Disengagement is a Luxury

Published on Monday April 11th, 2011

Earlier today I tweeted this link: User-friendliness and fascism - where the conflict between Mac and PC is mapped on to the standard left-right political frame. Macs usually stand for left countercultural values, partly because them simply wrapped themselves in appropriate imagery, but also more substantively. Frankfurt School philosophers argued that technology was a tool of social control and domination, disciplining users by forcing them to adopt practices in conformity with inflexible requirements encoded in the design of the tool. Apple’s emphasis on the intuitive nature of its products can be read as a response to this critique - an intuitive, usable tool adapts to the user’s pre-existing knowledge rather than demanding conformity.

User experience designer Francisco Inchauste has a different view of what makes a good tool, claiming that good user experience is 90% desirability. For Inchauste, mere usability isn’t enough to truly capture the hearts of customers, products must have some intangible quality that makes it truly desirable, the thing that makes people line up for hours before the newest iPad becomes available. And he correctly notes that this desire must be orchestrated, it’s not enough to simply find out what the customer wants and give it to them, they have to be taught how to desire.

But what Apple teaches us to desire is not completely distinct from usability. The aesthetic of Apple’s marketing is simplicity, displaying the device unadorned on a pure white or black backdrop, almost as if you are watching an instructional video. The other world of the iPhone ad promises an infinite space of freedom from our increasingly technologically-mediated society, without having to give up any of the actual technology - just like Homer Simpson’s beer, technology is the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.

As the demand to participate on the internet reaches a fever pitch, Apple offers another compromise. Within the hacker community, Apple has replaced Microsoft as the bete noire because of policies that allow Apple to reject 3rd party apps for almost any reason, and this has led to a propaganda campaign to stigmatize iPads and iPhones as devices for mere consumption in the same way that AOL was once stigmatized as being strictly for n00bs because of its walled-garden policies.

A kind of sleight of hand is accomplished by sliding between the fact that programmers do not have total freedom to modify these device, and the fact that Apple promotes the device as media consumption device. This allows the hacker community to claim that Apple stands for passivity, the absolute antithesis of the active, engaged, participatory ethos of the internet that they represent, and this claim becomes increasingly untenable as more and more apps are released that allow for creative expression.

But nonetheless, there is an element of truth to this. Beyond freedom from complexity, Apple’s products also offer freedom from participation. One longstanding complaint about the iPhone is that it lacks a dashboard which would let users monitor multiple streams of information, like stock prices, Twitter, Facebook, email, a calendar, the weather, etc. The style of interface that would best support the kind of hyper-engaged, multitasking model of internet participation imagined by the hacker community is not only unavailable by default, Apple actively bans those kinds of apps from the app store.

On the internet, disengagement is a luxury, and Apple’s products are the equivalent of the upper-middle class escaping to the suburbs to get away from the noise, pollution and poverty of the city. Or from the constant demand to make choices. At Burger King, we can have it our way. At an expensive restaurant, the sommelier recommends a wine to go with what the chef has decided we’ll be having for dinner.


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