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Apple, postmodern consumerism and the iPad
It’s not very often that I feel impelled to quote someone else’s blog post in its entirety, But Ann Althouse says of the iPad…
I have it, and I feel like I could be using it. But I don’t really use it. Maybe I think I’m going to be using it. But I also think it’s possible that I’m never going to use it. I seem to have a need for it, but I have other things that fit that need that I go back to instead over and over again. And yet there it is, over there. I think I’m going to be going there, maybe later. Maybe tomorrow.
Amazing. The iPad is the ultimate Steve Jobs device – so hypnotic that not only do people buy one without knowing what it’s good for, they keep feeling like they ought to use it even when they have better alternatives for everything it does. It’s a triumph of style over substance, cool over utility, form over actual function. The viral YouTube videos of cats and two-years-olds playing with it speak truth in their unsurpassable combination of draw-you-in cuteness with utter pointlessness. It’s the perfect lust object of postmodern consumerism, irresistibly attractive but empty – you know you’ve been played by the marketing and design but you don’t care because your complicity in the game is part of the point.
This has to be Steve Jobs’s last hurrah. I predict this not because he is aging and deathly ill, but because he can’t possibly top this. It is the ne plus ultra of where he has been going ever since the Mac in 1984, with his ever-more obsessive focus on the signifiers of product-design attractiveness. And it’s going to make Apple a huge crapload of money, no question.
But what comes after this? After reading Althouse, I’m getting the feeling that the ultimate may also be terminal. The way I thought the iPad was going to go was to get disrupted from below by less expensive, less locked-down Android tablets. Now I’m not sure there’s enough reality there to sustain the product category at all. The entire segment might well turn into as huge a bust as PDAs were in the 1990s. And that means that over the medium term, two to three years out, Apple is in even more trouble than I thought.
I’ve alluded before to the fact that the two most fanatical and longest-term Mac loyalists among my face-to-face friends are carrying Nexus Ones now, having migrated from Sidekicks but passing up the iPhone. The fact that Jobs couldn’t get these two people to change cellphone providers to worship at his shrine tells me more about the fading of Apple’s magic than the hot air and bullshit in a dozen market surveys. Apple has bet its company on the Jobs philosophy, but at the same time I see it losing the adhesive loyalty of the fanbase that’s been with it since the Mac Classic.
Fast-forward this a couple years and I can see Apple in hell, committed to sexy overpriced products that nobody actually needs, undercut by Android from all directions, and subsisting on a decaying aura of pop-cultural cool. Because that’s what tends to happen when you put yourself in the fashion business and you’re past your peak; those who live by hipness get to die by it too.