06.22.09

Apple’s Army of Whiners

The emoting over Steve Jobs' secret liver transplant has clarified, says Douglas Rushkoff, just how childishly dependent consumers have become on his company’s products—and him.

Feel better Steve, but what about me? I mean, I know cancer surgery is no picnic, but what does the possibility that you'll reject your new liver mean for my Apple share price? Or my iTunes collection? Should I be converting it all to MP3? I just got a friggin’ iPhone – what if you leave us before my five-year contract with AT&T ends? I made a commitment…How about you?

Sorry, but that's the emotional current underlying nearly all of the coverage I'm seeing about the Apple founder's just-revealed liver transplant operation in Tennessee for his metastasized neuroendocrine tumor. It's not what I expected from the Apple community, but perhaps it does serve as the most accurate expression of where the once-renegade personal-computer company has ended up.

To buy an Apple product is to bet on the longevity of the closed system to which we've committed ourselves. And that system is embodied—through marketing as much as talent—by Steve Jobs.

"He said all he needed was a little rest!" one commenter on the Fortune magazine Web site complained. "This is bullshit." On Bloomberg, all the talk is about share price, Apple's chronically cryptic and delayed press releases on Jobs' health, and whether this deputy Tim Cook is capable of taking the helm. Such "me-first" sensibilities don’t fit with the highly humanized, creative individuals celebrated in Apple's early commercials—but rather the cultish consumers and shareholders that those commercials, and the products, actually succeeded in generating.

Don't get me wrong: I'm an Apple user myself, and appreciate the elegance of the technologies and their interfaces. But Apple's products and policies have always been biased toward childish, whiny, and self-centered behavior, and now the company’s stakeholders are mirroring that.

The very concept of a personal computer seemed foreign and unnecessary to the many high-tech companies when Jobs and then-partner Steve Wozniak approached with their idea for a standalone, non-networked, home computer. Yes, the PC makes personal computing possible, but computing was never understood as a personal pursuit before. The processors were always a shared resource--the only "personal" part of it was the terminal. (A computing memory at least someone at Google recalls, since that’s the logic behind their GoogleApps cloudcomputing plan.)

As the PC proved popular with consumers and businesses, it was actually Microsoft that sought to develop a computer-literate user capable of issuing the commands that make a computer operate, while Apple worked toward the simplified world of icons, metaphors, and clicking. Users didn't know how any of it worked; Steve just made it so.

And if that hadn't created a dependent-enough user base, the company's Apple-only peripherals policy made them even more so. Windows was the operating system that tried to accommodate everyone, welcoming so many hardware drivers from so many companies that the system often crashed as inevitable conflicts arose. The Macintosh maintained a much more stable system by restricting what could be attached. It was ultimately the less-democratic approach, and a more closed computing universe.

No matter. Steve Jobs' personality more than compensated for any fear of corporate fascism. The Macintosh division started as a rebellious unit within Apple, formed to compete with the company's less graphical computers. By 1984 and the famously Orwellian Super Bowl commercial, the enemy was the Death Star alliance: Microsoft, IBM, and Intel. It was Jobs' narcissistic personality disorder against Gates’ Asperger’s Syndrome—and we all know which one plays better on a webcast.

Jobs and his charisma became so central to the Macintosh that, when the board eventually booted him, we Apple users actually had to consider whether we'd invested in computers and an operating system that would soon be extinct. Macintoshes fell a generation or two behind their Windows counterparts, and the company even tried licensing the OS to other manufacturers.

The share price went so low that the board invited Jobs back. And he revived the company by bringing it even truer to its consumerist roots. He rescinded licensing contracts, and remade the Mac as eye candy. Then came personal entertainment devices like the iPod, tied to Apple software like iTunes--guaranteeing us each a private soundtrack to use in otherwise public spaces. Retail stores, temples to the cult of Mac, served to embody the brand. And, of course, the iPhone--open source in every way except for revenue and distribution. To buy an Apple product is to bet on the longevity of the closed system to which we've committed ourselves. And that system is embodied--through marketing as much as talent—by Steve Jobs.

Macs, iPods, and iPhones do work. They also work to promote a vision of computing where almost any consumer capability is just a purchase away. And that's music to Wall Street, which rewards the company for shiny, new toys launched by Jobs at high-profile trade shows much more quickly than it does for ones that work and sell well over time. But the cult of Macintosh has evolved into a solipsistic and self-interested one, in which users and shareholders alike see the company's brand value as a precondition of their loyalty. To buy an Apple product is to invest in Apple Computer Inc.

It's why the news of the company's visionary founder's battle with cancer elicits fear and suspicion instead of human empathy. In a sense, it's only fair: Steve Jobs' Apple turned computer users from fellow hackers into private, cultish consumers, and now we're acting the part.

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia, ScreenAgers, Media Virus , and, most recently, Life Inc., released this month by Random House.