Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
If only they could do so, Apple would likely take out a patent on anticipation.
For, credit where it is due, Apple is quite masterful at milking anticipation and putting on a show. The company is second only to Peter Falk’s character Detective Columbo in using the “just one more thing” to rousing effect. The secret that Apple has discovered is packing unanticipated tidbits into every presentation so that viewers are always given more than they expected. Whereas the perpetually rumpled Columbo deployed the tactic of “just one more thing” to confound his opponents, the perpetually sleek and hip Apple uses “just one more thing” as a sort of self affirmation. After all, to present on only one thing is to risk underwhelming people – and thus Apple cleverly bundled in an announcement of their next generation of MacBook laptops alongside the expected information about their soon to be released Watch.
Though some may not have predicted that a new laptop would be unveiled, the announcement can hardly be treated as surprising. The Apple Watch is a risky new device; though Apple (and its adoring acolytes) is eager to remind critics that some had thought iPods and iPhones would flop there does seem to be a louder chorus of skepticism regarding the Watch. Some of this may be a result of the Watches being very much a “and” device as opposed to an “or” device – for the Watch does not so much replace an existing device as much as it simply adds on to the functionality of already existing devices. In other words – the Watch does not replace the iPhone, it simply spares people with iPhones from having to fish out their phone whenever there is a notification (never mind the fact that many people pretty much have their phones grafted onto their hands).
The bulk of the balking might be an understandable reaction to the steep pricing for the Watches – a basic model for $349 may seem acceptable to some but $500 to $700 for the less basic model and upwards of $10,000 for the “luxury” versions seems rather silly. It is certainly fair to point out the foolishness of such expensive splurging on devices that will be made obsolete by the inevitable second generation of Watches (which will likely be unveiled in about a year and a half) – but Apple clearly expects that this will not be a matter of much concern for those willing to spend upwards of $10,000 for the latest thing. What the Apple Watch represents at core is not the company in any sense abandoning its core of loyal supporters, but instead the triumphal fusion of the two segments of consumer society that have a shared love of planned obsolescence: technology and fashion. After all – the technology sector has become quite skilled at convincing people their devices are obsolete every two years, but the fashion industry does planned obsolescence by the season. It may well be that the move to “wearable technology” is less about the utility of wearing things and more about the speed with which such things get worn out. Things that are “wearable” get discarded at an even higher rate than current technology.
And yet there is an odd quality in such discussions about technology and fashion, something that is awry amidst the articles blasting Apple for becoming a “luxury goods” designer. It seems as if there is a group missing from these discussion. This absence was certainly part of Apple’s big show and tell event (and it is a big part of every Apple [and other tech company] launch) though in the hubbub around “will the watches sell?” and “will people really want a gold MacBook?” it was an absence that was easily ignored. Launch events for new devices, new operating systems, or just about anything that gets a launch event from the tech world tend to focus on a pretty narrow slice of a piece of technology’s life. When new devices are unveiled they are portrayed as marvelous opportunities – a chance for consumers to own the latest cool product with its beautiful sci-fi aura, and an opportunity for developers to potentially make a fortune by designing the applications for the same devices. The device is presented as being a little chunk of the future that can be blissfully enjoyed in the now – and it is presented as if it has magically appeared, as if an Apple employee sitting in a beautifully appointed “campus” dreamt it up and it suddenly appeared. That, of course, is a fantasy.
Missing from the dais at Apple’s event were those who really make such devices possible. Namely: those who actually make the devices possible. While Apple executives eagerly paid homage to designers and programmers they conveniently forgot to mention those who mine the elements that go into the Apple Watch, those laboring in factories assembling the millions of Watches that will soon hit the market, and of course no mention was made of those who will eventually be tasked with recycling these devices once they are inevitably discarded in favor of the newer models. Granted, such workers do not get a shout out at tech launches because they are not the ones who can afford to buy these products. While it is easy to decry the pricing of the Apple Watch as a clear play for the “luxury” market it should not be forgotten that if one thinks globally an unneeded digital doodad for $349 would strike a large percentage of the world’s population as a “luxury.” Indeed, such a device would be quite the luxury for those whose unseen labor (and unacknowledged suffering) make such luxuries possible. This is not to denigrate the work of programmers and designers, but those who are treated as the “visionaries” of technological society (and those who watch them lovingly) seem to have a rather blurry picture of what it takes for the Apple Watch to actually get to a person’s wrist.
Such is very much part of the ideology surrounding consumer technology today – and it is an ideology that is captured remarkably well in Apple’s old advertising campaign praising “the crazy ones” who “think differently.” And though it was an Apple advertising campaign, the heroic logic running through the praise of these “misfits” and “rebels” is shared by pretty much all tech companies today. It is this ideology that consumers are able to buy a little piece of when they pay out a sizable sum in order to have the newest thing “the crazy ones” have dreamt up. And it is this ideology that helps replicate a certain warped way of thinking about technology wherein those who can take part in consuming technology think of those who produce technology only in terms of the feted individuals ensconced in corporate campuses where the snack machines and massages are free. It is easy to forget that for those working in mines or assembly plants being perceived as a “rebel” (which might be a shorthand for being a union organizer) is rarely safe. Granted, the types of “misfits” who make it to the corporate stage are largely the type who fit in quite well within a consumption driven context.
Thus there is a certain quality about every tech product launch that proves that Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads” has lost none of its sting. In the poem Brecht wonders about those who are never mentioned – those whose toil and suffering allows for others to ascend the dais – here are some of the final stanzas:
“The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year’s War. Who
Else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man?
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.”
Though if Brecht composed his poem today it might have included lines such as:
Tim Cook held aloft the Apple Watch
did his hands assemble it?
Apple dominated the tech market,
who else did they dominate?
These reports continue to this day. And these questions still go largely unasked.