iPad before they existed. Jobs repeatedly created things that people came to want more than anything else only by not trying to give them what they already wanted. This challenges the idea that consumer culture inevitably means pandering to the conventional, to the lowest common denominator. Markets are not necessarily conservative: truly great innovations can become popular.'

A companion piece focuses on the 'soft-machine aesthetic' that Apple pioneered, making what had seemed geeky and cold appear friendly and cool: 'instead of chilling you out' they 'glow like fireplaces and nuzzle like digital pets'. Jones admits that he writes articlse on an impractical machine that does not facilitate the process of typing because he is 'captivated by the beauty of this piece of technology'. Jones goes so far as to suggest that the way an Apple computer slowly lights up suggests that is it coming alive.

The moment of the death of the God of such distorting desires has left many a lover of technology open in a way few experience probably do. I am grateful to Jones for laying out what I had long suspected to be the case. Many people, and I would hazard that the majority are male, actually love their personal technology. They relate to it with greater intimacy and trust than they relate to their friends.

There is a narcissistic aspect to this relationship with technology, which I can't help finding in the use of the letter 'i' before the name of the products: istuff is not for sharing, it is for relating to intimately, whether in public or private; it is for gloating over. Jones also admits as much when he writes: 'Perhaps the greatest insight of Steve Jobs, when it came to design, was that the most beautiful, marvellous creation on earth is not the computer, but the person using it.' Not the human race, or the people the user loves, or a tree or a real juicy apple or a minah bird, but the individual who has bought the Apple product.

In his 1996 book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram described how a relationship with industrial products diminishes us:

‘the mass-produced artifacts of civilization, from milk cartons to washing machines to computers, draw our senses into a dance that endless reiterates itself without variation. To the sensing body these artifacts are, like all phenomena, animate and even alive, but their life is profoundly constrained by the specific “functions” for which they were built. Once our bodies masters these functions, the machine-made objects commonly teach our sense nothing further; they are unable to surprise us, and so we must continually acquire new built objects, new technologies, the latest model of this or that if we wish to stimulate ourselves. (p. 64)

Natural products, with their endless unpredictability and randomness are, by contrast, stimulating and deeply fulfilling.

It would be easy to dismiss my criticisms as coming from a Luddite or a technophobe but I am neither. I just believe in keeping categories clear: computers are to support us in our work; friends and family are to share love with. There is nothing anti-technological in holding fast to the view that you should approach your computer as a tool and not as a lover, and yet I daily watch friends and strangers caressing their phones. The main reason I am still holding on to an ancient Nokia is that I cannot bear to acquire a mobile that I cannot using without stroking it.

In all the panegyrics the phrase that was often repeated was that Steve Jobs changed our world. Leaving aside the questions about the authenticity of somebody who attempts to portray a whole company of intelligent and hard-working individuals in the image of his own ego, should we not also be asking whether he changed the world for better or worse. With evidence of our disembedding from the natural world and its destructive consequences growing every day, and being matched by evidence of our dislocation from each other, this question seems a disturbing omission.

1 comment:

  1. Consumerism is 'something else' when it's the middle class and their little white toys.

    All very Nathan Barley.