A massive glass atrium — the entryway — is the only part of the Apple store at Grand Army Plaza that is visible from the street. In the basement display room there are rows of rectangular tables made of pale wood and on the tables are laptops, phones, tablets, watches, and music players. It’s a sunny afternoon in September, and the store is crowded, full of shoppers and tourists. Outside, on Fifth Avenue, vendors advertise ten-dollar selfie sticks and in the store, a couple — wearing polo shirts in the same noxious shade of bubblegum blue — wander about with a selfie stick held out in front of them.
I’m here because I’m fascinated by the speed at which the personal computing technologies that Apple introduced — technologies that have changed the way we interact and do business — became mainstream. Moreover, I’m here because I’m trying to unravel the relationship between the iconic advertisements Apple has produced over the course of the last thirty years and a blurring of aesthetic and moral value that Apple products — and, perhaps, late capitalism at large — engender.
In a landscape of abundance, in which all imaginable needs are met, there is always a piece of forbidden fruit waiting to be picked. Such was the case both in Eden and in 1970’s California.
Eve took a bite of the proverbial apple — and offered it to Adam too — only to have the entirety of the human race punished. It is because Eve tasted the apple that we experience shame and must endlessly work the earth for our survival; it is because she tasted the forbidden fruit that we are aware of good and evil — the beauty and the pain of being corporal, mortal, and fundamentally flawed. (Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.)
Much has been made about Steve Jobs’ conviction that Apple would make “a dent in the universe;” he believed that change — newness — was its own good. In his mammoth biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson argues that Apple’s superior design and user interface as well as its impeccable branding — aspects of the company that Jobs took particular interest in — allowed Apple to premiere and popularize the devices that define the way we live now. Jobs was not a technological wonk as much as he was a visionary; he envisioned a world where personal computing devices were in widespread use. Yet, like Eve’s consumption of the Apple, the invention of personal computing devices (and a market for these devices) revealed previously inconceivable possibilities and problems. The technologies of personal computing that Apple has premiered in the last 30 years have helped to facilitate the development of a state of near total surveillance in which we now live. (Apple wrote a letter to its customers last week promising that it will not create a “backdoor” into the iPhone; however, the way in which people tend to use smart phones allow for huge amounts of personal data to be accessed with or without the existence of a backdoor.)
Apple’s icon, an image of an apple with a bite taken out of it, mocks anyone who thought that the personal computer would not reveal both good and evil. Jobs chose the brand name not to allude to Genesis, but rather because he thought an apple seemed approachable. Jobs associated the fruit with the counterculture movement that he came of age within. To him “Apple” sounded “fun, spirited and not intimidating.” Jobs lived and worked on an apple orchard and Zen retreat-commune before founding Apple. The name seems to have been chosen according to personal associations, rather than the much older and more widely understood set of symbols in which the apple represents the complicating effects of new knowledge.
Apple’s 1984 introduction of the first home computer, the Macintosh, was more self-aware in its invocation and manipulation of widely understood cultural symbols. Reimagining the ending to George Orwell’s 1984, Apple’s first ad imagined that the Mac would be a tool to resist authoritarianism. Apple took the fears articulated in 1984 itself and modified them to suggest that Apple might be a force of uncomplicated good.
Everything in the ad is a muddy gray-blue; men march in unison through a suspended tunnel. Their eyes are blank; a single, deep voice, speaks. A woman appears. In a white tank top and bright orange shorts, she runs at top speed. Men wearing riot gear chase her. The men who were previously marching are now sitting in rows, looking up at a screen onto which the face of a man is projected. “Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives… Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth.” The blonde woman runs in the aisle through the center of the crowd. “We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause.” The men in riot gear are close behind her. “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion.” The men are gaining on her. She throws a javelin; it hits the screen. A bright white flash. “We shall prevail!” The rows of men gape in awe. A second voice, this one full of a self-aware humor, says: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” The screen fades to black. The Apple logo appears, bright and striped in color.
The viewer — a potential customer — identifies with the nameless woman and imagines that the person who purchases the home computer is someone who lives in opposition to a repressive state, someone willing to take a bite of the fruit, to wear color, and to stand up to the all-powerful authority. By offering an alternate ending to Orwell’s novel, the ad transformed the implications of the personal computer in the cultural imaginary. The Mac will not create the conditions necessary for a techno-surveillance state but will stop them. Apple conceals the technological power of the machines by focusing instead on the ways in which that technological power might be utilized.
Apple’s marketing promises that each new product will help us live up to our highest ideals; however, more often than not, the products — and the way we use them — enable our basest impulses.
Last summer, Apple’s “Shot on an iPhone 6” campaign seemed to be everywhere — on billboards and on backs of magazines. The campaign featured: a box of frosted doughnuts, each one wrapped in brown waxed paper; an airplane flying amidst clouds with twin exhaust trails in its wake; a seagull, magnificent in the light, taking off before the Golden Gate Bridge; and the sprawling skyline of Dubai, cumulus clouds lit pink and glowing grey in a painfully blue sky. Below each image is the “Shot on an iPhone 6” tagline — this latest iteration of Apple smart phones which are not simply telecommunication devices but mini computers, cameras, atlases, personal assistants. Beyond their myriad functions, they are also symbols of status and, perhaps more than anything else, aspiration.
The images are simple and beautiful; they invoke both leisure and cosmopolitanism — taste, sophistication, and class. There are no selfies. The campaign illustrates a world of pleasure that is not made available by the purchase of this (or any) smartphone. Rather, the sort of thoughtful moments that the campaign highlights are often obscured by the presence of a smartphone. How often does the glow of a screen distract from looking up at the sky to see a plane with its dual exhaust trails, or from marveling at a box of freshly made doughnuts? We look and then we look away. We hold the phone out in front of us and direct our gaze neither outward nor inward — we are always looking back at ourselves.
This state of mindless self-reflection reminds me of Narcissus — a young man who was so consumed by his own image that he failed to understand, let alone love the young woman, Echo, who pursued him. He was so unperceptive that he failed to notice Echo was only capable of repeating the speech of others and, more to the point, that he drowned trying to kiss his reflection in water. Narcissus was undiscerning of the world beyond himself as well as undiscerning of himself. Narcissus was consumed only with his own alluring image.
Smart phones make us all a bit like Narcissus — unable to see the world beyond our own image. Apple’s campaign advertising the iPhone 6 is designed to make the product appear — in the minds of its costumers — to do exactly what it doesn’t. The advertisements promise that the iPhone 6 will make it possible to experience the world beyond oneself — beautiful and full of nuance, complexity, and contradiction. However, in practice, the constant presence of a personal computing device makes experiencing the unmediated world more difficult, and communicating those experience even harder.
He’s in a red sweater and tight black jeans, she has bleach blond hair and is wearing Doc Martins — they are angling in for a kiss when bing! Her Uber is arriving. She cancels the car. They smile at one another. White text appears superimposed over them: TAKE YOUR TIME. They lean in further for The Kiss.
This 2015 spot for the Apple Watch shows the wearable, personal computing device allowing individuals to be fully present. Unlike the phone, which distracts and distances the watch facilitates presence. The ad promises that this device will allow one to be more rather than less attentive to the world beyond themselves — unlike the devices that proceeded, it will be subordinate to our desires.
This campaign, like so much of Apple’s marketing, attempts to render potential anxieties about new computing devices irrelevant. The customer has questions, gut level concerns — how will this device impact their privacy? Their political life? How they interact with other people? How they experience their life? Apple responds to these reservations with a nod and a wink. Its marketing campaigns show individuals using Apple’s technologies toward ends that stand in contrast to the reality that consumers fear the devices will bring into being. The devices are not marketed through a catalogue of their functions but rather by conflating their functions with what they may facilitate. To do this, Apple employs our shared symbolic language.
When creating or maintaining a philosophy is more important than clear and precise thought, symbols are inverted, bent, and blurred in order to buttress dogma. In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell reflects on symbolically manipulative political rhetoric and argues that ill-reasoned notions can corrupt language while poorly used language can corrupt thought. He writes:
They [i.e., the “ready-made phrases” of political rhetoric] will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.
As imprecise use of these symbols spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to think acutely about the world around them. Likewise, Apple ads are attempts to radically reshape the ways — the symbolic tools — which individuals use to comprehend the world.
As personal computing devices become increasingly intimate — as they move from the desk to the book bag, from the pants pocket to the wrist — the symbolic fun-house of Apple’s marketing continues to conflate what a device does with what it might do — the device becomes the time taken for a kiss, the appreciation of the skyline, and the revolutionary impulse in an authoritarian state. Such conflations in conjunction with the constant and intimate presence of telecommunication has shrunk the distance between the personal and the public — between an experience and the image of that experience. Taken together, all of this makes it difficult to conceive of ourselves — or even conceive of conceiving of ourselves — in relation to a large and symbolically complex whole.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels.” So begins Jobs’ voiceover for Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” commercial. This ad (and the larger campaign) offered a playful and implicitly counterculture alternative to IBM’s longstanding “Think” slogan. As Jobs narrates, images of Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, and Amelia Earhart flash on the screen. “The ones who see things differently.” Alfred Hitchcock. “They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.” Martha Graham, Mahatma Gandhi. “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.” Jim Henson. “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
The “Think Different” ad suggests that what is frightening about IBM’s technological innovations — a sense of stodginess, conservatism — need not apply to Apple’s as well. The ad communicates this by placing Apple within a tradition of innovation and by presenting its products as the tool of innovation and innovators. Yet, what sort of visionary engagement Apple will facilitate is blurry. Is it social? Political? Creative?
By including such a broad range of cultural figures in the “Think Different” campaign, Apple equates the explicit political action of Gandhi and King with the groundbreaking creative work of Graham, the intellectual rigor of Einstein, and the fearlessness of Earhart. Equating these means of engagement suggests that the pursuit of one is equivalent to the pursuit of any of the others and thus undermines the need for widespread civic engagement.
Those who want to think of themselves as visionaries or revolutionaries are able to do so simply by purchasing a Mac. Personal computing devices have facilitated resistance to social and political control: the ubiquity of phones with internet capabilities and cameras has led to public awareness of police brutality, while social networks made possible by widespread use of personal computing devices have aided social movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy and the Arab Spring. Nonetheless, Apple’s marketing and its devices are a means of tracking the blooming of late capitalism’s moral-myopia.
Apple attempts not simply to assuage consumers’ fears about the potential consequences of new technology but also to convince consumers that owning the device is, paradoxically, the means of avoiding what they fear to be the consequence of owning the device. While the personal computing devices that Apple introduced and popularized can help us avoid the actualization of our fears, in practice, by marketing the Apple as an instrument of resistance (even simply resisting the urge to give oneself over completely to their devices), Apple has made the conscientious use of its products increasingly unlikely. The act of purchasing an Apple device has been framed as a stand-in for acts of defiance in the face of the status quo.
At the Grand Army Plaza store, two boys stand side-by-side, each wearing a pair of white headphones and watching — on separate display laptops — the same music video; they’re dancing. The store is packed. I find my own display laptop and begin taking notes. The boys leave. A sales woman adjusts a row of laptops so their screens are all at the same angle. Parents stumble about with teenage children, shopping in anticipation of a new school year. The sales-people wear matching T-shirts: navy-blue, with the Apple insignia embroidered onto the breast. As I write, the music in the store gets progressively louder. Again and again, sales people come by to realign the row of laptops, and again and again people come to handle them — a woman and then the man she is with each in turn hold a laptop with one hand, testing its weight; a man jabs at a screen, “Is this a touch screen? I want a touch screen.”
The bass line comes in and a salesman starts rocking back and forth and knocking his fists against one of the wooden tables, another counts a stack of crisp hundred dollar bills — making change for a purchase. That MGMT song we all got tired of years ago plays. It’s loud. There’s chatter. Everyone’s talking. It feels like a party. A salesperson gives a demo: “So say you want to send this photo to a,” he pauses, “a family member…” The devices are used for personal computing, but Apple’s marketing relies on fuzzy images of innovation and revolution — of Henson and King — to convey a sense of efficiency and good taste.
Apple has absorbed the imagery of political resistance and the consumerist promises of technological innovation into a single, aspirational aesthetic. The way in which we live with these devices has blurred the distinction between what we buy, what we do, how we live, and who we are — but, of course, this is a problem of late capitalism at large. Apple is unique only in the sense that its marketing outmaneuvers the flatness of Narcissus’ reflection, even as its products perpetuate such flatness, even as its products are so thin and project so much cold blue light. I stop typing for a moment to gaze into the middle distance, light coming down through the glass staircase from the afternoon sun outside. I must look disturbed — a salesman polishing the screen of the laptop on the table across from me stops for a moment to ask if I have any questions.