iPhone, Commodified Resistance

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


October 7, 2011

iPhone, Commodified Resistance

Rob Horning posted his reaction to Steve Jobs’ death today, and as a loyal long-time reader, I was surprised.

Of Apple he says, “I see commercial products specifically designed to repel curiosity and DIY modification…” suggesting that he is now fully onboard with the counterculture-capitalist spirit of Wired Magazine and the right of budding startup founders to exploit new mobile platforms without interference from large bureaucratic organizations that limit innovation.

Against Apple’s proprietary walled-gardens, Horning naively endorses the pseudo-democracies of the open source movement whose contributions are overwhelmingly funded by the largest tech corporations in the world, or the openness of the web which directly undergirds Google’s bottom line.

He says “outside of fast fashion, perhaps no company exemplifies the commitment to obsolescence more rigorously than Apple”, ignoring the fact that the iPhone has undergone essentially one major design change in its four years on the market, and that Apple products hold their value on the resale market far longer than an HP or a Dell.

Far from never-ending “innovation,” more than one blog has noted the secret link between Apple’s industrial design and the 1960s high-modernist design of Dieter Rams and Braun. Horning says he reactively fetishizes vinyl in response to Apple, inadvertently repeating the very gesture of Apple.

Apple allegedly signals a new tendency in capitalism: “it no longer needs appeals to utility and rationality to justify itself .” How do we square this with the famous Jobs’ quote “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works”?

In 1999, Alan Cooper wrote a now-classic book about the design of software called The Inmates are Running the Asylum, drawing attention to the frustration and humiliation that ordinary people experience when faced with the endless array of options, preferences and choices built into software by engineers eager to provide them with maximum flexibility. Even today, software developers marvel at how people refuse to adapt themselves to this environment and take advantage of the freedom and choices that have been generously provided to them, an opinion that is echoed in Douglas Rushkoff’s maxim “program or be programmed”.

Between these two perspectives lies a great debate about choice and the meaning of freedom, and in his blog post, Horning uncharacteristically falls on the side that he most often opposes. Alan Cooper is (apparently unknowingly) repeating a line of reasoning that has its roots in trade unionism of the 1970s, democratic workplaces and the ideas of Marxist sociologist Harry Braverman that sought to ensure that workers’ interests would be represented as workplaces became increasingly automated and the threat of deskilling loomed.

The use of participatory design methods ensured that workers were included in the design process and the machines that were built extended and enhanced existing knowledge and skills rather than making the worker a component in a system, relegating them to fewer and fewer jobs on the Taylorist assembly line that machines were ill-suited for.

Against this idea, hackers, open source advocates and now Horning have argued that we should reject these applications of technology as disempowering. What is the point of technology that, with a minimum of fuss and effort, merely assists at the routine tasks of the day: wake up in the morning, read the news, listen to music and so on? No, they say, instead we should place our devices more at the center of our universe, learning its esoteric languages and secret capacities, and adapt our lives to it so every aspect of it can be more readily processed.

Once we’ve done that, we are supposedly empowered. But what specifically we are empowered to do is left open, as if that is a goal in itself. In reality, the only thing these new technological powers enable us to do is customize our blog’s theme, make better use of social media to promote ourselves, remix some youtube videos or if you are very good, create your own hot internet startup – all forms of engagement that Horning is often critical of and which mostly create value for large internet companies, “empowering” us to take our place on the internet assembly line.

Of course, Apple is still capitalist, with all the problems of worker exploitation and miserable conditions that we now come to expect. It is supposed to be a “progressive” company, but what gave it that reputation is hardly worth finding out since it can’t have much meaning. But the appeal of Apple products cannot be so easily dismissed as marketing fluff, and I say that as owner of neither Mac nor iPhone.

Their genius lies in the way they create an illusory (yet no less real) sense of security and control, a reprieve from the demands that are placed on us by today’s neoliberal capitalism: overwhelming technological complexity, inconsistency, infinite variability and choice, the instability and constant churn of the media landscape, and so on.

The software and hardware limitations that are so often denounced by detractors as disempowering are precisely what enables this. With Apple, we are in the future, responding to the demand to adapt to the new, getting the latest gadget; but simultaneously and at less obvious level, in the past, using a device that in its form and content references “simpler times”. One may even argue that Apple’s willingness to be “space age” is just another instance of this nostalgia.

Apple’s success actually represents an element of resistance, a symptom of the tensions of the contemporary situation – a resistance that has been, at this point, fully integrated back into capitalism and sold back to us in product form. But we should remember that there are inconsistencies and cracks in the capitalist edifice.