Tomorrow is the great unveiling of the Apple tablet, that fabled bit of electronics that has caused so much virtual ink to be spilled. I may avoid the Internet altogether tomorrow, as the collective i-gurgling will probably corrupt even gadget-free sites like ESPN. I'm cool without, thanks.
Some people speak as if I am an Apple hater, but that isn't true. I simply have not sacrificed my discrimination and critical capacity when it comes to Apple, unlike most of the bloggers you will ever read. Apple makes many good products, and some great ones. The question has always been whether the products they make represent a good value. That's been the issue, for me. Sometimes, I find the answer is yes. Often I find the answer is no. Unfortunately, actually evaluating the pros and cons of Apple products is anathema on the Internet, where we are all expected to bow down to whatever Steve Jobs and his marketing team has decreed. This is a disease that has so infected the gadget press that I simply don't trust a word I read online about Apple. There is so much uncritical love thrown Apple's way that you can never sort the true claims about Apple's value from the false ones. Apple makes some fantastic products, I have counseled people to get them many times, but I am afraid that the media and the legion of fanboys devoted to Apple's perfection have left me permanently skeptical about anything positive that I read about the company.
Anyway-- here's something that to me is so obvious that it barely needs mentioning, and yet I never see people talk about it openly: the real advantage of Apple, for many people, is that Apple products are status objects. Displaying your Apple stuff proudly is just yet another of our culture's myriad ways to engage in a little subtle classism. Apple products are expensive, some very expensive, and they are often significantly more expensive than non-Apple equivalents. When I bring this up in cautioning people about buying a particular Apple product (even in the course of endorsing such a purchase) there's a weird defenselessness that happens. People don't disagree, and yet they don't weigh that as a negative factor, either.
The reason is simple: being expensive is part of the point. A Macbook Pro is just as much of a status marker as a Louis Vuitton purse or a BMW. Being more expensive than another product of similar capability isn't a bug, it's a feature. But unlike that purse or that car, Apple products come with a kind of built-in deniability about the fact that they are purchased in part because of their class signals. Look, people love to demonstrate wealth; it is one of our culture's more singular obsessions. But a lot of people, for reasons of politics and decorum (and this extends to conservatives and liberals alike), feel guilty about flashing their class. So while they look down at, say, black urban youth for wearing expensive jewelry, they make sure you know where they went to college. Both are signaling, and both have everything to do with money, but one allows you to deny that you are so signaling.
And that brings us to "Apple culture." This is a phenomenon we're all aware of. I can't tell you how often I've discussed a potential purchase, of a computer or phone or MP3 player, where my frank discussions of features compared to price point get held up because of terms like "philosophy," "individualism," "creativity," "personality." You know-- all the things that purchasing a commodity can't give you? That stuff tends to dominate discussion of Apple products, and has been the essence of Apple advertising for years. There is somehow an Apple culture, and this culture is associated with all kinds of vague (but very real!) virtues. There is, according to many, a category of "Apple people," and this somehow means more than people who prefer Apple products but instead has everything to do with a person's personal virtue, and most importantly, how "unique" they are, a term thrown around about a commodity owned by millions with such disregard for its basic denotation that my eyes glaze over when I hear it. All of this stuff, this strange but inescapable reference to Apple culture, is just a way to hide guilt about the frank status projection that prominently displaying your iPhone represents.
All of this is why the killer feature of the iPod was always those white earbuds. That was what really sold. You could ride the subway or walk down the street and everybody knew that there was something very expensive in your pocket. Why, otherwise, not switch to some nondescript-- and likely higher quality-- headphones? Because such headphones didn't tell anyone that you were someone who could throw down $300 on an iPod, that's why. I remember watching those white earbuds spread like wildfire across the city, accompanied by more knowing glances and quiet smirks than I care to remember.
If you are at this point saying that none of this is a reason not to buy a particular product, I am in total agreement. White, straight teeth are also a class marker, but I am not advocating skipping the dentist out of some strained feelings of guilt. Again-- some Apple purchases make sense; some don't. The original iPod was, really, a miracle of design and superior tech. Hell, I owned an iPod, the original Nano, and while I would now go with a Zune HD above an iPod Touch, were I in the market for either, it would be close. As tends to happen with consumer electronics, good enough alternatives are now so cheap that the comparative advantage of devices like the Zune or iPod has diminished. But I did buy an iPod at one time. The tablet coming out tomorrow might be a great product and a very smart buy. We'll have to wait to find out; the gadget press will pronounce it the greatest achievement of humanity no matter how flawed it might be, in the short term. But in the long term, it might very well be a smart, worthwhile purchase. Just as an iPod or iPhone can both be really smart purchases. I would never pretend that isn't the case.
But-- if you find people are talking about Apple in pseudo-mythical terms; if people are endorsing a vision of Apple or Steve Jobs as anything other than capitalists with the sole priority of making profits; if you hear terms like "culture," "individualism,"or "philosophy," if you find that you are stammering and straining to explain why you love your Apple product beyond any rational explanation... be real. You know what the value is. It's okay; we all do it, I do it. I do think a little guilt is alright, here; unlike the great mass of political commentary in our culture, my opinion has never been that feeling guilty is always inappropriate. Just remember that the sound of someone stammering to explain how "Apple is about more than electronics, man," is the sound of white people trying to hide their guilt about exploiting naked classism.
Incidentally, people always say one of Apple's biggest strengths is aesthetics. This is always weird to me. Aesthetics are subjective. Personally? I think the toilet-seat white plastic shell that has come to define Apple is the absolute apotheosis of whitebread design, an entirely safe, focus-group vision that nonetheless prides itself on danger, a yuppoid futurist fantasy that isn't about "clean lines" or minimalism but instead about a certain sexless, antiseptic stab at middlebrow design profundity, the illusion of depth for people so shallow they're fooled into think that there's anything more moving about smooth white plastic than about that sickly computer beige from a decade ago.
But like I said. Such things are subjective. Nothing to get too emotionally involved with.