Archive for January, 2011

Pissing in the Kool-Aid

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

During the past twenty years or so, I have had a personal vision. We all have our quixotic fantasies, details of particular utopias unfolding during the course of the occasional shower. Mine involves a restaurant. Imagine an eatery where you are treated like cheap, stinking trash. Some aborted crumb from a Lou Reed verse. Ignored, abused, flat-out insulted. Yet the food is so completely delicious, so narcotically irresistible, that you come back, again and again, enduring all manner of vicious attack, wanton hatred and caustic rebuff. Anything, just to have a little more panacea.

I would own this restaurant, and I would be a terrible, terrible person. But customers would have no choice but to play by my rules. They might hate themselves for participating in such degradation, but that would never stop them from returning, from embedding themselves into the culture of my culinary hypnotism. The product would be irresistibly delicious.

Well, folks, this personal vision does, in fact, exist. In a way. It is called Apple Computer.

Apple has evolved from an education stalwart, to desktop innovator, to convoluted boutique contraption, to sleek, sexy sex-a-tronic sex-a-ma-jig. Before the iMac, I never considered owning a Mac, as they were simply too expensive for anyone other than a serious graphic designer. Then, during my temporary relocation away from the Midwest, I advised my parents to buy a then-new dinosaur-egg G3 iMac, believing it to be the simplest entry into personal computing. It turned out to be just as potentially crappy as any PC system, “intuitive” only to people who had already been using Macs for years. Buggy and sluggish. Once Apple dumped OS9, though, everything crystalized. They really did perfect the personal computer, resulting in beautifully designed, elegant, nearly indefatigable machines.

So I bought the Kool-Aid. Several times. I now have a few Macs, a few more up in the attic, and a smattering of iPods. Each machine has been a joy to use (except the one that stopped working after a system update, when Apple online support simply said “but it just works,” denying there was ever a problem, basically bricking the machine and forcing me to backtrack to an earlier OS, finally giving up all together . . . and buying a newer machine).

Meanwhile, I’m swimming in a numbing sea of trendiness. I know a person who wouldn’t touch a Mac back in 2002, was scared of the single-button mouse, considered Apple to be a fringe specialty computer that was nearly impossible to use. This person now owns two Macs, a few iPods and an iPhone. Why? Well, it seems rooted in Apple moving from selling desktop computers to selling “stuff.” They have become a go-to brand for people who define themselves through branding.

Apple has always fostered a cultish attitude about its products, but now it’s as cultish as owning a Wii or a Volkswagon. Can a “cult” actually exist around something I can pick up at Best Buy or an airport vending machine? People used to put Apple stickers on their cars, but now no one bothers. It is simply assumed that any hip person owns at least one Apple product. The cult mentality has flipped over to the stalwart PC creative-users, the people who refuse to trust Apple and don’t need a million hypnotized lemmings telling them what is “cool.” I completely empathize with those folks (I’m married to one), but I’m still buying Apple stuff, still chugging away. Lately, though, something has been different. A little off. As if a veil will be lifted, revealing supposed five-star dinners that are actually putrid, sculpted offal.

First: It’s all about beauty. I’m typing this on a relatively new Macbook Pro. As with all Apple products, it is incredibly well-designed. In fact, design trumps all for Apple. The guts of this computer aren’t particularly fantastic. Jobs claims that they decided to put outdated CPUs in these particular machines in order to keep the form factor compact. So the design is more important than the computing power. Even then, when these things are unveiled at the press conference, mister Jobs acts as if they are the most amazing, revolutionary products ever (just as he had done for machines that are now considered to be beautiful, incredibly well-designed doorstops). He is the fearless leader. He is feeding us what we need. I obviously agree, as I bought one.

Second: Apple products are built to be replaced. The normal replacement cycle for a computer is around four to six years. Macs follow this, but Apple presents us with an additional axis of consideration: sex. A new Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPoop, whatever, is like a tiny little sun, radiating pure sex. You buy one of these things and you feel completely fulfilled, as if you just found Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. This feeling sustains for around six months, sometimes close to a year. Then Apple pushes out their next wave of sexy stuff, and that beautiful machine seems like last year’s left-over hooker. Still sexy, but no longer fresh, no longer sparkling. Two years in, and you’re really feeling anxious, ready to upgrade, trade it all in for that rush of specialness, the omnipresent glow. If you can last for three years, you basically feel like you’re computing from a Mac ghetto, using a machine that feels outdated by a decade, smoking your way through a carton of stale Tareytons.

Apple has gone to great lengths to assuage consumer guilt over the constant impulse to upgrade. Their products have become increasingly recyclable. Note, these things are not expandable or extensible, as most PCs were throughout the 90s and early 2000s. No, they are simply made out of stuff that you can easily break down, so I won’t feel like an elitist asshole, upchucking techno-waste into landfills. It’s okay to want a new computer in less than two years. It’s okay to replace that iPhone, to get another iPod. Go ahead. You know you’ll feel great. Sex it up.

Third: The overhaul of language.

Some time around the advent of the iPhone and the iPod Touch, Apple broadcast a shift in user lexicon. Applications have become “apps.” Every time I hear the word, I want to kick someone in the head. No one specifically, just some random person. This is very dangerous. I should know exactly who I want to kick in the head. The term “app” just reeks of vacuous reduction, of consumerism, as if software is just a potato chip to be woofed down. Yet here I am, gaging on the Kool-Aid, and I, too, have used the word “app.” Apple gives us no other choice. These iPod programs are short and focused. They are ALL Apple-approved, too.

Really, “apps” are more like video game cartridges, discs, whatever. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft make tons of licensing money from third-party software creators, which is why they are able to sell their hardware at a loss (well, Sony and Microsoft – the Wii has always been sold at a profit). It is a closed system, and the end-users buy into it. That isn’t really a bad thing, and the iPhone works in the same manner. If a proposed app comes too close to a product that Apple already offers, it will not be approved and there will be no way for typical users to install it (how many Mail programs do you have on your iPhone?). Apple does not have this control over Mac programs, which are still considered “applications.” Anyone can create a Mac program and, as long as there are no intellectual property violations, distribute it (or just chance it and get sued).

That will be changing.

Apple has created an “app store” for the Mac, making it incredibly easy for people to purchase and install “apps” that are approved by Apple. This makes my stomach turn. I think there will still be the free market system of applications that will not be sold through the gated community of the app store, but they will become irrelevant. Consumers will drive up the demand for simple programs, and future versions of the OS will basically support only the apps. The app will become the mass-market paperback of the software world. Knuckleheads across the globe will be yammering “app” every other minute, exacerbating my impulse to kick random faces until it actually happens and I end up having to raise my family from behind bars.

This Apple-thing is not healthy.

And even as we are being formed into a generation of super-consumers, with instantly-replaceable computers and quick-fix apps, we are being told that we are the movers and shakers, the creative force, the ones who “think different.”

And even after this feeble attempt to piss in the Kool-Aid, I’m ready for another glass.

A few things I learned in 2010

Saturday, January 1st, 2011
  • Babies cry for a reason.
  • Adults who act like babies are actively avoiding reason.
  • It’s okay to talk about the band Rush. The people who roll their eyes now look like grumps.
  • I know people who are more successful than I am. This is not a reflection of some failure on my part.
  • Obama is not what he promised.
  • If you stop aspiring to do something creative and just dive in and do it, you’ll wonder why you wasted so much time in that loop of planning, contemplation and thumb-twiddling.
  • Having a child exponentially expands your variant definitions of Love.
  • Facebook is essential, yet it has virtualized most of my friendships.
  • Both Dan Carlin and Kristin Hersh always deliver.
  • Make the effort to avoid saying snide and “witty” comments about people you know. It is worth it.
  • That said, highly dramatic people are absurdly comic.