Posts Tagged ‘Apple’

iRemember

October 7, 2011


2011 – Steve Jobs dies and the world of Apple loyalists expresses their loss.

This summer during one of my trips to China it seems to me that everyone in China has an iPad. I mention this to some of my Chinese friends and they say it is because they are trying to be trendy, not because they need it. It is conspicuous consumption, they say. But why?


I was always a Mac, even though I used PCs at work from 1983 through 1996. Here are moments in time iRemember:

1984 – I saw the “Big Blue” ad during the Superbowl and loved it. It certified that Macintosh and Apple were about independence, in action and thought. It was cool, like all the computers and devices to come, and it resonated with a fundamental American idea that you didn’t have to go along with the crowd. Somehow Apple and Jobs kept that resonance, even as Apple became briefly the world’s biggest corporation – it was still anti-corporate in some way, and today we have the odd confluence of people protesting the influence of corporations on government and the economy while offering flowers to one of the biggest corporate leaders of this generation.

1987 – I bought my first personal computer, an Apple 512ke, because Apple was the creative kind of computer, because even though it was more expensive it was better for graphics and artists and somehow it was not as corporate as a PC. It was creative and alternative. I knew I was a Mac.

1988 – I met my wife, who also had an Apple and in fact was an Apple certified technician, which gave her both artistic validity and street cred although of course it was not called street cred in 1988.

1991 – Felicity is buying the latest Apples and Apple clones. Often they are quite expensive, but she is teaching the School of the Art Institute’s first digital photography classes.

1996 – We are sitting in Viejo Vallarta with a two-month old daughter at dinner while people at the next table are discussing Apple, which is trading at $8 a share. They say the company is dead and its attempt to overtake the PC a failure. I feel a combination of inchoate anger and powerlessness in the face of injustice. I don’t buy any stock, but my brother did, to his credit and great advantage.

1998 – I get my first laptop, a black Apple that is quite large and heavy by modern standards. We take it to Ireland.

2004 – I get the 12″ Powerbook that is still my favorite computer. I write most of a book and a dissertation on this compact little beast.

2006 – I love the “I’m a Mac” ads because they confirm the cultural boundaries that have defined us Apple types since at least 1984. We are the good guys: cool, creative.

2007 – I rant in this blog about my brief experience with the iPod, which was quickly stolen. I fail to understand the nature of the consumer economy, which is a fundamental human nature, and think that iDon’t Need it. But of course that is the wrong question.

The Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal writes “Steve Jobs determined long ago that his imagination, and that of those working under him, far outstripped ours, and so Apple devices were introduced to do things most consumers couldn’t conceive of until he demonstrated what was possible.”

Even beyond these devices which define the modern world and erase former political and cultural boundaries, Steve Jobs and Apple proved the lie that there is a rational consumer. What people buy for themselves, from houses and perfumes and shoes and cars and electronics and fancy vodkas, can not be understood by any sort of needs assessment. They are cultural products, items of self-identity and group identity, and when we thrive we thrive because we want this stuff, not because it makes us healthy or wealthy or popular but because it makes us feel the way we feel when we have those dreams where we can fly, soaring impossibly above the earth, or those moments of love that redound through every fiber of our being. This man who died gave us cultural products but more than that he gave us a new economy of culture. As I said in this blog recently, the tricky reality of technology is not THINGS, but RELATIONSHIPS.


this is a relationship
Others can worry about what will happen to the company now that its guru has passed on. As a historian, I only know that this new relationship, this new cultural economy, will never end.

Managing Change, or We Are Technology

September 3, 2011

Managing change is what the historic preservation/heritage conservation field does. It is not about preserving “the past” or old buildings but repurposing significant elements of the past environment for future use.

Little Black Pearl, 47th & Greenwood, Chicago

Modern historic preservation in the United States dates from the 1960s, and it came up in an era of “new history” that replaced the old political history (wars, leaders, battles, boundaries) with a history that tried to convey what was happening to most people in their social and economic everyday. In a sense, history – as an academic discipline – was catching up with the globalization that industrial capitalism had launched at the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century. In the old history, agency – what makes things happen – was leaders and battles, etc. Agency in the new history had much broader social and economic dimensions. As my favorite Leeds musical group sang way back in 1979 “It’s Not Made By Great Men.”


The flats they scarpered and the Uni they attended. They were Uni, not Poly, right?

The old idea of agency in history was simplistic. All problems were single-variable problems. By the 20th century some historians had moved on to problems of disorganized complexity; problems that could be “solved” by statistical analysis and regression, and this is still a big piece of the evidence pie in history today. Heck, it is a big piece of the preservation/conservation pie or any public policy pie because we need data to push for public policy.

But statistical analysis is appropriate for problems of disorganized complexity, like the physical sciences. History, like the environment and cities, is a biological problem of organized complexity: the hardest type of problem to solve. This was of course Jane Jacobs’ argument in The Death and Life of Great American Cities when she took down urban renewal.


Greenwich Village. Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006

Economists and programmers today live on algorithms, which try to deal with organized complexity, at least within the realm of consumption, if not in the realm of place-making and place-maintaining. Algorithms attempt to determine what we “like” and what we want to put in our cart and who we “like” and what we want to put in their cart. They are more effectively predictive because they allow more variables and they include time, but they are still limited and rely heavily on pattern recognition. (don’t get me started on the lunacy of the rational consumer concept) It isn’t even as simple as DNA because buildings and cities function in time and place and thus genetic codes are merely predispositions, not agency.


since you enjoyed this vegetable, perhaps you would like to try…

So what got me thinking about all of this was my summer reading, including a book called His and Hers: Gender, Consumption and Technology, edited by Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohun, which approaches the problem of the history of technology in this biological, interactive way. I ranted against iPods and iPhones in this blog years ago because I didn’t need them, but as I realized a couple of weeks ago, need is the wrong question. I was thinking like Henry Ford (ick!) who thought that a simple practical black car was all that was needed, which is true, but insufficient and ignorant of human behavior. Ford looked at technology only from a production point of view. His GM rival Alfred Sloan invented “model years” for cars and stylized them, just like the Apple people do, so that you had to have the latest one. Mass production doesn’t exist without mass consumption. Ford saw one variable; Sloan saw more. Add cultural conceptions of gender and their complex interrelationships to production and consumption, time and place and maybe you can get somewhere.

Desire, thy name is Corvair

We all know that our economy today is largely driven by consumption, and we also understand to some extent the role of advertising in creating desire, and thus how desire replaced need. The gender aspect is more complicated because it inflects not simply the targeted manufacturing of desire but also production and consumption.

Wireless radios were male gendered products that needed to be domesticized for a female market with the rise of broadcasting in the 1920s. When the mills at Lowell needed a massive female workforce in the 1830s, it required complicated cultural gymnastics: the mills needed to appear to be paternalistic moral guardians, so as not to upset the recently crafted feminine domestic ideal. That ideal was needed because industrialization moved economic production out of the home and operated at a scale beyond traditional extended families. The nuclear family ideal came a century later, when consumption moved ahead of production.

every invention comes with its own iconography

So what caused what? The answer, in any chemical problem, is both: agent and reagent. In biology the answer is all of the above: DNA, environment, interaction, geography, ideology and even chance. Causation in history is always overdetermined.

Gender affected the definition of technology itself: it was male: big machines makin’ stuff. But of course vacuum cleaners are technology and so are radios and some technologies immediately became the province of women, notably the typewriter. In fact, I have an image in my mind of an illustration I saw thirty-plus years ago of the inventor of the typewriter with a giant thought bubble populated by an unending stream of technologically empowered Gibson girls.

But technology is not a thing but a relationship. The sewing machine is a great example. The first guy who invented it thought of it from a production point of view and so he set up a shop only to have it destroyed by a mob of tailors and seamstresses. The second guy who invented it invoked the wrath of every minister and priest since he was going to drive “needlewomen” into prostitution. Finally Isaac Singer comes along with a sewing machine but more importantly with a plan to market it to women in a way that reinforced cultural constructs of domesticity and gender.

Microsoft and Apple are similar – they didn’t necessarily invent the technology: they packaged existing technologies, developed innovative business models, and focused on consumption rather than production, which allowed Apple to briefly surpass ExxonMobil as the world’s biggest corporation last month.


don’t know what this thing is but it’s a hell of a relationship. photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Technology involves production needs and patterns; consumption patterns and desires; and the complex interactions between cultural ideas about gender over time. The question is not, as I said in a recent blog, how technology changes us or how we change it: the relationship between us and our things and space and time IS technology.


Chicago. South Branch

Technology is thus not a thing or things but a web of relationships that enters successfully into history when each of the variables (especially consumption) in the relationship is satisfied. In fact, cities are complex and interactive examples of technology. We tend to think that technology is something added to buildings and cities but in fact buildings and cities ARE technology and they are so ontologically.


Hotel St. Benedict Flats, Chicago.

This is a building I helped save a generation ago and when we listed it on the National Register we learned it was a “French flat” which was a kind of marketing label that allowed proper upper class people to consider living in multiple-unit buildings rather than single-family homes. Again, complex cultural gymnastics was required because everyone knew that “flat buildings” caused promiscuity and communism. That was the technological imperative: as the Chicago Tribune said in 1881 “It is impossible that a population living in sardine boxes should have either the physical or moral vigor of people who have door-yards of their own.”


totally

Every argument against technology; all the moral and social fears it engenders are proof that technology is relationships, or more precisely the enhancement and thus redefinition of existing relationships. The examples of Facebook and Viagra make this point in a straightforward way, but it is equally true of electric cars (relationship to consumption and environment), modern medicine (relationship to disease), booksradiomoviestelevisioninternet (relationship to imagery and narrative)

also copyright Felicity Rich.

In Lizabeth Cohen’s chapter on shopping centers she identified three major effects on community life in America: “in commercializing public space they brought to community life the market segmentation that increasingly shaped commerce; in privatizing public space they privileged the rights of private property owners over citizens’ traditional rights of free speech in community forums; and in feminizing public space they enhanced women’s claim on the suburban landscape but also empowered them more as consumers than as producers.”

Traditional economic analysis would only look at how developers and retailers and investors profit from these shopping centers, but Cohen notes there was a visionary (read DESIGN) aspect as well: they weren’t trying to destroy Main Street but perfect it, while providing a place to create community within the dispersed environment of suburbia. Early shopping centers had services of every type and even auditoria and venues for community meetings and concerts. So there was an economic impulse from a production side, an economic need from a consumption side, idealism on the production side and a non-economic social need on the consumption side or is it the feminine society side?

Old Orchard Shopping Center, original iteration

Postwar shopping centers even introduced the type of “market segmentation” so central to our Amazonian algorithms today, by eliminating the vagrants, minorities and criminals found in the old Main Streets. They gave women a place to have community but they also limited their roles as consumers and of course over time the privatization of public space limited the place-based speech and assembly that takes place in America.

Not just here. This is a Swedish outlet in Hungary. All trends are now global.

Enter the Internet, which allows a ridiculous amount of speech without the check provided by actually being in touch with society. On the economic side, it allows men to shop because they don’t have to talk to anyone. Now people of all genders can associate and interact. They can even use the virtual world to organize a real-world flash mob in “private space.”

shopping is SOOO gendered. I actually suffer from male pattern shopping disorder

In the age of “information technology” and an expanding quantity of genders, our economic and social interrelationships have been redefined once again. But as anyone who knows me can tell you, I see connection and commonality much more than difference (despite the great popularity of Derridean difference during my college years)


the communist capital of the world

Yes, technology DID this, but technology is not a thing nor an imperative working outside of history: it is right in the middle of it, like economics, full of the same insecurities and foibles and character flaws and amazing skills and infinite iterations of love and death as every one of us from the darkest night to the highest noon because it is not outside of human experience but implicated in every aspect of it from the amygdala to the appendix and it always has been so.

so if I buy an antique on the internet I am like doubling my technologies, right?

When we preserve aspects of our built environment, we are in fact preserving a complex layered history of cultural and economic production, consumption, identity and interaction. We are preserving palimpsests of earlier relationships, repurposing the technology of buildings and streets and places by inflecting them with our current relationships. Preservation can not be achieved without an understanding of contemporary political, economic and social relationships, and it cannot succeed without an historical understanding of relationships, the essence of technology.


getting to the next level – the technology of stairs, Angkor Wat

iFacebook progress

January 25, 2011

This blog has occasionally taken issue with technology, especially when that technology seems designed not to facilitate a solution but simply to move product. But technology and desire, as Apple have shown us time and again, are fiercely interpenetrated, and often the hype of a technological advance like the iPod, iPhone or iPad is actually matched by category-creating performance. Suddenly we have a need we never had before.

Now the moralists and ideologists will fret that the new technology will transform us so much we will lose our moral or ideological compass, unless we can maintain control over the technology. That is the meme driving fantasies from H.G. Wells through the Terminator and the Matrix. If that idea makes you feel better, go ahead and have it. But it is wrong. Of course the technology changes us, it always has.


Most of our “traditional” culture from harvest festivals to religious holidays is based on agricultural civilization, which is to say a human society completely and utterly transformed by the technology of sedentary crop cultivation. A whole slew of domestic traditions and artifacts from the bowl of fruit on the table, the breadbox, the garden bed and even the domesticated dog are relics of the technology of agriculture and how it changed the way we live, interact, and think. Even many of our current cultural clashes derive from the clash of sedentary cultures with surviving migratory societies in places like Mongolia and Arabia.


Even more apparent in our 21st century physical everyday are the legacies of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, which is to say, respectable middle-class culture caused by the mass production of goods and services. The reason there is a lawn in front of my house (and a lawn mower in the shed), a dining room, a living room or parlor and bedrooms is a result of an entire moral universe crafted in no small part by industrialization and urbanization. If those room-sized artifacts seem suburban rather than urban, that is exactly the point: there is no need – no possibility – of the conceptualization of a suburban ideal in the absence of industrial urbanization. You need to be confronted by the technology that is the city before you can possibly desire a suburb as respite.

Even the artifacts within the home are evidence of the spread of this ideal and the emergence of a consumer marketing-driven technological advances. The ideal requires cultivation in the form of a piano, which industry transforms into the mass-market parlor organ, which eventually becomes the Victorola and then the HDTV. Each transforms our behavior, preparing the soil for the next new crop.


Now, in the 19th and 20th centuries as the suburban ideal spread and middle-class values took over, most of the artifacts and performances we now recognize as “traditional” in holidays were invented, which is why Dickens’ a Christmas Carol is so effective: it takes us back to the time our modern idea of Christmas began. The rise of middle-class living and ongoing technological revolutions in the domestic realm also meant that conditions enjoyed by a minority in 1900 – running water, water closets, kitchens, automobiles – were enjoyed by the majority in 2000. The tradition of having a stove in your kitchen, a bathroom in your house or a garage of any kind emerged in the last four generations.


So, I don’t wonder why I suddenly need an iPod and iPhone or an iPad – I wonder why I need a toilet or an automobile, because that was what the iPod was a century ago. My last house even had an “early-adopter” toilet with the water tank way up high (although that was actually a 1980s retro design, which introduces the idea of nostalgia, where I shan’t go today.)

Of course, the great game-changer today is “social networking,” the Facebook phenomenon. I have colleagues I have worked with since the days of typewriters and carbon copies who now longer telephone me or even email me – they simply send me a message on Facebook. I admit I got addicted to it two years ago when I was trying to find a certain song from a movie and one minute later I had the entire soundtrack – while I was on vacation in Mexico. The other night I chatted with a friend in Holland and my kids can visit their cousins in Far West Texas on Skype almost anytime they want. Last week we had houseguests from Japan so I got out the Japanese phrasebooks we used there five years ago but the kids simply carried a laptop around and let Google translate do the talking. I can lament all of the pre-Internet skills I learned that are no longer necessary, but History won’t be listening.


Why didn’t the moralists and ideologists convince us we didn’t need telephones and radios? God knows they tried, they always do. They fail. I read an article yesterday about the relative moralities (ooh – that is a fun phrase right there!!) of conservatives, liberals and libertarians, which had a nice analysis of that topic but then plopped an unexamined idea – Progress – at the end.

Progress as a concept emerges in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution along with its yin-yang counterpart: History. Both imagine a trajectory, and that image was in fact a new image in 1800, because most humans had a more cyclical view of life and time (I dealt with the idea of linear time in the last blog.) Some aspect of what we call “Progress” may be a natural condition of the churn that is life but mostly it is a value judgment, and one I sometimes share because I generally prefer now to then. But I am not convinced that NOW is better, nor I am I convinced like so many that THEN is better, and I don’t think that is a moral evasion as much as the recognition of a scientific reality. My dissertation advisor Bob Bruegmann was constantly pushing me away from “either-or” historical analysis and forcing me to recognize the prevalence of “both-and.”


The moral question gets asked and re-answered with every technological and societal shift – that is why all ideologies are wrong, because they presuppose a static reality that never is or was – there is only historical and contingent reality. Part of that reality, is of course, a deep human desire for constants.

There are two constants: Humans have a deep seething desire to innovate and a deep seething desire to keep things as they are. And both are always true.


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