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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

it sure looks like one to me

Apple, the company that makes personal computers and mp3 players, has sold a lot of units over the years to vaguely lefty types who fall for its hipper-than-thou ad campaigns and faux-underdog brand identity. Their current campaign relies on a pair of recurring characters: a slim young male who shops at the Gap versus an overweight dullard who, the ad implies, is not sharp enough to dress better and to realize that the computer is best appreciated as a wardrobe accessory. The respective tagline for each character is 'I'm a Mac' and 'I'm a pc'. It's fine for Apple to want to seem cool, but why is an Apple-manufactured computer not a pc?

I'm not a partisan: I own an Ipod and a Dell pc that runs Windows XP. From my teenage years to my twenties I owned a series of three Apples, and now I'm on my second Windows-based machine. I only switched because my job at the time involved using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for Windows and I needed to be able to work at home, not to mention the free software. (Which may make me the only person in the world to switch to Windows in order to use Adobe products.) Video editting aside, I don't see any significant difference between the two platforms. Unless I start making digital movies in my bedroom, I'm sure I'll be quite alright using Windows, no matter how unhip I'm supposed to think it is.

But the question remains, why is an Apple personal computer not a personal computer? PC is not a brand name. There is nothing about the abbreviation that implies Windows. Is it because Apple computers are so incomparably cool that they defy category? Do they transcend the computer and become a personal badge of moral virtue? That seems to be Apple's implication and way too many people fall for it, people who should know better.

I personally know people who have bonded their identities to the Apple brand. Reader, let's consider the false consciousness of the Apple zealots, and if you happen to be one of them, so much the better. According to them, Bill Gates is some kind of Satan and Microsoft is an evil multinational corporation that impedes competition. But what of Apple?

As far as competition goes, surely the online Itunes store is a thorn in the side of every listener of digital music. The songs will only play on Apple-branded mp3 players and they cannot be shared like regular mp3's. If your hard drive crashes a few times and you buy a new computer, not only will you not be able to share your Itunes downloads with anyone but you will lose the ability to play your own songs that you paid for. [Update: A reader has pointed out that the previous statement is wrong. Thanks.] Worker-wise, both companies have provided same-sex partner benefits since the 1990's and they're both known for treating their employees well.

Then there's Bill Gates. Like Steve Jobs of Apple, he is a self-made billionaire, yet Jobs is never the subject of ridicule and contempt. The only difference I see is that Steve Jobs wears blue jeans and solid, long-sleeve black tops to the Macworld Expos, and Gates is as unhip a dresser as they come. He is, to people for whom this is a meaningful category, a nerd.

Personally, I don't use the word 'nerd' because I have always found brains and obsessive-compulsive attention spans sexy. But if the word could safely apply to anyone, that person would be Bill Gates. Is that why the Apple hipsters hate Gates so much? Because he's not cool like them?

I'm beginning to think Apple is less a corporation and more of a cult. Does anyone remember Apple's opaque 'Think different [sic]' campaign featuring photographs of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Lennon & Ono? (See Wikipedia's entry for 'Think different' for a hopefully accurate list of the people used in the campaign.) The textual pitch began this way:
'Here's to the crazy ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.'

So if I use an Apple computer, can I be a misfit, too, just like Gandhi and MLK?

Why are liberals the biggest suckers in the world? I'm securely on the left, but sometimes it's not easy keeping company with these folks. (Yeah yeah, I'd rather hang with a bunch of crunchy pseudo-lefty types than with the homophobic mob on the other side.) Here is the problem in its quintessence: the mistaking of style for political and moral commitment. This is why Apple's advertising drives me nuts. It contributes to the notion of politics as a lifestyle choice.

If I may say, this is how we got into our current mess in the first place. One day people are buying the Apple brand of computer because it's cooler and more politically correct than the dreaded pc, and the next day they're voting for Ralph Nader because they're too cool for Al Gore and the Democrats. Yes, Reader, we have seen the uncool, overweight, wooden guy before. And every time you laugh at the fat guy and identify with the supposedly cool guy, you're casting another vote for your own political self-delusion and making it easier for the George Bushes of the world to creep back into power. And yes, there will definitely be more to say about the confusion of style and politics in the future.

13 Comments:

Blogger The Cheap Lush said...

Okay Jeff--

You baited me into doing this, so here it is. Your argument has cause and effect inverted. Using an Apple is not a political statement. The company, from its beginning, has made the most elegant, customizable, and easy-to-use operating system ever seen (Linux and Next geeks, please let this slide), and soon after, introduced the best-designed personal computers. They brought to market the first widely used graphic-user interface (stolen from Xerox, but still), and for the last twenty years have remained ahead of any company in the world in the areas of industrial and OS design. Along the way, they've lost most of their developers--unlike Microsoft, Apple has always prioritized the user over the programmer--and a huge segment of the market, which preferred the vastly larger amount of software available for the Windows platform, the lower prices, etc. Apple's repeated business errors have contributed to this, too. Those of us that have remained loyal to Apple despite its obvious disadvantages have done so because using their products simply offers more pleasure, in the same way that wearing a shirt from Paul Smith offers more pleasure than one from Eddie Bauer. Sure it costs eight times as much (and I can't fit into one anymore), but then most beautiful things do. Now--to get at your argument--it's hard to argue against the fact that people who happen to recognize and seek out beautiful things often also tend to shy away from making ugly ethical and political choices. Good esthetics tend to go along with good politics. That means that most of this country's Apple users vote Democrat. Guess what--so do most users of Leica film cameras, Panerai wriswatches, and burgundy from Pommard. That doesn't make those products inherently political. And, you're right--the commercials starring the jail-bait kid from Dodgeball and the dweeb are glib and obnoxious. As a discerning man of size, I completely agree. But it's just an ad campaign, a disposable piece of celluloid, and Apple hasn't amassed its insanely loyal user base with ad campaigns, or by bullying anyone into shelling out $2K for a PowerBook by suggesting it would be uncool to not do so. People, ultimately, are just not that susceptible to advertising. No, Apple won us over by making the most beautiful and fun-to-use personal computers on the market. The iPod is not too shabby, either. And yeah, they are a visionary company, though they tend to be a little self-congratulatory about it. But that's all--simple market preference on the part of the consumer. Don't go all Derrida upside this. And if you choose to wear Dockers and no-iron shirts two sizes too large, that doesn't mean you're a Republican, just that you can't dress. (Okay, maybe it does...) So enjoy your crappy Toshiba laptop and don't get your panties in a bunch.

1:21 AM, February 02, 2007

 
Anonymous Supreme Ultimate Fist said...

But the question remains, why is an Apple personal computer not a personal computer? PC is not a brand name. There is nothing about the abbreviation that implies Windows.

Actually, it is a holdover from the days of the 1980s when the "IBM PC" brand was a particular kind of computer that ran Microsoft operating systems, ie MS-DOS and then Windows. Of course an Apple computer is a "personal computer" inasmuch as any computer is personal, but there is this factual basis for "PC" referring only to Microsoft-based systems.

As far as competition goes, surely the online Itunes store is a thorn in the side of every listener of digital music. The songs will only play on Apple-branded mp3 players and they cannot be shared like regular mp3's.

Well, according to the law, "regular mp3s" cannot be shared either. iTunes just makes it more tricky (not impossible) to break the law in this manner.

If your hard drive crashes a few times and you buy a new computer, not only will you not be able to share your Itunes downloads with anyone but you will lose the ability to play your own songs that you paid for.

This is just wrong. It is a simple matter to log-in and authorize your new computer or reset all your authorizations (you have five to play with).

Then there's Bill Gates. Like Steve Jobs of Apple, he is a self-made billionaire, yet Jobs is never the subject of ridicule and contempt. The only difference I see is that Steve Jobs wears blue jeans and solid, long-sleeve black tops to the Macworld Expos, and Gates is as unhip a dresser as they come.

If that were the only difference, you would be entirely right to decry the contempt heaped on Gates. But there is also, in point of historical fact, the difference (as the cheap lush points out above) that Apple has consistently been a technological innovator, in a way that Microsoft hasn't, a judgment on which most disinterested observers concur. Windows started out as a (clumsy) copy of the Mac OS.

You are right that nowadays for the average user there is little to choose between them, and the "cult of Mac" can be silly - I like very much your comparison with Nader voters. My own view is that all computers are shitty - but, depending on what you want to do (for example, producing existential robot trance music), some are marginally less shitty than others.

7:06 AM, February 02, 2007

 
Anonymous Big Mac Attack said...

Thanks so much for posting this! As a Mac Owner, I had one reason for considering myself hip, canny, and a rebel - and now you've taken that away from me. Thanks very much.

Im fact, I had never noticed that Apple alone used emblematic figures, tropes of rebellion, and allusions to Rock'n'Roll in their advertising. Hewlett Packard had turned me off, because they chose, amongst others, those symbols of nerdy technophilia, Jay Z and Pharrell.

At the end of the day, you're right. Choice, style, whimsy, the options and vicissitudes of democracy, and cool are all just delusions.

4:58 PM, February 02, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Oh, I am itching to jump into this comment thread. Let me get some sleep, campaign for the Democrat on Long Island, and I will join the fray. This should be a a good one.

5:14 AM, February 03, 2007

 
Anonymous big mac attack said...

Doesn't Gore use a Mac for his powerpoint presentations? (I'm so hoping he does . . . )

8:26 PM, February 03, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Let's start by working backwards: Big Mac Attack's question first.

I distinctly recall that, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore moved into the White House in 1993, Gore was using an Apple PowerBook Duo Dock. I would bet good money he still uses Apple computers. A lot of cool people do, but—I emphasize—that's not what makes them cool. And it surely does not make them liberal or righteous either.

Who believes it does? Check this out from dailykos.com, and I swear I only discovered it after I posted my original entry:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/1/29/142433/003
==============
Conservatives are So PC
by Devilstower
Mon Jan 29, 2007

[...]

So here's a question: why? Why do liberals like Macs, while conservatives shun them?

[...]
Liberals buy Macs because they want to put a metaphorical finger in the eye of "the man" (assuming that finger could penetrate Bill Gate's thick glasses).

The Hip vs Tragically Unhip Theory: It's been true since at least the 50s, daddio. Conservatives are squares, dig it? So conservatives buy computers that look like gray lunch buckets and run with all the flair of operating instructions. Liberals, beret owners from way back, think Apple's designs are the ginchiest.

[...]
Conservatives are more likely to be plodding through the numbers and writing memos about the supplies in the company bathroom. So liberals buy Macs because of the variety and power of media software available for the system.

[...]
And that brings me to my own secret theory. I call it... buying a Mac makes you liberal.
==============

Can we not pretend that these are not common sentiments among Apple users? If you like Apple, that's great. I like Apple, too. It's their corporate personality cult that worries me. That and the political confusion it distinctly inspires.

2:43 AM, February 04, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Before I reply to The Cheap Lush, allow me to give mad props to his new blog on wine and wit, thecheaplush.blogspot.com.

The Cheap Lush and I fundamentally disagree on a point that is practically my prime directive: that there is no necessary relationship between æsthetics and morality, or between æsthetics and politics.

Here is the Lush, going right for the heart of the matter:
'it's hard to argue against the fact that people who happen to recognize and seek out beautiful things often also tend to shy away from making ugly ethical and political choices. Good esthetics tend to go along with good politics.'

That's just patently untrue. What of all the centuries of European royals and popes who patronized the arts and oppressed Jews? Or, for a contemporary case, how about Ronald Lauder? This heir of Estée Lauder Cosmetics was chairman of the board of the MoMA, owns the Neue Galerie, spent $135 million on a Klimt (Klimt!), and campaigned for mayor of New York in 1989 as the nominee of the Conservative Party. The man has taste, but ugly politics indeed. Did either modernism or futurism prevent Marinetti from being a fascist?

But let's not reason entirely by example. It's the conceit, in both senses of the word, of the cultured to imagine that being cultured makes one a better person. So if we spend enough time at the Met, opera or museum, will we have a more democratic society? If that were true, we would expect a correlation between Republican presidencies and dips in museum attendance. (The crowd in the good seats at the Metropolitan Opera speaks for itself.)

I challenge the Lush or anyone else to explain how æsthetic form implies particular moral/political meaning. Is there a form that can be used by one political side and not the other? Or does a preference for free verse over blank verse have political implications? How exactly does the argument work?

3:22 AM, February 04, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

And finally, welcome to Supreme Ultimate Fist, the star of the existential robot trance music scene. Check out his work at supremeultimatefist.com.

3:27 AM, February 04, 2007

 
Anonymous supreme ultimate fist said...

Thanks for the props!

I must agree with Jeff that, despite Wittgenstein's gnomic announcement that "ethics and aesthetics are one and the same", there is no reliable link between aesthetic and political choices. (Notoriously, the Nazis loved 'em some good music.)

I think perhaps the reason Apple is still thought in some quarters to be "cool" is that its products are identified with "creatives", ie people who work in web design, or video editing, or music recording. And it's true that in those industries Apple has a greater market share than in society in general. So if you take an Apple laptop down to your coffee shop you are advertising yourself as the kind of guy who is peering over his Prada spectacle frames to code a hot new Web 2.0 app and compose generative ambient music while sipping his latte.

Going back to iTunes & iPod - the real problem with that setup, which Jeff might have criticized more righteously, is the fact that once you have bought music from the iTunes store to play on your iPod, you will never be able to buy a different music player and transfer the music onto that.* You are now locked into using iPods for the rest of your life if you want to keep that music. This is something that I don't think most customers are aware of.

*(Actually you can, but it requires the use of some software of legal dubiety, and more technical skill than an average user will have.)

6:21 AM, February 04, 2007

 
Anonymous supreme ultimate fist said...

Some interesting recent updates to these issues:

Bill Gates, to speak bluntly, is a liar, in response to which lies Apple has released this ad (which, regardless of the technical issues, I think is actually really funny);

Steve Jobs has written an open letter about electronic "protection" of iTunes music (reiterating the important point that it was the record companies who demanded it in the first place).

7:21 PM, February 06, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Today's open letter from Steve Jobs is a model of persuasive writing. One by one, it demolishes all the gripes against Apple's Itunes restrictions. I'm not too stubborn to admit that, and I'm grateful to Supreme for posting the link. I for one did not know that Microsoft and Sony even had online music stores, let alone that the songs they sell there only play on their own hardware.

For more hostility towards Apple's style/politics confusion, check out the Guardian's Comment Is Free blog for yesterday. Charlie Brooker in I Hate Macs is surely less reasonable than anyone here at my blog, but the comment thread is amusing nonetheless.

8:40 PM, February 06, 2007

 
Blogger Tim said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:39 AM, February 21, 2007

 
Blogger Tim said...

On a quasi-related note, I think you might enjoy this cartoon~

http://www.techeblog.com/index.php/tech-gadget/video-bill-gates-vs-steve-jobs

(The website itself is pretty nifty, because staying up-to-date on the latest and greatest in the world of technology is, undeniably, sexy.)

Oh, and have you seen the film "Pirates of Silicon Valley"?

11:43 AM, February 21, 2007

 

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