Saturday, 8 October 2011

Apple and the Symbolic Construction of the Self/Other

It is not unusual to send condolences to family and friends of a recently deceased loved-one. What is unusual is when people are moved to grief for someone they have never met. It is not unusual to enquire why this is so. The death of Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, led to a global outpouring of grief in the form of shrines from Beijing to California and from Seoul to Sydney. However, these are globalised, metropolitan centres where people who can afford to buy Apple’s exuberant products are concentrated. This is not reflective of some human community transcending divisions of geography and social class. These are relatively fortunate people commemorating the death of an incredibly wealthy man. Nonetheless, this public outpouring goes way beyond brand loyalty or the usual arguments that Macs are faster than PCs. These are highly symbolic rituals which tell us about who and what we value and who and what we do not. Jonathan Jones of the Guardian gushed that Apple products “made the world more beautiful” and “more human” such that Steve Jobs changed how “we” see the world. “We” refers here to people in metropolitan centres with enough disposable income to be part of this in-group. The inevitably corresponding “they” are the rest of the world, “outside” this group and presumably less human for their inability to enjoy these products.

It is tempting, as Alex Massie does in The Spectator, to dismiss these outpourings of attachment, grief, and worship for the CEO of a company whom they never met as "members of a cult that's just as stupid as any other and equally deserving of scorn and pity". However, this downplays the social significance in terms of both sheer numbers of people involved and the transnational scale on which unbridled admiration for the contribution of Apple to people’s lives we have witnessed. Massie also called this phenomenon iReligion and this seems a fairly accurate description given the blind faith and ritualised shrines we have witnessed. The Apple logo and Steve Jobs have become powerful symbols people express loyalty to and through which they identify themselves as free-thinking, modern individuals. Apple personifies something people want to be. The long running Mac advert series on UK TV exemplified this personification of the brand. It successfully anthropomorphised PCs to be like their users: old, traditional, and behind the times. Mac users then are symbolically articulated as young, fresh, and driving the times. The argument here is not to say Apple products are not fun to play with. They are. The argument is to say people in positions of relative fortune are investing their self-identifications in such products. These self-identifications are to the exclusion of the poor, globally marginalised Other. Ironically, these identifications are ultimately to the detriment as opposed to the enrichment of the individual.

Anthony Cohen’s 1985 classic The Symbolic Construction of Community applied decades of fieldwork in social anthropology on the intersection between social and personal identities. He produced a compelling argument to explain traditional community and nationalist loyalties. However, it equally illuminates why in the contemporary world when people are bombarded by commercial advertising demanding brand loyalty, and where struggles over local, ethnic, religious, national, transnational, and global forces regularly spill over into violence, we are still constantly trying to discover and rediscover where “we” belong and who “we” are:

“(symbols) ‘express’ other things in ways which allow their common form to be retained and shared among the members of a group, whilst not imposing upon these people the constraints of uniform meaning. Because symbols are malleable in this way, they can be made to ‘fit’ the circumstances of the individual. They can thus provide media through which individuals can experience and express their attachment to a society without compromising their individuality…what is actually held in common is not very substantial, being form rather than content.”

Apple and Steve Jobs like all the most socially effective symbols have no fixed content. They are pure form and they are malleable. They mean everything because they mean nothing. They are so abstract and open to interpretation that they are a marketing dream. Apple allows the individual to feel as if they retain and even enhance their individuality while at the same time spending more and more of their income on products they do not need and even worshipping at shrines of a dead man they did not know. The Apple logo perhaps speaks for itself. It is just an apple, it imposes little if any content yet people wear clothes and bags emblazoning the symbol on their journeys to find who they are. The soundbites of Steve Jobs, which appeared in their thousands across Facebook and Twitter on the day of his death, are a case in point. So devoid of content are they that people can imbue their own significance in them, participate in a social ritual, yet believe they retain some sense of individuality at the same time. “Stay hungry, stay foolish” is so open to interpretation that, as Cohen says, what is being shared by repeating it across the internet is insubstantial; form rather than content. This was of course a remarkably skilful and rhetorical manipulation of human needs for social and individual identities on Jobs’ part. People could be Apple users, a group, yet imbue their own supposed individuality on what that means. All the while Jobs got richer and richer. The most powerful of all the soundbites was perhaps “don’t waste time living someone else’s life”. In other words, buying Apple products, a socially significant action, allows one to be and become an individual. The irony is staggering when millions of individuals believe that by listening to another individual telling them to be an individual and buy his products he spent his life producing is somehow living one’s own life. Choosing to worship Apple and reproduce its messages across the potentially limitless discourse of the internet is a fundamentally selective social activity. People can say anything on the internet yet they choose to let Steve Jobs speak for them as if they are endorsing individuation. Monty Python once hilariously captured the irony of how groups can be convinced they are individuals in their film Life of Brian yet it seems to have been forgotten by Apple worshippers.

The power of Apple is remarkable. The internet has provided most people with staggering access to instantaneous information. This has led to unparalleled growth in global movements for social justice, human rights, and environmental protection. Yet while Twitter is used to organise the occupation of Wall Street in the world’s most “advanced” capitalist nation, we hear nothing from Apple users of Apple’s deplorable environmental record (reportedly the worst for any foreign firm in China) and disregard for labour rights across the world. Apple’s power is such that this information is freely available yet people choose not to google it and then choose to ignore it when it is presented to them. Karl Marx would say the exploitative social relations behind the product are concealed but here they are not. In today’s world, the information is there, yet most of us choose to ignore it. We do not let this uncomfortable information influence our consumerist decision-making in our supposed struggle to find ourselves and “not live someone else’s life”. The people who suffer due to the policies of Apple most notably in China are simply not part of the “we” that people are choosing to become, otherwise “we” would not allow it to happen. The environmental damage and exploitation would simply not be allowed if it was in “our” country or “our” community. Where Marx was right (Capital Volume I and III) is that commodity fetishism links the subjective aspects of economic value and objective reality. The value groups assign to material objects are transformed from arbitrary social impositions into very real social forces in the form of prices, which for Apple are sky-high. Marx argued that “primitive” societies fetishised unexplainable phenomena as magical and thus they became sacred or taboo. Under capitalism, people attribute special powers to objects and imbue them with symbolic meaning which then became part of an objective reality reflected in prices. What Marx did not predict was that people would attribute special powers to brands and individuals who are powerful agents in reproducing the exploitative and environmentally destructive social relations, which Apple users celebrated on the 6th October 2011. Globally dispersed shrines to Steve Jobs do not merely fetishise products they fetishise a brand and a person as symbols of who we are and the world we want to live in. This is a world which celebrates gadgets and instantaneous yet transient pleasure to the detriment of the lives and life opportunities of the poor and globally marginalised.

It is appropriate in all discussions of identity to ask where we-ness comes from, who it includes, and who it excludes. Here, we turn to the ancient Tibetan philosopher, Nagarjuna:

“The essence of entities

Is not present in the conditions,

If there is no essence,

There can be no otherness-essence.”

There can be no Self without Other and there can be no Mac user without a PC user to define itself against. Our identities have no essence. They can only be defined by what they are not. We are who we become and how we define ourselves to the exclusion of others. We can choose to become globalised citizens who take responsibility for our actions or at the very least acknowledge their implications. We are choosing not to. There is little about the symbolism of Apple which is young, fresh, and innovative. Apple is reflective of far older forms of community boundary drawing which divide people into us and them through the manipulation of symbols which demand loyalty and convince people they are all individuals. Steve Jobs was a smart man. He once said "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life". If only those worshipping at his altar could heed this advice when they ask “who am I?” and “what type of world do I want to live in?”. When we face death Apple will provide no solace.