My Apple Purchases: A Political Failure, Consumer Weakness, or Ambitious Scholar?

Technologies are social and political. More than merely functional objects and software packages, technologies of all sorts represent the intersection of myriad social, political, economic, and cultural forces. Using a technology is a political act. Purchasing (or stealing, for that matter) is also a political act. We have a material impact on the world when we use a technology; that same technology has an impact on us when we use it. None of these assertions is new or novel. Marcuse, Ellul, Feenberg, Heidegger. More germane to this blog’s projects: Ong, (C) Haas, Bolter, Drucker, Chartier. But I want to take a step back and expand the scope of this reflection to include discussions of technology in general. Because lately I’ve been feeling like a contradiction. But it’s a contradiction that I seem to be embracing. I’m making the switch to Mac. It’s a transition, sure, but I’m committed to it at this point.

[pullshow]But what, exactly, is it to which I’m committing? Apple is now the biggest, most dominant technology company in the world. They are a company who basically blew-off their relationship with the die-hard fan base that helped same them from extinction in the nineties. They purposely leave out functionalities for their products in order to include them in a later model to encourage their customers to purchase more items. They are the pot calling the kettle “closed and proprietary” in terms of their ongoing battle with Flash. They are a company who, in their attempt to revolutionize (this is gonna change everything) the way we use computers, gave us a device which made it much, much harder for users to actively produce and contribute mediated cultural content. And yet, in the last year, I’ve purchased a phone, a laptop, and and iPad from them. What sort of a political gesture is this?

I could say that these purchases (to which I’ll from now on reference as a single gesture/orientation) aren’t political at all; I just loved to products. But I know that would be wrong. I knew Apple’s politics; I knew that purchases-and/or-use inarguably constitute political participation. I did it anyway. Not good.

I could say that I’m going on the job market soon, and that I’ve always worked to participate and fashion myself as a scholar of rhetorical design and digital textuality. This would create a space for me to say that Apple products are the industry standard (not necessarily the state of the art, though) in the design world, and that to participate in that world necessitates familiarity and experience with Apple products. This one would actually be true, and I did think about this before I committed to switching to Apple’s products. But I don’t think it’s the primary reason for the switch.

I could say that Apple is a dominant force in the life of my students and the rest of higher education. Again, that would be viable, but probably not the real reason. So what is the reason? I’m not exactly sure. And that scares me. Is there any more successful and powerful marketing strategy than one which compels without clear conscious reasoning?

I think, for me, what it comes down to is design. Apples products are beautiful. Simple. Elegant. Powerful. Maybe not the most efficient, but they have such a consistent design aesthetic. As I start to use Apple products more frequently, I’m beginning to understand that [pullthis]Apple’s goal is to create its own design language that functions across each of its devices and interfaces. As they become more successful, that language gets more specific, has more scope, and gains greater traction.[/pullthis] Basically, Apple has three families of interfaces: Safari (on laptops and desktops); iOS (on the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch); and iTunes (on the which is a particular portion of the interface for all Apple’s products, but the only interface for AppleTV and non-touch iPods). I could go on with a more detailed analysis about how each of these interfaces draw from the same well of human-computer-interaction principles, but other people are more suited to that than I am.

But I started this entry talking about politics. The bottom line is that Apple has tapped into something powerful. Something incredibly compelling about the way we understand technology. Something that I think no other companies really understand. Something rhetorically powerful. It’s about using design to argue for certain orientations toward technologies. Like the premise that technologies should be simple. They should be pretty. They should be integrated with other technologies. They should be ubiquitous in a certain user’s life.

(These are all things that come from the mind of Steve Jobs. I’m not a huge fan of Jobs, but there’s definitely something to be learned from him. And there are certain things about which he is (and I don’t use this word lightly) a genius. But I still think he’s kind of a prick. That’s okay. He’s probably fine with that, given how much dough I’ve forked over to Apple this year.)

I have yet to regret a single Apple purchase. I got exactly what I asked for. But what I’m starting to realize is that I’ve been attracted to that ineffable quality that makes Apple special. Their rhetoric about design and the way their design reinforces that rhetoric. I want to understand how it is they accomplish this. How they went from the edge of bankruptcy to the world’s biggest (and my favorite) tech company in less than 15 years. I want to understand at least a little bit about how they did it. And I want that understanding to inform the way I myself end up talking about technology as a scholar, as a historian, as a futurist, as a teacher, as an administrator, as a colleague. Apple certainly knows what it’s doing. I want to know, too.