Apple: A Perfect Example of Rhetorical Ontology

1. Vanity, thy name is laptop.
2. Technology is what we say it is.
3.  Apple design gets off track.
4. Apple: a perfect example of rhetorical ontology.
5. This post made possible only by digital writing technologies.

Laptops are expressive technologies. And not just because they allow us to write emails, blog posts, and Facebook updates. We say something about ourselves by letting our laptops do the talking for us. (of course, I don’t mean you, dear reader; by we, I mean me). Have you seen the latest marketing campaigns for HP, Dell, and Apple? Dell seems to be marketing its Adamo models to no one less good looking than Derek Zoolander. Apple has always been image conscious, but the “I’m a Mac” commercials make explicit the cool-cred projected through Mac-ownership. Dell’s “Skinit” (disturbing moniker) campaign literally makes your laptop into your own little billboard. And do I need to say anything more about HP’s choice to call their luxury line “ENVY”?

(btw: I should add that keeping this blog makes me WAY more image-self-projection-conscious than anyone who merely buys a laptop to look cool or rich or very, very sexy. Oh, yeah, and I also rock a slick, ultraportable Dell XPS M1330 laptop when I’m on the go.)

There are three discursive moments that got me started thinking about technology ownership as public identity. The first was last night. I was reading Lisa Gitelman’s Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines, and I ran across this passage:

Mechanical, material components and systems are only the most familiar expressions of technology as a form of knowledge. They very rarely exist without linguistic and graphic compliments, labels, descriptions, drawings, and diagrams. In this light technological innovation becomes a process of selecting, sifting, and circulating messages, from the proverbial drawing board to the marketplace and then the drawing room. Artifacts become knowable in part because they are enmeshed within the back and forth and round about of telling what they are, and because telling devolves upon discernible rhetorical conventions, like genres and specialized vocabularies, that are themselves largely the result of unconscious consensus. Economic realities tend to enforce this rhetorical character of technological knowledge by requiring the literature of patents and the literature of commercial promotion. Both the need to identify property and the desire to exchange it ensure an insistently rhetorical character almost unmatched in science, where disciplinary pressures stand in place of commercial l ones. (p 7, emphasis mine) (apologies for the long quote.)

Gitelman’s notion of “telling what they are” focuses less on advertising than the way I’m thinking of it, but her point is still relevant. Sometimes (most of the time, she would argue) people understand a new technology only to the extent that it is explained to them. Consider how much Microsoft had to change its approach to marketing Vista once public opinion had become so negative as to not allow people to see the actual value of the OS. They had to change it’s name, tell people it was something new, and then, of course, it was. And now with Windows 7, all of the rhetoric is about “simplicity.” Which brings me, of course, to the antithesis (not really) of Microsoft: Apple. Consider this short commerical for the Macbook Air:

That’s great. But what the hell does the thing do? I can’t think of a more stripped down design concept (maybe 1st generation ipods. beautiful). But what of the lack of explanation? Does the technology “speak for itself”? Well, there’s lots going on here. The ad fits perfectly into Apple’s branding efforts as a high-design tech company. But somewhere along the line, something went a little (discursively) off-track with Apple. I agree, generally, with the principle that the best designs are often the most simple. But I’m surprised that such a great design-engineering company like Apple has sold out fundamental design principles for image conscious cash. This is how I see Apple’s image evolution since the iMac:

1. iMac: Simple use = pleasant experience = good design. Unpack the machine, and you’re online sending emails and photos and web-surfing in minutes.

2. iPod: Simple design = good design. Okay, but here, Apple started to lose the “simple use” aspect. That scroll wheel looked great. One button. Beautifully balanced spatial design. Stripped down. But that scroll wheel really took some getting used to. Still very good design.

3. Macbook’s = simple design. Stripped down. One button mousepad? Two is too complicated? Powerful components. Beautiful screen.

4. MacBook Air = I almost want to call this one “vapor.” It’s beautiful. No denying that. Nice screen. Light. Sexy. And expensive as all get-out. Oh, and um… no cd/dvd drive. And, um… a weaker processor. Battery life? Hmmm. Did I mention how expensive this thing was? I know… just look at it, though! Especially with that chilled-out music playing behind it. And the slo-mo 360 degree views in an a-contextual, antiseptic light studio?

Theres a lot I’m leaving out. Sure. The iPhone. The iPod touch. I’ve owned them both. Still own the iPhone. Wouldn’t trade it for any other phone on the market. I love my iPhone. Same for that iPod. I’m not trying to condemn Apple as a company. Not at all. I just think Apple is at their best when they don’t have to explain why something is cool, why it’s better, and why you should pay more. They didn’t need much help on those counts with the first iMac and iPod. Did I forget to mention that Apple was the first company to release a graphical user interface for its personal computer line? Did ANYONE need to have the benefits and value of that innovation explained to them?

Now Apple dedicates a whole section of their website to each product. And those pages are relatively text-heavy. Explanatory and descriptive text. Hmmm. Something’s gone wrong a little hear. You should be using our computers lifestyle-machines, not reading about what they are and why they’re so great.

Okay, next discursive moment. First, Gitelman’s passage about rhetorically creating a technology as you physically create the technology. Next, I want to look at this amazing ad for the Sun Times:

How much fun is that?! Not mean. Not sarcastic. Not insulting. Simply borrowing the hyped rhetoric of the “new” technologies to undermine any sense of distinction, superiority, or innovation that certain technology companies work to create. Yeah, Apple, that’s you they’re looking at. I really don’t mean to suggest that Apple builds value where there isn’t any. On the contrary. It my impression from Sun ad that there’s a certain amount of truth to claims about convenience and usability. The Sun is only trying to eliminate that “difference” most people perceive.

Now, with Gitelman’s passage and the insightful little Sun commercial in mind, I had a whole new lens through which I viewed the following pair of Apple commercials. What I’m hoping you notice is the difference between the amount and types of rhetorical work Apple is doing with each of these ads:

I hope you didn’t watch that whole thing. Here’s a version for the attention-span-challenged scholars of Rhetoric and Composition:

Personally, I find the latter more effective, but the first one way, way more fascinating from a rhetorical point of view. So much work. The experts. The graphics. The music. The text. Everything is so calculated. And actually… so effective. I want to be Apple’s friend after this. I want to repurpose my old iMac into a backyard compost bin. Alas, the heavy metals in the drives and processors would pretty much kill my whole lawn AND my dog, Rilke. But that’s the old Apple! Right?

And one more thing. This post, with these sorts of knowledge-making attempts strategies are only possible with digital writing technologies. Links. Embeds. RSS feeds for some of you. Don’t you forget it, people. Spread the word.

(Yeah, I know. Barthes’s Mythologies is totally relevant here. As is Bourdieu’s Distinction and a whole slew of other readings. I’d love it if you’d add them to this post as a comment.)

Jeez. How much fun is it to be reading and writing for my dissertation?