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Yosemite as an OS? The Planet is the Operating System

With its picturesque cliffs, mountains, waterfalls, canyons, and wooded groves – Yosemite National Park is an iconic place. A preserved and protected enclave to which visitors can come to experience what nature looks, smells, and sounds like. Spots like the Yosemite Valley are bold reminders of the natural system upon which the planet operates. Amidst dire forecasts about the state of the planet’s ecosystem there is something reassuring about the green sameness of wonders like Yosemite.

There is also a certain reassuring sameness to tech announcements.

While a “next big thing” is periodically revealed, what one generally encounters is an almost deafening drum roll that in the end is more akin to the “BaDumChing” declaring the arrival of a punch line. It is not that nothing changes with the announcement of a software update or a new operating system (OS), but that such changes tend to follow a fairly boring and predictable logic.

A new OS will boast of a smattering of genuinely new features, fix a bunch of flaws in the previous OS, borrow a few ideas from a competitor’s OS, and contain a host of as-yet-undiscovered-deficiencies that will provide the frustrating fodder to be eliminated with the next iteration of the OS. Though they are rarely framed in such a way, every OS begins marching into obsolescence the moment that it is revealed – for the second that it is unveiled the countdown clock begins ticking down to the next announcement.

Such is the case with Apple’s announcement of iOS 8 (for mobile devices) and OS X 10.10 Yosemite (for computers) at the company’s Developers Conference (WWDC). There are some changes…there have to be…but the changes are largely of the variety that induce shrugs. As noted in the previous paragraph most of the changes represent the fixing of previous issues and the introduction of new ones to be groused about and subsequently fixed at a later date. Surface refinements to hide how little has changed below the surface.

If there is a major theme to this latest batch of updates it seems to be smoother integration across Apple products as the new iteration of OS X aims to streamline interaction between computers and mobile devices. Whilst the significant shift in iOS 8 seems to be Apple choosing to make a move into the realm of the commodified self quantified self with the new HealthKit apps that incorporate aspects of fitness data with elements of “Internet of Things” control. HealthKit rather amusingly reduces a person’s health data to just another stream of information to be run alongside smart-home connected items. Yet, it may be that the most interesting aspect of the announcement was amongst the aspects more easily overlooked.

That being the OS X name: Yosemite.

This is not the first time that Apple has put a natural allusion in the name of its OS – the company previously worked through a period of naming OS iterations after “big cats”: Cheetah, Panther, Snow Leopard, Lion, and so forth. Furthermore, the company’s name itself (“Apple”) conjures up an image of the natural instead of simply the technical (though the history of apples [as in fruit] reveals much human tinkering).

The choice of Yosemite as an OS name is significant on several levels and represents some subtle suggestive shifts that bury a mighty PR premise amidst a seemingly innocuous detail like a name. Much of Apple’s advertising and packaging includes a variation on the words “Designed by Apple in California” which acts as a pleasant way to ground their products’ origins amidst the bright tech campuses of Silicon Valley while deliberately occluding thoughts of assembly plants. Such terms also work to place Apple squarely in California.

For if one wants to evoke the natural beauty of California – conjuring up the image of Yosemite is an ideal way to do it.

By using the name of a famed National Park for something as trifling as an OS, Apple is once more working to bind its name and identity to the state in which its products are designed. If the Yosemite Valley is an element of the iconic majesty of California, Apple is seeking to co-opt some of these positive connotations for itself. The Yosemite Valley is a part of California’s landscape, and in claiming the name Yosemite, Apple is trying to demonstrate that it too is part of California’s landscape. While the Yosemite Valley (as with most of the United States) is a terrain that tells of the violent dispossession of its original inhabitants – Apple’s intention is to avoid historical referents in favor of abstract natural ones. Thus the history of Apple computer is less significant than Apple’s status as being as much a part of California’s natural landscape as the peaks of Yosemite.

There is a dark irony to the ease with which Apple can use the name Yosemite and it is largely linked to the same “Designed in California” line. The technological devices which will run OS X 10.10 Yosemite (and iOS 8) are elaborate assemblies made up of a wide array of relatively rare minerals. The processes by which these minerals are extracted from the earth, turned into device components, assembled into the devices, and eventually returned to the earth once the device is discarded – all tell of a story that can be characterized in many ways, but “good for the planet” is not amongst them. Though an Apple device may have been “designed in California” by individuals lucky enough to be able to visit Yosemite National Park, the lifecycle of the devices tells of mining, assembly, and recycling far from California in landscapes that have been desolated by extraction, pollutant run-off from factories, and blighted wastelands of e-waste. Granted, “Yosemite” sounds better from a marketing perspective than “mountain of toxic technological waste.”

Modern technological systems have thrived on the ability to hide the ecological (and human) costs of their devices from those who are best located to enjoy a product’s benefits. Thus, Apple recognizes that those who will be able to install the OS named for Yosemite are unlikely to be those who assembled the devices upon which that OS will run. Existence in technological societies functions in a tiered manner in which the benefits of each layer are built upon standing on those beneath, and at the lowest level is the planet itself.

Yosemite National Park would not be able to maintain its idyllic scenery if it had to be a source for the minerals, an industrial park for the assembly, or a disposal site for the e-waste of the devices that Apple proudly designs in California.

Beyond any technological device, Yosemite is part of the operating system known as “the planet.” It is an operating system that has undergone a vicious pummeling in the service of technological advancement, but the tarnishes introduced to it through technological systems cannot easily be fixed with the unveiling of an update.

Yosemite National Park may remain relatively unscathed, but a tech product named for Yosemite is only so much greenwashing that distracts from the despoiled landscapes that remain unseen. A new OS may represent relatively little change from one device to the next, but the market driven obsession with ever newer technological systems is wreaking much more dire changes upon the planet.

And the planet, after all, is the operating system upon which we really rely.

[The Basel Action Network is an excellent resource for more information on the topics discussed above {e-waste}; the books Digital Rubbish by Jennifer Gabrys and Slow Violence by Rob Nixon are also phenomenal in this regard]

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

One comment on “Yosemite as an OS? The Planet is the Operating System

  1. Pingback: The Less Things Change… | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on June 6, 2014 by in Capitalism, Environment, Ethics, Impending Doom, Nature, Technology, The Commons and tagged , , , , .

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