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.