Apple’s Unnecessary Objects

In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Pamela Paul reviewed “Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole,” a new book by the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber. (It has a very good cover.) In reading it, I was struck by one phrase she wrote:

“Children’s lives are reduced to shopping excursions in which their identities are subsumed by brands — they’re the Nike generation, Abercrombie kids, iPod addicts.”

Hold up, “iPod addicts”? I haven’t read Barber’s book yet, so I don’t know if he in fact includes Apple and its ubiquitous iPod among his list of corrupting, infantalizing and, ahem, swallowing culprits. But the mention of everyone’s favorite fruit company alongside what I consider to be less seemly brands — Nike and Abercrombie are two of my least favorite companies anywhere — was a surprise.

In reading this, I was also reminded of a scene from “Fight Club,” an admittedly much less serious critique of modern capitalism, in which the characters embarked on a casual vandalism spree, targeting various consumer brands. For a very brief moment, an old-style Apple logo is displayed prominently in one of the targeted window displays. It’s not a flattering guest appearance for a logo, as the message is clear: Apple is an enemy.


I guess I’ve come to romanticize Apple so much as a beacon for some indistinctly higher kind of purpose, that it’s shocking to see it lumped in among more mercenary brands like this. The ecosystem for Apple-themed culture — from news to rumors to humor to products to folklore to critique — is so rich that it’s easy to forget that Apple is just a company. Whatever implied or inferred high-mindedness it possesses, it’s as opportunistic as any of its competitors, or any other concern selling us basically unnecessary products.

Design is complicit in this, too. Apple’s entire aesthetic and its much-praised design sensibility are potent tools for promoting conspicuous consumption, and they can be held at least indirectly responsible for the ills that such consumption generates. We laud the iPod as a triumph of high design, but at the end of the day, it’s an exceedingly superfluous object that, in part through the conventions of design, have convinced millions of owners and millions more consumers of its illusory indispensability.

I’m not knocking what Apple’s doing, any of it, and I’m not contending (necessarily) that the company should adopt a new agenda of any sort. Nor am I discouraging anyone from pursuing the satisfaction of their hunger for all things Apple — I’m certainly as guilty of buying into this brand and propagating that behavior as anyone else, if not moreso. I’m just saying that, for me, it’s helpful to be reminded that this is just a company out to make some money. And as with any other company, making money comes at a cost.

  1. I’ve worried about this same thing before. I too have devoted a portion of my life to “high” brands, but in the end, an idol is an idol. In the old days, the idols were “Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom.” Now, we have “PBR, God of Psuedo-Blue-Collar-Hipster-Chic.”

  2. We all use to want Walkmans back in the day. I’d rather people attach themselves to modern brands like Apple than the old fashioned onces like POUM, Communism, the Nazi Party. Grown adults live in houses, buy food, work hard, and then in the off time worry about whether a computer made by Apple is better than one made by Dell. I consider that to be a success.

    Barber’s book, like so many fatalistic “everything is shit now” books, fails to take a rational look at whether we ever were as noble as he wishes us to be. Human’s generally are infantile. We have a sense of humour and generally like to have fun. Barber’s dour take on life would have us all as progressives slavishly working towards some undefined greater good. I’ll take an iPod any day.

  3. Apple is certainly just another company, but they happen to be the only company putting effort into their music players, computers and software.
    Could I survive if Apple closed shop tomorrow? Sure – but would it be worth going on?

  4. Thanks Khoi. I reckon few people who immerse themselves (much like my embarrassed self) in the culture surrounding Apple would make this post.

    It’s important to recognize, especially in the age of oil wars and climate change – that plastic garbage – no matter how cool or convenient – it still plastic garbage.

  5. I’m a bit confused by your last point:

    “…And as with any other company, making money comes at a cost.”

    What do you mean? Of course they are making money. That’s what any/every business does. But what “cost” are you referring to? Without having read the book, I can only assume you mean the ambiguous moral/ethical/social “cost” that the author describes. Just seems like empty criticism with no bite.

  6. Apple has a brand marketers would kill for. Their products are more expensive then their competition, yet people are still buying them and their market share is growing. Chalk that up to the culture that surrounds the brand. Yes, the culture is “cool” and “hip”, but it is still there to shill product.

    Want to see another one like it in action? Look at Harley-Davidson. What other company can claim that its customers tattoo their brand on their body? (and, yes, I know Cory Doctorow has an Apple tatoo). They are struggling though. People use to aspire to owning a Harley – it was seen as the pinnacle of that culture. Friends that work at H-D have told me that the rise of shows like “American Chopper” have now made custom choppers the “must have” in motorcycles, and buying “a hog” is no longer as cool. I wonder what will eventually temper the “coolness” of Apple.

    Thanks for the link to the book (and review). Sounds like an interesting read.

  7. I second Ben’s last little bit, but I’m as guilty as anyone of picking up a copy of Adbusters and becoming very anti-corporate-culture for a little while. And then I remember that the US’s market-driven economy and society provide room for no other kind of culture.

    The best you can hope for is that the corporations with which you entrust your consumer-driven loyalty aren’t out there using your dollars to pillage and rape the rest of the world in the name of making yet more dollars.

    I think the thing that is most appealing (even to the most anti-corporate people) about Apple is that they set out from the beginning to change the world for the better; almost 30 years later, they appear to be doing it. Making money is the platform that allows them to do so, but again, I think Apple has hit a sweet spot in terms of living up to what they set out to do while making enough money to enable themselves to keep doing it. Of course, I also believe that Design with a capital D is a goal worthy of religious-like pursuit and I believe the more of it we can have in the world, the better a place it becomes.

    Of course Apple’s a company that makes money; even non-profits and charities are corporations with executive officers and staff. The dollar is the platform that allows literally everything, good and bad, to happen in this society.

  8. …interesting (now have read the _full_ review) from a standpoint of the message, though it sounds like one has to wade through a bunchy of crap to get at it. Another thanks for the link to the review (I’ve saved some money by reading it.) 🙂

  9. Guilty as charged, too.

    Sure Apple is, like any other business in the occidental world, just another company playing by the “filthy” rules of capitalism and trying to make all of us consume, consume and then consume some more. Nothing really new here.

    But then again, how many companies can brag of having a rally of loyal, voluntary groupies worldwide (yeah, an euphemism for “fanboys”) that are willing to defend the brand at all costs without expected remuneration? There must be something about the few selected companies, like Apple, that have been able to transcend the mere money-making purpose of a business and somehow strike a chord with the heart and soul of many people out there.

    Sure I don’t need an iPod to live. Heck, I don’t even “need” the very Macbook I’m typing this on. But unless you can afford to live on a remote island, computers are a part of everybody’s life now, and if I have to deal with it and face choices, I’ve simply found what Apple offers to be the most suitable tools of choice for me. They work for me best and that’s it – I couldn’t care less about the whole fashion statement surrounding the Apple brand, seriously. I must be an atypical case.

    And regarding Barber’s book, well, it just shows up how everybody loves the underdog until it stops being one. For years, Apple was regarded as that lovely niche computer brand that only mattered to design and creative types. The iPod changed all that, and put Apple into the same level as Coke and Nike in terms of brand ubiquity and power. Once a brand gets to that level, it just becomes an easy target to blame.

  10. I read that Apple’s object in creating the iPod was to make something that drove people to buy Macs. It’s brilliant and needless to say wildly successful — I can’t visit a coffee shop without seeing a glowing white Apple.

    This idea that they’re improving our lives is old-style marketing. Apple’s absolutely in business for the money, and with Steve Jobs stubbornly refusing to meet user needs (recall the push for a tablet Mac), you can be sure Apple’s interest is primarily self-serving.

    Like Nike and Coke, Apple, Inc., succeeds by cultivating insecurity. I was happy with life, but suddenly I need an iPod to be happy. This is an oversimplification, but not by much.

    Remember the serpent in the garden and what he sold the woman, and the life that resulted.

  11. One thing Apple does almost as well as design is marketing. They’ve created they Mac/Apple/Ipod culture or had a major hand in it. They are Gangster about it.

    I don’t see why anyone would hold them up to be inherently good (or not like the Nikes and AFs of the world). Why, because they are classically viewed as the upstart underdog? Because they “care” about their customers? Because they design their products with the user in mind? In Seattle we had some kids jumped in a mall for their iPods…doesn’t sound to different from Nike to me.

  12. I love my Nike’s because they’re comfortable.
    I love Coke because it tastes good (although I rarely drink it because it’s not good for you).
    I love my Macs because they serve my needs, they’re fun to use, and they look cool.
    And I’m sure I’m going to love my Sony XBR 1080p LCD whenever I get it…

  13. I don’t own any Apple products, not even an iPod (not even an MP3 player, period!). I own an HP running Windows XP and have a Wacom tablet for artwork. I have worked a fair amount on Macs in the past, and I get tired of hearing Mac fans say things such as “I tried it, and it just worked.” It’s like they’ve sucked up entirely what Apple has been advertising for years.

    Here’s the crux of it. If you know enough about most mediocre to high end electronics products, they do work, no matter brand, or you can make them work, even in areas they weren’t necessarily made to cater to. Apple is great at eye candy, but in terms of functionality (I think) they offer little more or less. In terms of the iPod, they were definitely innovative in the beginning, but now they’re just running off of their initial ideas to stay safe.

    From my perspective and unwillingness to solely affiliate myself with any brand of electronics, I find it really weird how, as you pointed out, people think of Apple as the good guys. I’m not even sure why public opinion is like that. They aren’t that particularly different in their business model, as far as I see, and if we want to get a bit abstract, we could say the Gates Foundation is doing a lot more worldwide than Apple ever will with its design simplicity and expensive (no matter how innovative) products. If we’re truly talking about making the world better, it should hardly be in regard to MP3 players, I think. In fact, it should probably not be about multi-billion-dollar corporations, period.

    If you like Apple, great–your business, you bought the product, good that you like it–but I grow really tired of the people that beto referred to, the fans. They’re so sucked into the marketing that it’s unbelievable. It makes you wonder what will happen if/when Apple makes some huge mistake. Will these starry-eyed individuals be able to make a sensible decision on the product value, or will they be too concerned about still using this name brand?

  14. I agree that Apple’s a company just like any other company that’s out to make money. However, I think what differentiates Apple is that it has a history of producing consumer products that truly change the way we live certain aspects of our lives. Up until the iPod there was little to differentiate portable audio players. The way that music plays a role in my day to day life now has changed significantly. I can’t say that owning a pair of Nike running shoes or A&F jeans has had the same kind of impact.

  15. I’m an apple user by trade (Design), but I’m an evangelist because of their approach.
    Perhaps because I work in marketing, I’m a bit sensitive to communications strategies, and the fact that appeals with charm, I feel, is worth rewarding.
    More vintage Volkswagon and less “Don’t squeeze the Charmin”, if you know what I mean.

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