How Apple is Influencing Our Culture

| Hidden Dimensions

“Far better to think historically, to remember the lessons of the past. Thus, far better to conceive of power as consisting in part of the knowledge of when not to use all the power you have. Far better to be one who knows that if you reserve the power not to use all your power, you will lead others far more successfully and well.”

—A. Bartlett Giamatti, former President of Yale University

We seldom think about how a company can change our culture. Or whether they have the power to do so. Usually, they just sell products. Apple, however, has taken us through a series of cultural changes, some good and some perhaps not so good.

It requires a company that is both powerful and greatly loved to change our culture. Their products, advertising and their image seep into our lives, they hope, in a favorable way until we completely identify with the value proposition of the company. That could be Coca-Cola, Nike, BMW, Disney, Amazon … or Apple. We give them our patronage because we like what they have to offer and we like doing business with them.

But when I think of powerful companies, I also think about the stages they go through. I think about the analogy to powerful people. That is, when someone is very, very wealthy, that person goes through stages as well.

 

Leisure Dogfighting

It’s Phase III where some, not all, wealthy people in Hollywood and business get into trouble.

Companies go through the same phases. For example, there was a time when Apple was happy (and only able) to provide a great UNIX operating system for the creation of great things, using as inspiration, the Crazy Ones. The cool thing about the people in that commercial is that they accomplished something wonderful with their genius, talent, intelligence and perseverance — even without a computer. But you get the idea. We like to think that the Mac is the best modern tool for the creative arts and science.

But that’s no way for Apple itself to make a lot money.

Einstein

Apple’s Phase II

So Apple set about the business of selling music. That was a great idea because music is a universal constant. Music inspires us. We live and breathe to the soundtrack of our soul daily. Apple changed our culture to the point where we wear our music, take our own radio station into our car, and sometimes get so lost in our music that we can escape to another world. (Of course, there are also disastrous consequences: death by iPod.)

Apple hit on a way to turn a creative tool, an infrastructure device like Mac OS X, into a money making machine via iTunes. That’s okay. Many of us listen to music while we create. And when we’re weary after our creative work is done, it’s often nice to escape into the fantasies of movies derived from iTunes and maybe Apple TV. Phase II is a dream come true for both Apple and its customers.

iTunes

Apple’s Phase III

These days, Apple is in a new phase. The company has become so wealthy and immersed in our lives that it can realistically think about inserting itself into our lives even more completely. At will. Of course, with the added bonus of generating even more cash. For example, Ping is designed to make money by introducing us to the music of friends. If we like it, it’s to our benefit. And, conveniently, Apple’s. Ca-Ching! And then there’s Game Center where we can spend time with friends* as well as procure more and more games. All day long, Apple hears that pleasant Ca-Ching! of its new money machines.

Phase III is where, without conscious thought and introspection, we can slide from achievement into mere involvement. I wouldn’t suggest that everyone will do this. In fact, most adults stay fairly busy with the essentials of life, family and work. So when there’s some spare time, the choice to engage in social networking, well considered, is just fine.

What I’m referring to is the larger issues of Internet life that can affect the culture of younger people for the long term. This is described by Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. You can read the summary at Amazon, but Gord Hotchkiss summarizes nicely:

 

“His [Carr’s] basic premise is that our current environment, with its deluge of available information typically broken into bite-sized pieces served up online, is ‘dumbing down’ our brains. We no longer read, we scan. We forego the intellectual heavy lifting of prolonged reading for the more immediate gratification of information foraging. We’re becoming a society of attention-deficit dolts.”

 

Of course, if we’re well read, we already know about all that. But right here, right now, in the case of Apple, it’s almost as if Apple has grown tired of being the misfit, the rebel, the troublemaker. Instead, Apple wants to fit in — in every part of our life because that’s where the cash flow is. Apple has completed the process of cashing in on its products and brand, and now there’s no place to go except to go for the money. You can’t go wrong cashing in on narcissistic behavior.

Ambitions

As part of its current ambitions, Apple is eying the living room TV viewer with more focus. The company would like to do an end run around the cable and satellite companies and place itself in a premiere position as the company that sells us our commercial-free TV shows. That’s a boat rocking proposition to be sure, but also reveals Apple’s ambitions to alter our TV culture.

Apple TV

Apple remains everything we want it to be. It builds great products, and we love to use them. We can chose to use some and dabble elsewhere when needed to suit our needs.

The danger, however, is that Apple is becoming hooked on the power and the money.  To maintain growth, reach for US$100 billion dollars in the bank, and outperform every other tech company on the planet, Apple can no longer afford to invest heavily in products and tools that serve the heavy lifters, the geniuses, the renegades. Those gifted people may have to look elsewhere for those life tools. Apple has shown that, while it continues to support legacy products for the creative, they’ll also cave to whatever is currently popular in order to increase revenues. Apple is now mainstream.

In essence, Apple has reached Phase III. It can do anything it pleases. How it handles that power nowadays will reveal additional nuances about the character and future of the company.

______

* Conveniently, Apple will pick a friend for you if you don’t have any.

Comments

macProf

Very good points. Of course if Apple weren’t doing what they were, somebody else would, although with much less elegant and effective solutions. Apple’s contribution to the music industry so far has been to provide a much larger repertoire of readily available music to the public. Together with their backgrounds on artists and other means to help us discover new artists (ca-ching), this at least takes us far beyond the limited repetitive and simplistic drivel previously served up to us by top 40 radio stations and music labels for fast sale to easily impressionable teenagers. I for one would love to see Apple take the next step and start nudging their consumer base towards more complex, creative and diverse (indy?) artists who are less in it to make a quick buck. This in turn would encourage such artists to explore the production of more complex and diverse outputs that don’t fit the current formulas for marketable music, So yes, Apple now has the capacity to really start influencing our lifestyles. Hopefully, making money will not be their only concern as they move forward and gain even more ability to influence us. Jobs has shown a remarkable ability to understand people and what they want. I’m hoping he’ll eventually use this power and intelligence to perform some great feats of philanthropy and education.

Gareth Harris

The sword has two edges, John. Apple has done some excellent things: 1 -  UNIX on a mass produced machine; 2 - outstanding user interfaces; and 3 - what is probably the next great user interface paradigm for the masses instead of geeks. But the question is how did we get here- intentionally [and possibly under control] or by pure accident of hitting one goal while aiming at another?

As a computer fossil, I really enjoy the technical goodies, BUT I wonder about being overwhelmed by an unconscious flood of gizmology for gizmology’s sake. If you are enjoying the ride so much that you forget to feed the horse that is towing the cart, you are doomed.

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make proud.

TanZ.

I’m surprised at your conclusion JM. I don’t see it that way at all. While I agree that Apple is going after some of the money, I think overall they’re going after forging a technological path of the future. They’re leading a revolution of connecting humanity to technology.

Apple is out to dazzle our senses.
It started with the ear. Music.
Next came the Touch. Right now only our fingers are interacting directly with technology. But I’m sure whole body experiences are probably on the way.
Now they’re focusing on Visuality. The new iPods & iPhones are a visually stunning, with SJ making the point that the new Retina display is best the human eye can see.

Who knows what they’re working on with Taste and Smell. Maybe they’re working on completely immersive realities where they human brain and learn and go beyond what we see today. Maybe they’re aiming to connect to the universal consciousness field through pathways in technological evolution.

The one thing I know for sure though, is that Apple has learned some hard lessons. I imagine one of the lessons learned, is that the more money and power one has, is the more they can effect change on a massive level. Which seems to be what Apple is doing.

I still think that Steve Job’s goal is the same as what he said in an article a few years ago. He essentially said that he wanted to be the link between humanity and technology. And he’s well on his way to doing that. It’s just that now he has the Money, the Power, and the People behind him to push the human/technological even to the next level.

My humble opinion at least.

MacGnome

Apple’s products are a vision of Steve Jobs’ world.

Currently there are so many competing products in the marketplace that if and when Apple (Steve Jobs) takes his eyes off the marketplace, the marketplace will punish Apple. This has happened to Apple in the 80’s and 90’s. It is happening to Microsoft in the 00’s. The marketplace teaches humility to the those who try to impose control and mediocrity using their market share. Once Apple starts producing mediocre products, the marketplace will make room for better products.

People can still live their lives without Apple products, but the question is: “Will you choose to live without Apple?”

wab95

A very sobering read, John. Excellent points.

One thing that distinguishes the technology that Apple is pushing, and may - just may - prevent it and us from going down pernicious pathways, is that it is interactive in every sense of the word. Not only does the technology compel you to interact with it, Apple appears to be engaged in an ongoing dialectic between its product users and the technology it produces, all which inform its services and how those services are used. True, for Apple this results in revenue; for the users, it results in, hopefully, creative tools that expand their capacity to interact with the world of thought, ideas, creativity.

This is a mass effect. The majority of users will likely be content to play music, watch movies/TV, and play games and go no farther. The creative users will discover the world of wonder, and their innate character will drive them to use the technology to develop that creativity. One can only hope that, with a greater percentage of humanity being exposed and having access to information than ever before, the net effect will be a greater number, if not percentage, of humanity contributing creative content to our collective culture than ever before.

To complete the feedback loop, if Apple is to remain true to what led it to its current position of being the developer of tools for the creative mind, it will continue to monitor and serve that base.

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