Rant: Pod Complex

Apple fanatics should stop swooning and face the facts.

You’d never know it from the brown-nosing obsequiousness of most tech coverage, but there are those (mirabile dictu!) who regard the lip-biting, teary-eyed, Moonie-mass-wedding jubilation that greets the release of every Apple product with increasingly foul humor. Call us iTheists. Yeah, yeah, Apple’s products are well-made, famously free of the viruses that plague Microsoftware, and so intuitive they’re practically telepathic. They’re coolness incarnate, the tribal totems of the creative class.

As for the swooningly beautiful look of the brand, Jonathan Ive’s "universally celebrated, endlessly pleasing, devilishly functional, drop-dead gorgeous design" (to rip a quote from noted Apple-polisher Steven Levy) is the point where Edmund Burke’s sublime meets Jeff Spicoli’s bitchin’.

All of this being eagerly granted, the question remains: What’s not to love about the iLine? For starters, there’s the media’s unthinking assumption that it’s their job to flack this stuff (ethical firewall between editorial and advertising be damned), and that our role in this frenzy of product placement is to sit back and enjoy being stampeded trendward, wall-eyed with fear that we may not be among the earliest adopters of The New New Thing.

As any parent knows, this collusion of media hype and brand affinity exacts a social as well as a financial cost. A 2005 study of North American teen brand perception and spending habits, by the firm Piper Jaffray, revealed that 84 percent of the high school students surveyed had heard of the iPhone, and that 25 percent were willing to shell out a staggering $500 to have one. Which means the little darlings will never, ever stop begging for one until Mom is tossing back Zoloft like cocktail peanuts and Dad is sporting a Mohawk and practicing Travis Bickle handgun drills in front of the mirror.

Beyond the toll it will take in adolescent anxieties about social status, the iPhone will increase the welter of distractions assaulting us by an order of magnitude, at the very moment that a New York Times article (instructively titled "Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic") reports that a neurocognitive bottleneck in the human brain makes it difficult to concentrate on even two things at the same time. When the iPhone hits the market, drivers on iPhones will thin the herd of slow-moving bipeds on theirs. You’ve gotta love the fearful symmetry of the thing.

In a consumer culture, class anxiety, the primacy of style, and the tyranny of the trend implore us to define ourselves through our purchasing patterns. (Leander Kahney’s book The Cult of Mac includes a section called "Worshipping at the Altar of Mac" about the quasi-religious nature of the Apple fan base, which, according to psychologist David Levine, "provides a community and a common heritage.") The brand has attained the status of a secular religion, and Apple is the apotheosis of the emotional brand.

Things were always ever thus in America, where the profit motive has been well served by the Protestant ethic and where our devout belief in a higher power has always been matched by an equally fervent faith in the marketplace. Not for nothing were early department stores such as Wanamaker’s, with its lead-glass skylights and massive pipe organs, called "cathedrals of consumption." Not for nothing did friends of the turn-of-the-20th-century adman Elbert Hubbard note approvingly that he "deified commerce and religionized his business."

In the eyes of their devotees, brands are aglow with cultural virtue. But even a countercultural talisman like the iPod, steeped in rebel cool and white as a consecrated host, conceals hidden costs. On its website, Greenpeace ranks Apple dead last in its "Guide to Greener Electronics," asking, "what’s with the toxic chemicals inside, short life spans and allowing their products to be dumped in Asia?" Recently, the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday reported that the Chinese laborers (minimum age: 16) who work in a vast plant called iPod City sleep 100 to a dormitory room, work 15-hour days, and earn about U.S. $50 a month assembling the sleek gadgets.

Obviously, Apple isn’t the only corporate sinner; in a globalized economy, Faustian bargains confront us at every turn. But if we dare to look beyond the iThings’ glossy facades, we’ll be forced to consider the omnivore’s dilemma of where they were made and how they ended up in our hands. At a time when New Atheists like Richard (The God Delusion) Dawkins are championing sweet reason over blind faith, isn’t it time that even those in the business of fetishizing commodities started to Think Different about the politics of beauty?

Mark Dery directs the undergraduate program in media studies in the Department of Journalism at NYU.

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