Home > Culture, Current Affairs > An App For Everything: Apple, Hegemony, and the Death of Steve Jobs

An App For Everything: Apple, Hegemony, and the Death of Steve Jobs

The week’s biggest news item (at least as seen through the internet’s Twitter-filters) was clearly the cancer-related passing of Steve Jobs, former co-founder and CEO of technology juggernaut Apple Inc. and all-around business/nerd Christ figure. It’s a result that was doubtlessly guessed at weeks ago when he stepped down as head of a company that is, by several measures, the world’s largest and most profitable. These sort of decisions are not made lightly in the high-stakes tech business world, especially in the case of a company like Apple, where the common corporate practice of erecting a near-authoritarian cult of personality around the CEO had taken on mythic proportions, and is now likely to shift to the outright biblical with his death.

Jobs in his Berlin period

On the subject of the larger cultural implications of the late Jobs’ achievement of personal technological dominance with Apple’s digital renaissance, I can’t really say much that is more incisive or eloquent than Rob Horning does here. But it’s worth noting/reiterating about Apple’s new hegemony over the marketplace that, at its core (teehee), Jobs’ conquest was driven by powerful image marketing.

When Apple released their famous Orwellian Super Bowl ad in 1984, it purposely equated its product with self-evident countercultural values. The ad communicated with cynical bravado the view that Macintosh was the sole hold-out of creative humanity against the faceless enormity of corporatist authoritarianism. This Minister of Truth-type monolith was represented by IBM in the specific ad, a company with well-established ties to government agencies which made the association with Orwellian oppressors more appreciable (similar criticisms were later leveled against competitor Microsoft in the long-running Mac vs. PC ads). Apple defied such colossal similitude, standing alone against stifling conformity. The ad said, “This is the Last Processor in Europe”, to adapt Orwell’s rejected title for 1984. Only Apple can save your souls.

An audacious claim to be making about a super-controlled computing device at the time, Apple stuck to this advertising line even as they expanded into exactly the sort of market-cornering corporate entity that their ads accused their boogeymen competitors of being. That this image was intertwined with efficient design and simple, intuitive user interfaces strengthened the impression of its truth, but it remains no less of a marketed image for all of that.

On a basic level, Apple’s marketing ploy differed from those of other post-war corporations selling their product to predominantly young people only on the basis of its widespread and successful penetration of the consumer consciousness. Apple, in a word, is cool. Everybody else, in varying degrees, is not. People believe this stuff with zealous fervor, in particular people who own Apple products; that many of them count themselves amongst the smug and self-congratulatory “creative classes” whose status-seeking consumption has helped to widen the income gap and drive up the cost of living should hardly surprise us.

This is Apple’s base, to employ a political term, and they can be relied upon as the astroturfed bulwarks of its brand vision, to employ another one or two. But the firm’s growth from a merely profitable company to an enormous corporate kraken with its tentacles in every almost aspect of current technology is predicated on the expansion of its market share outwards from that base to include just the sort of everyday squares that they derided as bland desk-bound automatons in the 1984 ad. What a MacBook or an iPhone promised to these sorts of people was, in a way, more inviting and powerful than what it promised the Apple base. Instead of merely reinforcing a reified self-image in consumers, Apple’s products offered access to a whole new means of distinction that had been denied them. With one simple, only-mildly-overpriced purchase, the unhip could be magically made hip.

I’ve written previously about the comforting narratives of post-capitalist consumerism, the intrinsic need of the exploited masses to feel a sense of aesthetic or even spiritual pleasure in their daily reduction to the role of profit-driving machines by a corporate-dominated culture, as well as the considerable rewards available to corporations that can tap into that need. Perhaps no company in the world has maximized these anxieties with the pure efficiency that Apple has, from their brand image down to the products themselves, while simultaneously disavowing the calculation of that act. This, more than anything, is the legacy that Steve Jobs has left behind him: the invention not of a more meaningful and aesthetically-uplifting future, but the innovation of the supple embrace of benevolent, elegant hegemony. In a culture built on extracting solace from marginalization and construing oppression as freedom, Jobs was our holiest temple priest.

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Categories: Culture, Current Affairs

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