Shot on iPhone:Apple's World Picture
When in 2007 Steve Jobs launched the iPhone, he quickly skipped over the fact that the device is also a camera. Apple's marketing of its phone-as-camera took flight in 2015 with its World Gallery advertising campaign. The campaign displayed photographs shot by iPhone users from around the globe on billboards around the globe. This essay asks: What do the images in the World Gallery have in common, other than the camera on which they were shot? Starting from that question, the essay explores Apple's Polaroid-inspired American Dream of technology as second nature, while keeping a view on the material reality of the digital age, including Apple's labor practices in China. The essay argues that at Apple, more than with any other company in the world, reality distortion is integral to its core business operations.
advertising, American Dream, Apple, billboards, control capitalism, exploitation, iPhone, labor, magic, modernism, photography, Polaroid, postmodernism, Romanticism, Steve Jobs, technology, visual culture
Edwin Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and science. I like that intersection. There's something magical about that place. … The reason Apple resonates with people is that there's a deep current of humanity in our innovation.Steve Jobs to his biographer Walter Isaacson1
The short description of the pattern we have [in modern advertising] is magic: a highly organized and professional system of magical inducements and satisfactions, functionally very similar to magical systems in simpler societies, but rather strangely coexistent with a highly developed scientific technology.Raymond Williams, "Advertising: The Magic System"2
On January 9, 2007, at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs launched the iPhone. In fact, Jobs started his presentation by announcing three revolutionary new products: "an iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and an Internet communicator. … So three things … Are you getting it?" The crowd is getting it. "This is one device, today Apple is going to reinvent the phone" (Video 1). Jobs then continued to demonstrate the iPhone in his signature style, mindfully switching from a Beatles song to Bob Dylan, from a phone call to the photo album, and from a sunny weather forecast to an equally sunny outlook on Apple's stock. One thing Jobs only mentioned in passing is that the iPhone is also a camera, albeit initially only with two megapixels (MP), and without flash or auto-focus. Almost a decade later that camera became one of the main vehicles driving Apple's brand identity.
Apple's advertising of its phone-as-camera, and more generally Apple's promotion of its brand through photos and videos shot on its devices, took flight with its World Gallery campaign (Fig. 1). The campaign was launched in 2015 as part of the marketing of the iPhone 6, by now with an 8MP camera, true tone flash, and phase detection autofocus. For a period of two years, the World Gallery displayed photos shot by iPhone users on billboard ads in urban centers across the globe. The campaign further included print ads, short videos shot by users, and the 2016 TV commercial "Onions," in which a girl rises to fame thanks to her iPhone. The World Gallery campaign was produced by TBWA\Media Arts Lab, which since 2006 has been Apple's bespoke creative agency.4 In 2015, at the Cannes Grand Prix festival for advertising, the campaign won a Golden Lion in the outdoor category, as the jury considered Apple's campaign a "game changer."5
This essay takes the Shot on iPhone campaign as a lens onto Apple's new American Dream, designed in Silicon Valley and manufactured in China, under terrible working conditions, to which I will return.7 The essay asks: What do the images featured in the World Gallery have in common, other than the camera on which they were shot? And what inspiration did Jobs take from Edwin Land, the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation and the inventor of in-camera instant photography? Taking the World Gallery as its focal point, the essay demonstrates that advertising has always been integral to Apple's business operations.
The World Gallery is a fascinating campaign. The campaign is modern and postmodern at once, in that it attaches a material product (the iPhone) to an immaterial world view (Apple's brand image) expressed through images made by means of that product (the iPhone camera) but in such a way that the product's materiality is effaced (the iDream). And the campaign is analog and digital at once: smartphone photography printed in magazines and on billboards. In a social media era of viral and targeted advertising, in which "messages sent to large groups of people in one swoop" are no longer considered cost effective, Apple advertises with a good old one-message-fits-the-globe strategy.8
On that campaign's modern side, we have traditional billboards that reassure people that whatever they're doing, it's ok, you are ok—to paraphrase fictional advertising genius Don Draper in television show Mad Men's pilot episode "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (in which Don explains the principles of the 1960s American Dream industry).9 Advertising, as Welsh social and cultural critic Raymond Williams wrote, is "the official art of modern capitalist society."10 In his 1980 essay "Advertising: The Magic System" Williams argues that modern advertising works like magic. By this he means that advertising spins a web of associations around a commodity while obscuring the material reality in which that commodity is produced and consumed. That magical smoke screen is also at work in the World Gallery. The campaign manages to obscure the iPhone's material reality to the point no iPhone is actually seen in the campaign, and only the iPhone's feel remains (Fig. 2).
At the same time, and on the campaign's postmodern side, the iPhone's absent presence expresses Apple's design philosophy. According to this philosophy, technology becomes intuitive to the point it self-effaces in people's use of it. In this respect, the iPhone is present in every picture, in the crisp aesthetics that carry the "hyperrealism" of advertising photography to the digital age.12 In his 1991 book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson refers to postmodernism as an "age that has forgotten how to think historically."13 Apple's world picture, its belief in a world made better by design, is the epitome of this postmodern logic detached from historical materiality. The iPhone is designed to be a weightless technology that intuitively yields to the eternal present of digital media streams. The material reality magically veiled in this timeless flow is a capitalist reality, in which on the production side the earth is mined and labor exploited. Meanwhile, on the side of consumption, the iPhone facilitates the control capitalism of data-mining platforms like Google and Facebook, whose digital infrastructures interpellate—i.e., at once address and create—the smartphone user as a dividual. This dividual is what becomes of the individual under control capitalism and its datafying logic: a posthuman subject who is scattered and shattered to the point they're no longer in-dividual, undivided. The material reality of that scattered dividual contrasts sharply with Apple's world picture, at once romantic and digital in its aesthetic, of technology as second nature (Fig. 3).
I use the term "world picture" in a play on Martin Heidegger's 1938 essay "The Age of the World Picture" ("Die Zeit des Weltbildes"). Heidegger argues that in the modern era the world becomes a picture, defined as "the totality of beings taken," not only nature ("cosmos") and history, but also the "world-ground." Heidegger writes that "'world picture' does not mean 'picture of the world' but, rather, the world grasped as picture."15 Also Apple's World Gallery is not a depiction of the world, but a world view designed in its totality. As such, the World Gallery is emblematic of Apple's philosophy, its new American Dream, in which all and everything is integrated into a single design, including humans and computers.
The essay has six sections. Section one analyzes the World Gallery. Section two situates the World Gallery within Apple's advertising philosophy from the late 1970s to the 2020s. Section three argues that Apple's advertising strategy over the years has become integral to its product design. Section four juxtaposes Apple's new American Dream to the material reality of digital era capitalism. Section five imagines how people in, say, 125 years from now will look back on the launch of the iPhone. Section six is about apples. Throughout, moreover, the essay is a visual essay that captures Apple's world image, the feel of its phone—with, in conclusion, a personal touch that I shot on my own iPhone.
I. A Timeless World
As far as we have come … we are still a long way from … the realization of the concept of a camera that would be all like the telephone, that would be something that you use all day long whenever an occasion arises in which you want to make sure that you cannot trust your memory, or when you want to record any object of great interest to you, or any beautiful scene.Polaroid camera founder Edwin Land in 197020
As Jobs would have put it, the photographs that were on display in the World Gallery campaign are absolutely stunning: from a lone tree on a bare hillside to a sky full of hot air balloons (Figures 1 and 2); from a waterfall cascading into a lush valley to air bubbles trapped in a frozen lake (Figures 4 and 5); and from "a reflection on a damp sidewalk" to the "gesture of a child" (to cite film philosopher André Bazin's 1945 essay on the ontology of the photographic image; Figures 6 and 7).21 In some cases, the photos appeared as giant stand-alone billboards high up in urban space (Fig. 8). In other cases, they were part of a series that covered an entire subway platform or train station (Figures 9 and 10). The original World Gallery featured photos from 162 iPhone users and was marketed on billboard ads in 73 cities in 25 countries, from San Francisco to New York City, and from Paris to Beijing.22 In 2016, Apple re-launched its campaign, this time dubbed "Colors," for the promotion of the 6S model of its phone.23 Online, the World Gallery included, moreover, a series of single-shot videos: from a dance of sparrows above the Dutch city of Utrecht to a train cutting through an Alaskan landscape to the tune of Johnny Cash's song "All I Do Is Drive."
The World Gallery curated content generated by users, who are referenced by their first name and their last name's initial, followed by the location they shot their photos. It's a way of crediting authorship that makes these users appear like everyday people. As one commentator observes, Apple "wouldn't want the public to further think we have to be a trained professional to make these kinds of pictures."24 Some of the photographers were professionals, though, like John Lehmann, who was named Canadian photojournalist of the year twice, and who shot the following photo of a wild horse (Fig. 11).25
It was not possible to submit work to the World Gallery. Instead, Apple sourced its images from social media such as Instagram, where it found Lehmann's photo, and Flickr, where it found the artistic selfie shown above by Cielo de la Paz (Fig. 12). The picture shows the artist's self-reflection in a puddle, holding a red umbrella while yellow leaves float around her silhouette. "For me personally, it was a really big deal," de la Paz from Alameda, California, is quoted in an interview. "The billboard is a symbol of hope. Hope that when you're lost, you will be found."28 After her photo was selected, de la Paz flew out to New York City, but by the time she got to the Big Apple, her photo had already been replaced. She contacted Apple, which arranged for the image to be put back up. Apple also paid all of its contributors, though professionals more than amateurs, and following the World Gallery's first round, Apple surprised all of its artists with a photo book.29
So what do the images on display in the World Gallery have in common, other than all having been shot on an iPhone 6? First of all, the World Gallery demonstrates that the iPhone's camera is so powerful that its high-definition pictures can be blown up to billboard-size format (be it with the aid of some image processing). Second, the campaign proves that thanks to the iPhone 6 everyone is a potential artist. As visual studies scholar Marita Sturken writes, Apple's photo advertising is "indicative of the increased blurring of the roles of amateur and professional that has emerged in the digital economy."31 And there is more: glancing over the campaign in an online image search (Fig. 13), a picture forms in the mind's eye of a world that exists, above all, for our contemplation of it. It's a world full of beauty: beauty in small things (a lady bug, a lone surfer ashore watching a sunset, Fig. 14) and beauty in sublime vistas (Fig. 15).
It's a world of beautiful people also, because the 2016 follow-up campaign consisted of colorful portraits. We see portraits of people simply being human as they are in the moment, much like the photographers behind their iPhones who were present in the moment they tapped their screens (or clicked the volume button, which functions doubly as a shutter operator). Except for a picture of fishermen balancing on boats in a lake in Myanmar, shot by Francis O. (Fig. 16), we don't see people at work. Nor do we see people in their home situations. What is striking, moreover, is that we hardly find pictures of people together. In the few photos with more than one person, the subjects are scattered in the cityscape (Fig. 17). Exceptions are, again, the fishermen—who are clearly posing—and the small crowd at the balloon show (Fig. 2). There are, in other words, hardly any pictures of everyday life.
The genre of smartphone photography that is completely absent from the World Gallery is the selfie. This fact also struck the two anonymous pranksters who were behind the "Also Shot on iPhone 6" posters that for a few days in 2015 appeared in the streets of San Francisco. This counter "campaign" juxtaposed Apple's careful curation with a series of weird self-portraits found on Google and framed in World Gallery style (Figures 18 and 19).
The prank calls to mind the 2004 "iRaq" flyposter campaign in New York City by the artist collective Copper Greene (Fig. 20). This guerrilla action transformed the dancing silhouettes of Apple's iPod posters—which were then all around in NYC—into the silhouetted image of the tortured Abu Ghraib prisoner whose photo had leaked earlier that year. The prisoner is standing on a box, white iPod-like electrical cords dangling from their fingers, while a tagline reads "10,000 volts in your pocket"—this in variation on the iPod campaign's "10,000 songs in your pocket."
In Practices of Looking, Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright write that Copper Greene's counter-campaign created "a critique not only of the use of torture in military prisons, but also of advertising culture and consumer culture in general."38 Similarly, the "Also Shot on iPhone" posters succeed "in subtly getting pedestrians to do double takes,"39 critiquing both Apple's advertised image and the way it takes over the public sphere. And like the iRaq posters, the alternative street gallery in San Francisco was taken down almost immediately, while Apple killed the online versions with a cease-and-desist order due to copyright infringement. Clearly, Apple does not like user-generated content that challenges its world picture.
That worldview paints the picture of a serene, timeless world, captured in high definition. It's a little bit of a cold world that in its universal right here and right now lacks what Roland Barthes called punctum: that je ne sais quoi when a photograph punctures its beholder with a sense of that has been. The World Gallery, in its sublime timeless imagery, puts the viewer at a distance, like much advertising does. As sociologist Michael Schudson writes in Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion, "advertising looks more real than it should."40 Schudson cites sociologist Barbara Rosenblum that in most advertising photography "light is used in conjunction with focus to create a hypertactile effect."41 That hypertactile effect is also at play in the World Gallery, whose distancing aesthetic puts the viewer somewhat at a remove from the scenes represented. These scenes appear too real to be taken from everyday life. At the same time, and unlike what is found in most advertising photography, the World Gallery does not display images of the product sold. It is made by means of the product. The World Gallery displays images shot by users, who thanks to Apple, now have a global stage for their photography. By inviting people to identify with these ordinary artists, "we" visitors of the World Gallery are given access to that wonder, too, not just by admiring the photographs—at once art and ads—but also by creating our own images, after having purchased an iPhone of course.
As far as the World Gallery's distancing aesthetic is concerned, there is a clear resonance with German Romanticism, in particular the paintings of Casper David Friedrich. In what is probably Friedrich's most well-known painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, 1818), a mountaineer is viewed from the back, cane in hand, looking out over a misty landscape. Similarly, in those pictures I consider to epitomize the World Gallery aesthetic, we see isolated or lone figures, also often viewed from the back, in a way that invites the viewer to identify with their gazes as they experience the sublime (Fig. 21). At the same time, and in somewhat surprising synthesis with this romanticism, the images are crisp and clean, breathing digital technology, as through the sharp focus and bright colors, the clean white skies, and the occasional reflective surface (water, glass—Fig. 22, see also Figures 6, 11, and 12), which all contribute to a distinct Apple aesthetic.
In sum, the World Gallery paints a picture that is at once romantic and technological, even though technology is only felt and only rarely seen. The campaign was curated from the online social media streams on which the photographers shared their work. Apple, through its devices, co-facilitates that postmodern transmedia stream in the age of converging media technology, in which people make meaning across platforms.44 And yet, the World Gallery does not advertise the transmedia functionalities of the iPhone. Instead, the campaign frames its photographs as art. At first sight, this is very honest advertising: Apple shows off its camera's use value: as in, "look what this camera can do!" At the same time, the campaign captures in full swing what Raymond Williams referred to as advertising's status as the art of modern capitalism. The World Gallery uses the images to magically obscure the material reality the phone's commodity form is part of. As communication scholar Sut Jhally argues, "the power of advertising … come[s] from the fact that it works its magic on a blank slate."45 In the case of the World Gallery, that blank slate is the touch screen on which Apple paints the magic picture of a timeless right-here-and-right-now, while its users breathe in and out with wonder (Fig. 23).
II. The Other Side of the Coin
Our whole company, our whole philosophical base, is founded on one principle … that there is something very special, and very historically different, that takes place when you have one computer, and one person.Steve Jobs in 1980
Besides everyday life, there is something else missing from Apple's world picture. What makes the World Gallery so brilliant in its ideology is that its images do not make the remotest reference to the digital age. There is hardly any technology in the images, and certainly no digital technology. No phones, no screens, no media, no solar panels, no windmills (like in the Dutch landscape below in Fig. 24 that I shot on my iPhone). There are also no cars, at least not driving or self-driving ones. The only means of transportation are the hot air balloons, a bunch of paddle boats, the Alaskan train (and, true, the occasional parked car, while its driver is enjoying the wonders of nature—Figures 11 and 14). The images therefore contrast starkly with the increasingly smart urban centers in which they were on display. Implicitly the World Gallery creates the image of a technology user who, despite all distractions of the digital age, stays attentive to beauty. The campaign creates the image of a mindful subject who is the protagonist of the new American Dream, branded in Silicon Valley.
By "mindful" I mean a certain cultivation of human attention that has its origins in Zen-Buddhist tradition. To be mindful is to move one's body and mind with intention and gratitude yet without passing judgment. The mindful subject merely observes sensations and thoughts in the present moment, gently recentering their attention each time the mind drifts, as the mind tends to do. In Western adaptations of Zen-Buddhist practices, mindfulness gradually has become detached from the broader ethics it is originally part of. Mindfulness, thus, risks being instrumentalized as a mere practice in a consumerist mindset. This is clearest in the Silicon Dream co-created by Apple. In that Dream, mindfulness has become the ideology of a subject who gently-yet-firmly controls their attention, and who is in control of how technology mediates that attention. It's a subject for whom technology is second nature.
To further grasp the mindful gaze around which Apple's world picture coheres, it is instructive to relate the campaign to earlier advertising strategies by Kodak and Polaroid. As Sturken writes, with its "Kodak Moments" and "Turn Around" commercials from 1961, Kodak positioned its camera as "the key conduit through which memories and familial bonds are maintained." In contrast, Sturken continues, Polaroid managed to create a culture around its instant image, allowing for "a shift in the photograph's function, from memory and nostalgia to the 'now,' a key buzzword of 1960s hip culture."47 As far as these companies' legacies in the digital realm are concerned, Sturken observes a discrepancy between Google's and Facebook's self-positioning in the Kodak tradition and their users' Polaroid-like practices:
While Google and Facebook have aimed to situate themselves as the repositories for our photographic memories, and Instagram (owned by Facebook) and Snapchat have created "memory" features, it is not clear that these features and messages have much resonance with consumers. Photography today is much more a practice of the "now" than a means to store memories. These platforms are increasingly the means through which users self-curate, and for many users, that is about creating digital images to document the present actively in the now, as a kind of "curation" of the self, rather than creating digital photo albums of the past.48
Leaving aside here whether this discrepancy between platforms and their users is indeed as emphatic, it is true that Apple's self-positioning has always been on the Polaroid side of the spectrum. To stay with Polaroid, Jobs once explicitly claimed to have modeled Apple on the company that popularized instant photography. In the 1970s and early 1980s Jobs made several trips to Polaroid's headquarters to meet Edwin Land, who was a technological visionary famous for his product presentations. In a 1970 promotional film by Polaroid, titled The Long Walk (dir. Bill Warriner), the viewer follows Land as he travels by helicopter to a production facility under construction in Norwood, Massachusetts. As Land paces through the empty factory hall, he prophesies that as far as Polaroid has come in facilitating the instantaneous image, "we are still a long way from … a camera that you would use as often as your pencil, or your eyeglasses." While speaking these words, Land grabs his wallet from his coat pocket, "snaps" an air "picture," and returns the wallet as were it an iPhone that has time-travelled four decades from the future (Fig. 25).
In the half decade that preceded the The Long Walk, Polaroid had marketed itself as a countercultural company, especially through its "Swinger" camera. As Polaroid's TV commercials sang, the Swinger is "more than a camera, it's almost alive," further pointing out that the camera "talks to you" through its "Yes" indicator for sufficient lighting conditions (Video 2). So when in subsequent decades Apple's equally personal computers said "hello" (the Macintosh in 1984, Fig. 26) and "hello (again)" (the iMac in 1998, Fig. 27), one could hear the lighthearted echo of Polaroid.
At the end of The Long Walk, Land shifts to the nearer future, stating that he is looking forward to the moment in 1972 when people will use Polaroid's "ultimate camera that is a part of the evolving human being." Land's belief in the encounter between human and machine became an essential part of Jobs' rhetoric. In 2011, for example, at the launch of a new iPad model, Jobs said that "it's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough, that it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."52 Or as Jobs stated in a 2001 interview on Japanese television: "The whole computer industry wants us to forget the humanist side of it. But we believe that there is a whole other side of the coin. … Can we help you express yourself in richer ways, in your music, in your movies, in your photography?"53 Earlier in his life Jobs had found that "other side of the coin" through LSD and Zen-Buddhism, which he credited for making him more "enlightened."54 Inspired by Stewart Brand (who already in the early 1970s had suggested that the computer might become a new LSD) Jobs merged silicon and mental processes.55 As Brett Robinson in his 2013 book Appletopia renders Jobs's outlook on human creativity and technology, "Our minds are sort of electrochemical computers. Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns."56
The encounter between humanity and technology imagined by Jobs was an individuating encounter: an encounter that sparks an innate creativity that is believed to make each individual unique. Apple's iDream is premised on a radical belief in that individual creativity. That belief inscribes itself, at once, into an Enlightenment tradition of the rational mind (and later the computing mind) and a romantic individualist tradition. Jobs and in his wake Apple, inspired by Brand and Land, have always sought a synthesis between those traditions. On the one hand, there is an understanding of the mind as a machine akin to L'Homme machine (1747) by the materialist philosopher Julien Offray de la Mettrie, who extended René Descartes' argument that animals are automatons to humans. On the other hand, there is the infinite belief in a creative spirit longing for the expansion of consciousness through nature, drugs, music, sex, and meditation. It is a longing akin, for example, to Friedrich's paintings, or to Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" from 1841, which urges people to avoid conformity and follow their own conscience. As Thomas Streeter in his 2011 book The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet writes about Emerson, "this is not Descartes's rational self" but a self that seeks expression according to its "own unique personal perception of truth."57
In his study Streeter analyzes the romantic individualism of turn-of-the-1970s counterculture as it manifested itself in the world of computing. He references in particular Stewart Brand and Ted Nelson, both advocates of hacker culture who saw computing as art and play. Enter the personal computer, a term popularized by Brand in his 1974 book II Cybernetic Frontier. Streeter writes:
Like the slogan "black is beautiful" in the 1960s, "personal computer" was a deliberate combination of two things the dominant culture understood as opposites. … It announced a radical classification of computers … that associated them … with all those things we have long associated with the romantic persona.58
In Apple's world, the personal computer became the philosophical touchstone and a marketing slogan at once (Fig. 28). Apple's association of its brand with the earlier association of "computer" and "personal" is a clear-cut example of what Barthes called mythological speech, in which meaning is naturalized, in this case that there is such a romantic thing as a "personal" computer in the first place.59 This humanization of the computer goes hand in hand with a vision of the human mind as a computer. Apple's outlook on the human encounter with technology is thus at once rational and romantic, as in its presentation of the Apple II as "the most personal computer" for "the most computer of all: your mind." The slogan demonstrates that already thirty-five years before the World Gallery, Apple's advertising mixed branding and philosophy.
The individual's symbiotic encounter with computing technology has been a recurring theme in Apple's advertising throughout the years. The examples are near-endless, so I will cite a few: from the female athlete who liberates the world from "big brother" IBM in the iconic "1984" Super Bowl ad (directed by Ridley Scott) (Video 3) to singer-songwriter FKA Twigs expanding her mind and apartment in the 2018 auteur commercial "Welcome Home" (directed by Spike Jonze) (Video 4); from the playful pas de deux in the 2001 "Window" commercial between a nightly city dweller and the "sunflower" iMac (Video 5) to the home-video quality of the 2020 "Creativity Goes On" lockdown-time commercial (Video 6); from Robin Williams asking "What will your verse be?" in the 2014 "Dead Poets Society" commercial for the iPad Air (Video 7) to the 2017 "What's a computer" commercial singing, "Where is it you wanna go?" (Video 8); and from the dancing wired-in silhouettes of the iPod campaign to the bouncing wireless protagonist of the 2019 AirPods commercial (Video 9). As far as the "Think Different." campaign from 1997 is concerned, even though it doesn't show any encounter with Apple devices, Jobs assured his audience during the launch of the campaign that had Einstein and Picasso used a computer, "it would have been a Mac."61
By the time of the World Gallery, Jobs had been dead for five years, but his firm belief in the individual's emancipation through technology survived in Apple. The World Gallery expresses this belief on three levels: First, it does so in its selection of pictures, in the combination of their crystalline digital feel and the near absence of technology. In the techno-Zen experience facilitated by Apple's intuitive devices, such is the message, technological mediation has become near translucent. Second, the belief in the encounter with technology manifests itself in the materiality of the images, or more precisely in their digital immateriality. The World Gallery was printed on giant billboards, yet its images appeared weightless. Apple's campaign is a long way from Kodak's photography-as-time-machine. Yet neither does the World Gallery follow Polaroid's embrace of the now, materialized by the instant picture. Looking back from the digital age, one thing Kodak and Polaroid had in common, despite their differences, is that their brands both relied on photography as a medium of the index—a term from cinema studies that refers to the ontological bond between the analog photograph and the reality once present in front of the camera. Like an index finger, the analog photograph points to this past reality that is now re-presented in the image: that has been. Apple's gallery lacks such indexical feel, such punctum. Instead, Apple presents its photographs as objects without material referent, detached from their moment of shooting.
Third, the belief in a marriage between technology and humanity manifests itself in the photographing subject that speaks from the pictures. At first sight, Apple's temporality is closer here to Kodak than to Polaroid. Even though pictures shot on an iPhone are as instantaneous as in Land's 1970 dream, the World Gallery does not celebrate that instantaneity. Instead, the World Gallery testifies to a certain care, a mindful presence with the object photographed also felt with Kodak. And yet, Apple's images are different from Kodak's by not being punctured by nostalgia, by a "twinge in the heart" (to speak once more with Mad Men's Don Draper, this time pitching a campaign for Kodak's Carousel projector, in the show's magical season one finale, "The Wheel").69 As with Polaroid, Apple's photographer exists in the now, not in the swirl of the moment and at the center of a collective attention as in Polaroid's ideal of bringing people together around technology, but mindfully and often on their own (before sharing their photo on Instagram). As in almost all of Apple's advertising, the protagonist of the World Gallery is solitary. It is a self-sufficient subject who simply is, having already one foot in that near magical future where technology connects them to their inner humanity.
In this regard, the World Gallery is very modern, by which I mean modern from before the times became postmodern. I understand post-modernity broadly as the era of transition from analog to digital technology. That era first came into full swing at the turn-of-the-70s and the birth of the personal computer. The transition continues today, as exhibited in the transformation of analog fossil-fueled cars into digital-electric vehicles. Postmodernity is often associated with irony, but Apple's advertising is never ironic. It only is ironic to the extent that all advertising is ironic. As Northrop Frye writes in Modern Century (1967):
Advertising implies an economy which has some independence from the political structure, and as long as this independence exists, advertising can be taken as a kind of ironic game. Like other forms of irony, it says what it does not wholly mean, but nobody is obliged to believe its statements literally.70
So yes, in the sense that advertising by definition is an ironic speech mode, Apple's advertising is ironic, too, and also the World Gallery is not intended as a realistic picture of the world. But Apple is not ironic as say Pepsi in its 1985 Choice of a New Generation campaign (Video 10). David Foster Wallace considered that campaign as the epitome of postmodern irony at work. In his landmark 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction" Wallace argued that the irony of Pepsi's commercial is precisely that it lets the viewer in on an ironic game that "the audience is the butt of."71 In Apple's ads, in contrast, there are no games and inside jokes. Apple is playful, but it is also very serious. And here it helps of course that Apple does not sell "sugar water" but tools to "change the world" (as were the words with which Jobs in 1982 allegedly convinced then-CEO of Pepsi John Sculley to join Apple).72
As Jobs stated in a 1980 television interview, Apple creates solutions.75 In that sense the company is very down to earth. At the same time, Apple sells a dream that is uplifting and spirited. What makes Apple unique is that in its branded philosophy, its view on digital technology, the down-to-earth and the spiritual happen at the same time—and in which rationality and romanticism marry. Over the decades, that digital dream has become as integrated into Apple's products as that product's hardware and software are integrated into one single design. Apple sells an infinite belief in the ability of human creativity to make the world better through design. Its design strategy has always been to facilitate that creativity, and to create a user experience that transcends the materiality of the computer. As Jobs was quoted in a 1980 Wall Street Journal interview, the personal computer serves as a "bicycle for the mind" (Fig. 29).
The interview is in fact an ad, yet another case in point that Apple, despite the postmodern times that it has helped propel, has always taken advertising very seriously.
III. Human by Design (Better)
[People] are most productive and effective when the environment in which they work and play is enjoyable and challenging.Apple Computer, Human Interface Guidelines (1987)77
Having discussed the World Gallery in the context of Apple's advertising from the late 1970s to the 2020s, this section situates Apple's advertising in the context of its overall design philosophy. As we will see, for Apple, advertising has, over the decades, become integral to its key business operations. As cultural studies scholar Judith Williamson writes, in certain advertising "a product may go from representing an abstract quality or feeling, to generating or being that feeling; it may become not only 'sign' but the actual referent of that sign."78 This is exactly what happens in the World Gallery. The World Gallery does not merely associate Apple with a technologically-facilitated sublime; it seeks to transfer that experience to the people walking in the street-turned-exhibition-space. Apple designs technology, but above all it creates what Steve Jobs called a "very special" encounter between humanity and technology.79 The special thing about Apple is that in its creation of that encounter, advertising and product design work hand in hand. Therefore, in order to better understand Apple's advertised vision of humanity a closer look at its design philosophy is needed.
Operating at the intersection of technology and humanity, it's in Apple's DNA to produce closed systems in which hardware and software are integrated and developed in tandem. In 1976, when Steve Wozniak took his creation of what would soon be christened as the Apple I to the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park, computers were primarily still an affair of hobbyists and businesses. The Apple I was one of the first personal computers that combined a microprocessor with a keyboard and a monitor connection. In the home-brew spirit, Wozniak wanted to give his invention away for free, but Jobs convinced his companion to sell instead. While Wozniak continued to refine the computer's technical features, Jobs pursued the idea of the personal computer as an "integral, self-contained product more akin to a household appliance than technical instrument."80
Following the Apple I, there was the Apple II (sometimes styled as "Apple ][" or "Apple //") (Fig. 30). Like its predecessor, the Apple II was technologically assembled by Wozniak while Jobs oversaw the design and feel: from the foam-molded plastic case to the packaging and user manual. As design scholar Barry Katz writes in Make it New: A History of Silicon Valley Design, Jobs entered "the picture precisely at midpoint in the history of Silicon Valley design, and is the hinge on which the entire story pivots for the simple reason that he accorded to design a place it had not heretofore occupied in any major technological corporation."82
While the Apple II kept the company financially afloat for over a decade, Apple revolutionized computer design once again in 1984 with the Macintosh. The project had been started in 1979 by Jef Raskin who, as Wozniak states, brought the idea of "human over technology into Apple."83 After a fall-out with Jobs, Raskin left and Jobs took over leadership of the company. The Macintosh was the first mass-market personal computer designed with a built-in screen. Originally, the machine still had a text-based interface, but Jobs pushed for a graphical user interface and a mouse, both of which he had found—as in "a veil being lifted of [his] eyes"84—during a trip to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The "mouse" Jobs had seen was engineered for the Xerox Alto, the first computer with a graphical user interface. But, as Katz writes, "what Xerox saw as a sensitive laboratory instrument, Jobs perceived as a key component in an emerging vision of how novices might work with computers in a way that was personal, comfortable, and even intimate."85 Xerox's mouse had three buttons and cost $500. The mouse that came with the Macintosh had only one button and cost $15 (Fig. 31).
Starting in 1986, Apple continued its search for ever more intimate user experiences through its Human Interface Group (HIG). The group's mission was to design an "interface for the rest of us," from graphic icons and control panels to QuickTime video editing software. In 1987, the group published its Human Interface Guidelines. More a rationale than a style guide, the book goes into the why of design, with Apple's creative user as its continuous touchstone. The guide states, for example, that "the purpose of visual consistency is to construct a believable environment for users."87 Similarly, one reads that "the user, not the computer, initiates and controls all actions. People learn best when they're actively engaged. … [The Apple Desktop Interface] 'protects' the beginner but allows the user to remain in control."88 The Interface Group grew into a community of over 100 designers and even more students recruited through a University Workface Interface Program. As one member recalls, the group helped foster the emergence of "eclectic interface designers" who bridged the divide between mainframe programmers and graphic designers. As Katz writes, the Interface Group also prepared Apple for "the next step," namely its design of "the whole-product user interface, which can more elegantly be described as Interaction Design."89
Jumping ahead in this selective history of Apple's product design, in the long decade after Jobs' departure in 1985—after a fall-out with John Sculley—Apple survived more than thrived. In 1997 Apple broke with Sculley, at which time Jobs was in charge of both Pixar and NeXT Software, which he had founded. The purchase of NeXT by Apple that year also meant the return of Jobs. Apple's main goal of this acquisition was to use NeXTSTEP, an objectoriented, multitasking operating system that became the source of macOSX (later called OS X). Something else Jobs brought along was a sense of business reality. In one of his first speeches upon his return, Jobs announced a collaboration with Microsoft, including a $150 million investment by its long-time rival, which saved Apple from bankruptcy. Moreover, Jobs brought a vision of humanity ready to be integrated into Apple's brand design. As Jobs philosophized in 1998 during the product presentation of the iMac, at Apple "i" not only stands for "internet" but also for "some other things" like "individual" and "inspire" (Fig. 32). To that list Jobs could have added "interim" as in "iCEO," which was Jobs's unofficial function title until he again fully committed himself to Apple in 2000.
As Apple entered the new millennium, it saw the formation of an informal Human Computer Interaction group with engineers and software designers from across departments. The group included Jony Ive, who headed the industrial design teams of Apple's most iconic products, including the iPhone. The group met weekly around the search for more fluent ways for users to interact with content. Inspired by multi-touch technology developed by a company called Fingerworks—purchased by Apple in 2005—the group laid the foundation for Apple's post-personal computer devices, in which hardware yields to software and in which the case yields to the screen. Ive's inspiration for the near borderless screens of the iPhone and the iPad was the "infinity pool," in which the water rises to meet the edge. The idea for the iPhone was to appear all interface so that the user can literally touch the content. As is the case with the images in the World Gallery, that content appears almost detached from the technological apparatus supporting it. It is precisely that illusion of weightlessness that creates a sense of magic upon initial encounter—as that first time in 2007 that Jobs moved his finger across the touchscreen in order to unlock the phone (Figures 33–35). "Wanna see that again?", while a wave of amazement rolled through the audience.
Apple's frictionless user interaction design is not limited to the devices themselves; it also extends to its stores. Like the iPhone, the Apple Store (Fig. 36) was designed by Ive. And as with the iPhone, the store is all immersive interface: the user can touch the content (the products themselves, which are technology and experience at once) while the store's material reality (its stock, the repair process) remains hidden from sight. Case in point of Apple's integrated design philosophy is the Genius Bar, which serves as the weightless center for technical support. In 2012, tech site Gizmodo laid hands on Apple's Genius Training workbook. The workbook reveals that Apple's user interaction design even extends its control to the customer interactions of its frontend employees. The book, for instance, contains psychological pointers on how to recognize customer emotions, from acceptance to frustration. The book also teaches its "geniuses" how to spin certain conversations, as by using the "three Fs" in response to a customer concern:
This Mac is just too expensive.Genius:
I can see how you'd feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it's a real value because of all the built-in software and capabilities.92
Apple thus seeks to control the user experience from the moments of purchase and unpacking the box to people's interactions with the technology. That experience is characterized by a certain lightness that belongs to a designed intuitive interaction. As media and culture critic Brett Robinson argues, Apple's immersive design takes inspiration from the meditative state of mind that the Indian spiritual guru Paramahansa Yogananda described in his 1946 Autobiography of a Yogi, which Jobs read at least once a year. Robinson cites Yogananda: "The human mind, freed from the disturbances or 'static' of restlessness … is empowered to perform all the functions of complicated radio mechanisms—sending as well as receiving thoughts, and tuning out undesirable ones."93 Apple's iPad, Robinson argues, similar to the philosophy of spirit found in Yogananda, seeks to lift the human mind to a "lost sense of transcendence," thus redeeming reality.94 Robinson's transcendent reading of Apple's mythology relies perhaps a bit too heavily on accounts of Jobs's personal inspirations. But it is certainly true that Apple's corporate philosophy has always tapped into a strand of counterculture that takes a spiritual approach to technology.
As Fred Turner writes in his 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the relation between counterculture and technology is complex. The key figure in Turner's study is the already mentioned Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth philosophy became an inspiration for the new communalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s that Jobs dabbled in as well. The new communalists explored forms of alternative living and DIY technology, including computer technology. Turner is critical of the marriage between computing and human creativity that became part of the new-communalist utopian philosophy. He writes that in their striving for synthesis the New Communalists transformed technocracy "into a tool with which to legitimate computer technologies and collaborative work styles that in fact emerged at the intersection of military, industrial, and academic research."95 Here Turner gives the example of Apple's 1984 presentation of the Macintosh as a moment of liberation, even though its mouse and monitor had been designed in institutes funded by the US Defense Department. To this can one add that 1984 reduces freedom to individual freedom. Or as cultural critic Mark Fisher stated in his Postcapitalist Desire lecture series, posthumously published in 2021, with 1984, "the most influential film from the last thirty-five years," Apple co-opted the countercultural moment in a way that "transforms all desire into a desire to be a more successful individual."96 (Fig. 37)
1984 was produced by Apple's agency Chiat/Day and co-created by Lee Clow and Steve Hayden. The commercial was initially rejected by the Apple Board of Directors, as they feared it would damage Apple's reputation as a serious business computer company.98 Both Jobs and Wozniak pushed it, though, while Chiat/Day, so the story goes, pretended it was unable to sell off the Super Bowl airtime. The commercial once and for all put Apple on the map as a countercultural company, adding a rebellious twist to its already established "personal computer" branding. Chiat/Day was fired in 1986, not long after Jobs was fired. When Jobs returned in 1997, he also wanted a new agency in order to get Apple's image back on track. The account was won by TBWA\Chiat\Day, of which Chow was now CEO. The agency developed the Think Different. campaign (Video 11).99 As of that campaign, advertising has become more and more integral to Apple's overall strategy. Since 2006 Apple's advertising is done by its bespoke agency TBWA\Media Arts Lab, which also created the World Gallery. A decade and a half later Apple still works with Media Arts Lab, though in more recent years Apple has also increasingly moved its branding strategy in-house. As CNBC reported in 2019, in commentary on a round of layoffs at Media Arts Lab: "Apple began building out its in-house shop in earnest several years ago, part of a broader trend of marketers taking certain advertising functions in-house to regain control or save money."100 Increasingly Apple is thus literally becoming a self-advertising company.
Meanwhile, Apple's founding ideology of computers as emancipatory tools that allow people to redesign the world has persisted, connecting the company's branding to its initial countercultural zeal. In the 2014 "Better" commercial, launched on Earth Day, Apple's current CEO Tim Cook is heard saying in voice-over that "better is a force of nature," and that it's in Apple's DNA "to leave the world better than we found it and make the tools that inspire others to do the same."102 The video alternates shots of sublimely spinning solar panels and state-of-theart production facilities with footage of nature with a high World Gallery feel (Video 12). Cook's story echoes the continued influence of Stewart Brand—who in 2009 published Whole Earth Discipline, proposing an integrated design for the planet—and Jobs. As Jobs stated in a 1994 interview found in Alex Gibney's 2015 documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine: "The minute you can understand that you can poke life, you can change, you can mould it, you wanna change life and make it better, because life is kind of messed up in a lot of ways."103
With Jobs still talking, the image in the documentary cuts to the serene courtyard of a Japanese Zen-Buddhist monastery. While the camera pans through the courtyard, Gibney explains why so many people love Apple, even though its machines in many respects "also isolate us." Gibney's answer is auteurist (in that it somewhat reduces Apple's design philosophy to Jobs's personal inspiration) but grasps Apple's world picture nonetheless:
Perhaps the contradictory nature of our experience with these gadgets mirrors the contradictions of Jobs himself. He was an artist who saw perfection, but could never find peace. He had the focus of a monk, but none of the empathy. He offered us freedom, but only within a closed garden to which he held the key. (Fig. 38)
Indeed, this controlled play in Apple's walled orchard, the plunge into its smooth and safe infinity pools, is an apt metaphor for the integrated user experience Apple has developed over the decades. This experience, intuitive enough for a child to understand, finds clearest expression in the World Gallery, which of all of Apple's advertising best captures its frictionless user interaction design. As stated in previous sections, the World Gallery self-referentially expresses Apple's philosophy of technology through a curated image in which no technology is seen. Apple's experience shuts out, moreover, the harsh other sides of Apple's American Dream mythology from suburban startup to its $2 trillion market capitalization in the early 2020s.105 The next section dives into the chilling reality underneath the still waters of the iPhone's infinity pool.
IV. American Dream (Designed in the Valley, Manufactured in China)
I received a letter from a six-and-a-half-year-old boy a few months ago, what to me completely sums up what we've accomplished in the last few years. It reads: "Dear Mr. Jobs, I was doing a crosswords puzzle and the clue was 'As American as Apple [blank].' I thought the answer was 'computer,' but my mom said it was 'pie'."Steve Jobs in Apple Computer's 1985 "Shareholders Meeting" commercial
But just how American [is] Apple?Alex Gibney in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015)
Apple's vision, its world picture, is the new American Dream of a world made better through design. That vision is founded on an unshakable belief in people's inner creativity. As Maria Bose writes with reference to the "Better" commercial, the qualities lodged in Apple's brand equity "reside not in Apple's 'tools' [themselves] but in what they might inspire."106 Bose argues that at its core Apple sells something increasingly immaterial. She draws a parallel between "Better" and the computer-animated science-fiction film WALL-E from 2008 (produced by Pixar two years after Jobs sold the company to Disney) (Fig. 39). Both films develop an ecological fantasy, in which digital technology is presented as holding the potential of ecological restoration. Bose writes that "Better," like WALL-E, constructs Apple's brand equity as "an optic through which environment might, first, be apprehended and, ultimately, disavowed."107
With Apple's self-framing as environmentally conscious we fully enter the "reality distortion field" that Jobs famously created around himself and that Apple continues to create in his wake.108 In its hefty 2020 Environmental Progress Report Apple purports to have already reached its goal of 100% renewable energy for its corporate emissions, and that it now further commits to reach "total carbon neutrality" by 2030 (also covering energy use by consumers to power their Apple devices).109 These ambitions are certainly above industry standards. Yet Apple's "end-to-end" view on carbon neutrality is far from an integrated view on the acceleration of capitalism and energy consumption in the digital age. Moreover, even when leaving aside those indirect climate and environmental effects, Apple is not always as green as it claims. Think of its AirPods, which by design are near impossible to recycle,110 or the heavy metals that saturate local waterways near the Chinese factories of Apple's subcontractor Foxconn (Fig. 40).
Also when it comes to labor conditions Apple is a company with a dark underbelly. On its customer-facing side, there is the Californian-designed world picture of people across the globe who are all equal in their innate creativity. On its production side, however, there is Apple's inventive, decades-long contribution to unequal globalized labor relations. In an Apple TV commercial from 1989 (created by BBDO, Apple's agency between 1986 and 1997) a teacher lectures to his increasingly mesmerized students about the Macintosh, in which "the Industrial Revolution meets the age of Enlightenment" (Fig. 41). In the age of the iPhone, Apple's Industrial Revolution is above all Chinese, with labor conditions indeed reminiscent of the nineteenth century. Over the years, Apple has repeatedly faced criticisms for severe if not downright dehumanizing labor practices in its subcontractors' production facilities.111 These malpractices have persisted also after the global indignation about suicides at Foxconn's iPhone factory in 2010, which that year counted eighteen reported employee suicide attempts (most of them by employees throwing themselves off a building) and fourteen confirmed deaths (Fig. 42).112 Apple is not the only company to manufacture in China, but as Gibney states in his documentary, Apple is different in its enormous profit margin. Here Gibney mentions the statistic of over $300 of profit on every iPhone 4, with labor costs per phone around a mere $12.
Equally different is Apple's supply chain efficiency. Following his return to Apple in 1997, Jobs and his soon-right-hand Cook cut inventory from two months to two days.114 In the new millennium Apple has continued to streamline production at the expense of its workforce. As China Labor Watch reported in 2016, "working conditions are terrible, and workers are subject to terrible treatment."115 In 2020, the news got out that Apple, along with other companies, was involved in the employment of forced labor of ethnic minority Uyghurs who had recently "graduated" from the concentration camps in the Xinjiang province, or East Turkestan.116 Moreover, Apple, like other phone manufacturers, has repeatedly refused transparency about whether their supply chain is tainted by child labor, as in the cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo where child-miners are sometimes as young as seven.117
"You cannot intimidate human beings into productivity," the teacher preaches in Apple's 1989 commercial, but forty years later Apple continues to belie that principle. As Jenny Chan, Mark Selden, and Pun Ngai write in their 2020 book Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China's Workers, here it is most ironic that Apple continues to trumpet itself as a company for which education is at the core of its DNA. The authors write that "what goes unmentioned is an open secret: the exploited student interns in Foxconn's factories are excluded from Apple's worldwide educational initiatives. Working day and night to make the iPhones and iPads, they have no time to rest properly," let alone to study.118
Equally ironic is Apple's advertising on the Chinese market. In 2019 and 2020, Apple produced short films on the occasion of Chinese New Year. The 2019 commercial, titled The Bucket, was directed by Jia Zhangke (one of the fathers of China's sixth generation cinema and normally known for socially critical films like his 2006 Still Life). In the near 7-minute commercial the viewer follows a young man the age of a Foxconn employee as he travels back to the city after a visit to his family. The man is carrying with him a large bucket that he was given by his mother. The film was "shot on iPhone XS," but as with the World Gallery, there is no reference to the device other than the attribution to the phone-as-camera at the end. Once back in the city, the man unpacks the bucket, which turns out to contain eggs from his family's chickens. Next the image reads that "the taste of home will always bring us back." That sweet taste of home must be far, though, from what most Foxconn employees will associate with the iPhone (Video 13).
The Bucket ends on a series of photographs of young Chinese men and women posing with large food items given by their families (Fig. 43). In contrast with the World Gallery, these snapshots of Chinese everyday life have some of the Polaroid feel and temporality. In The Long Walk, Land explains that with Polaroid the factory, camera, and the film form a single unit: "It's almost as if this factory is the camera, but compressed into the very compact device that you will soon be carrying with you a few years from now." Similarly, with Apple, the phone that is also a camera and also a store is also a factory. As Ngai Pun et al. write, Foxconn implements a mixture of Taylorist and Fordist management methods, "and carries them to extremes." The article cites Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, who requires operations "be systematically planned to be like 'an automatic camera,' ensuring that each worker does not need any specialized knowledge to carry out standardized operations."120
Apple thus continues the American Dream of Polaroid and also Ford (whose anticipation of consumer desire formed another main inspiration for Jobs), with three major differences. First, Polaroid and Ford had their dreams "made in America" (Fig. 44). Second, Polaroid and Ford paid taxes in America, while Apple, as was observed in the 2013 US Senate hearing of Tim Cook, "has a highly developed tax avoidance system."121 Third, Apple's product price points are quite high, compared to at least Ford's perspective on accessibility (Ford's philosophy being that its workers could afford its products). After all, the Apple user pays not only for state-of-the-art technology, but also for state-of-the-art reality distortion.
Reality distortion is of course not unique to Apple's iDream; it is the very modus operandi of late capitalism. In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson defines postmodernism as "what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good. It is a more fully human world than the older one, but one in which 'culture' has become a veritable 'second nature'."123 In other words, in postmodernism the capitalist mode of production and consumption has become fully normalized. Capitalism is no longer recognizable in its historical materiality, and hence is not under discussion. In its most extreme form, this postmodern state of capitalism-as-second-nature is a branded reality that constructs a sense of belonging for secular times. Apple's reality spin is the epitome of that logic. On its consumer-facing side there is the countercultural cultivation of a human spirit roaming freely in its garden, which, as symbolized by the circular Apple Park campus, now encloses "nature" as a whole (Fig. 45). On its manufacturing side, there is the ruthless exploitation of people and natural resources, of a first nature crunched in its vitality. Postmodernism is that the user forgets about that dark other side of the coin.
There is yet another other side of the coin to Apple's magic; namely, the company's double standard when it comes to user privacy. Apple has always been very strict about privacy. Unlike Google and Facebook, Apple does not build extensive user profiles, while it gives users a relatively high degree of control over their data and how it is shared with third parties. That principled stance emerges from Apple's founding belief in the power of individual creation, and by consequence in authorship, a belief also present in the World Gallery. In Jobs's view, the author needs to be protected, a conviction that also inspired the iTunes store, which was launched in 2003 during the height of music piracy. In fact, Apple has repeatedly been accused of being too protective of its users, as in its strict guidelines for the user-built applications that it allows in its App Store. Once a tech blogger emailed Jobs with the question of whether a twenty-year-old Bob Dylan would have thought the iPad had anything to do with freedom. A few hours later Jobs replied: "Yep … freedom from programs that steal your private data, … that trash your battery, freedom from porn. The times they are a changing."125
Jobs' zeal to protect users has been inherited by Cook. In a 2018 keynote to the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, Cook spoke out against the "surveillance" practiced by companies that collect "stockpiles of data," calling on the US government to pass a comprehensive privacy law. Cook repeated this stance in 2021, when Apple announced that the new updates of its operating systems will allow users to say "no" to having their data collected by apps—this to the anger of Facebook, which sees its business model threatened.126 In his 2018 speech Cook further situated Apple's privacy stance in the company's countercultural origin myth:
At Apple, respect for privacy—and a healthy suspicion of authority—have always been in our bloodstream. Our first computers were built by misfits, tinkerers, and rebels—not in a laboratory or a board room, but in a suburban garage. We introduced the Macintosh with a famous TV ad channeling George Orwell's 1984—a warning of what can happen when technology becomes a tool of power and loses touch with humanity.127
Besides the cultivation of Apple's narrative as a countercultural company—including the romanticized garage story128—Cook's words are also somewhat hypocritical. Apple does track its users, as was seen in its development of its voice-command interface Siri.129 And Apple continues doing business with Google by having Safari run Google as the default search engine (in exchange for $12 billion in 2019 alone).130 Despite Apple's celebration of its technologies' individuating effects—their creation of people as individuals—Apple definitely also facilitates the ongoing creation of people as dividuals, the process in which data-mining platforms slice up people's lived experience, transforming it into "raw" data.
This double standard towards user privacy is also felt in the World Gallery. The pictures do not only have in common that they were all shot on iPhone; they were also all shared online, in particular on Instagram (since 2012 owned by Facebook) and Flickr (in 2016 still owned by Yahoo, but since 2018 by SmugMug, which uses photos to train AI facial recognition software). The World Gallery thus not only testifies to its users' creativity, but also to the datafication of user experience under control capitalism spearheaded by companies like Google and Facebook. After all, Apple's marketing of its iPhone user as a mindful device is indeed just that: marketing (Fig. 46).
V. The Feel of the iPhone
The invention of the match around the middle of the nineteenth century brought forth a number of innovations which have one thing in common: one abrupt movement of the hand triggers a process of many steps. … One case in point is the telephone, where the lifting of a receiver has taken the place of the steady movement that used to be required to crank the older models. Of the countless movements of switching, inserting, pressing, and the like, the "snapping" of the photographer has had the greatest consequences.Walter Benjamin, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire"132
So if not mindful, how do iPhone users feel? And how does the iPhone feel as a camera? If the lighting of a match was the quintessential gesture of modernity, then the swiping on a smartphone screen is probably the gesture that best captures our digital postmodern age. The iPhone is not just any smartphone: its user interaction is designed to seamlessly melt into everyday life, making one forget that the phone's processing power is over 100,000 times that of the Apollo spaceship launching the first humans to the moon.133 Travelling back in time to the launch of the iPhone we see Jobs, electrifying his audience gathered at Macworld and online—calling to mind that magical night in 1895 in the Grand Café in Paris, when the Lumière brothers sent a jolt of excitement through their first moving picture audience. Once more we see Jobs slide right to unlock ("Wanna see that again?"), tapping from app to app, and scrolling through his songs until the list rubberbands: the feedback design that made Jobs realize that a touch interface could be done.134
Walking once more through the World Gallery (Fig. 47), one can speculate about the scenes and settings in which its photos were taken. What else were their photographers doing the moment they were struck by beauty? Were they commuting to work? Were they in the middle of a message? Were they listening to music, say to Kendrick Lamar's "i"? And did they snap multiple pictures of the same scene until they had that perfect shot? Or did they edit in-camera? The one thing that is certain is that all photographers shared their image online, which may have led them to shoot their images in the first place. The possibility of sharing virtually everything one encounters affects the way people look at the world, and in which societies as a whole look at the world, what Raymond Williams called societies' structures of feeling. Have people become more attentive to beauty? Yes, I do think so, in the sense that the possibility of sharing one's perspective will make a lot of people find more things beautiful, especially small and isolated things, which are easy to share.
The iPhone can of course also be used as an offline camera. This is how I often use my own iPhone, which I once bought to feel what life is like with a smartphone, and before I was fully conscious of Apple's production practices. I'm not on social media, but whenever travelling alone I am often struck by the desire to share images. It's what the smartphone does to the photographer. On an even deeper level, the smartphone photographer seems driven by the urge to capture experience, and in doing so establish a sense of belonging in a fleeting world. In that sense, smartphone photography is a medium of the index after all. Whenever the user effortlessly taps their screen, a sign is created that regardless of the scene captured says, I am here, I saw this.
The following series of pictures I shot on my iPhone 6 during a long train journey west in 2016 from Toronto to Vancouver and, further, down south to San Francisco. As I set out on this journey, one thing that oriented my photographic gaze was the Digital Dream designed in Silicon Valley: that dream's historical inspirations and its contrasts with the material present. But I also just snapped some beautiful scenes, as the iPhone (or any smartphone with a decent camera) almost compels one to do, especially when travelling alone. The following photos thus combine a World Gallery feel with resonances of 1960s counterculture and the ongoing contradictions inherent to capitalism, so magically distorted by Apple's mindful world picture (Figures 48–56).
VI. Shot on Celluloid (apples)
In conclusion, I would like to share one more photograph that I shot in San Francisco, with my analog Nikon camera. The photo was taken in the Mission District and shows a store called Apple Market (Fig. 57). The store is named Apple Market because it sells apples, alongside other fresh produce, as it also reads on the storefront: "Fresco," fresh. On the truck in front of the store is a spray-painted apple with the text "Mi tierra market," my homeland market. Had the image contained a reference to the store, the apple could have been taken as an advertisement. Now it just circulates San Francisco as an image of love.
Also Apple's apples circulate without reference to the stores in which its products are sold. The Apple logo is engraved on people's iPhones and it lights up on the back of their MacBooks. Initially Apple was called Apple Computer. Jobs came up with the name after having spent a few months at an apple orchard in Oregon. As Jobs is cited by his biographer: "Apple took the edge off the word 'computer'. … Plus, it would get us ahead of Atari in the phone book."135 The company dropped the "computer" from its name in 2007. As Jobs announced during the same public event at which he had just launched the iPhone: Apple makes more than computers. The company certainly does. Apple makes technology integrated with a phantasmagoric world picture in which technology is second nature. It is a picture that, as if by magic, spellbinds the reality in which people eat actual apples while swiping on their iPhones—collectively disavowing that their Apple devices may contain traces of forced and child labor.
Niels Niessen (infraviews.net) is a cultural analyst affiliated with Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. He obtained his PhD in 2013 in comparative literature from the University of Minnesota. His book Miraculous Realism: The French-Walloon Cinéma du Nord was published by SUNY Press in 2020. This essay on Apple is part of a series of four, titled California Dreamin' 1960–2020, which further includes essays on David Lynch (published in Cultural Critique, 2019), Mad Men (Discourse, 2019), and Black Panther (Journal for Cinema and Media Studies, 2021). This series is, in turn, part of Attention, or How It Feels to Be Present—an online book in progress at attentionbook.xyz.
Many thanks to Edward Timke, Emma Hymas, Sylvia Pfeiffenberger, and ASQ's anonymous reviewers, as well as to my dad Leo Niessen, for their many insightful comments to the numerous drafts this essay has seen. This essay emerges from the research project, "Platform Discourses: A Critical Humanities Approach to the Texts, Images, and Moving Images Produced by Tech Companies," which has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 850849).
1. Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 567.
2. Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980), 185.
4. Megan Graham, "Apple's Ad Agency Has Layoffs as the Company Beefs Up Its In-House Ads Group," CNBC, November 5, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/05/apples-advertising-agency-media-arts-lab-lays-off-several-employees.html (accessed June 9, 2021).
5. Chance Miller, "Apple Takes Top Outdoor Lions Prize at Cannes Festival for Its Shot on iPhone Campaign," 9to5 Mac, June 23, 2015, https://9to5mac.com/2015/06/23/world-gallery-campaign-cannes/#more-386087 (accessed June 9, 2021).
6. "Apple Showcases 'Shot on iPhone 6' World Photo Gallery on Homepage," MacRumors, March 1, 2015, https://www.macrumors.com/2015/03/01/apple-shot-on-iphone-6-world-gallery/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
7. See for example China Labor Watch, "Study Casts Doubts on Apple's Ethical Standards," February 24, 2016, https://chinalaborwatch.org/study-casts-doubts-on-apples-ethical-standards/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
10. Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture, 184.
11. Apple, "World Gallery: Shot on iPhone 6" (April 25, 2015), as accessed through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20150425004731/http://www.apple.com/iphone/world-gallery/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
12. Michael Schudson, "Advertising as Capitalist Realism," Advertising & Society Review 1, no. 1 (2000).
13. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), ix.
14. Apple, "World Gallery" (as accessed through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine).
15. Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, ed. and trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 67.
16. Apple, "World Gallery."
17. Apple, "World Gallery."
18. Apple, "World Gallery."
19. Apple, "World Gallery"
20. The Long Walk (1970, dir. Bill Warriner for Polaroid Corporation).
21. André Bazin, "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," in What Is Cinema? Volume I, edited and translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 15.
22. Miller, "Apple Takes Top Outdoor Lions Prize."
23. Ben Lovejoy, "Apple Reboots 'Shot on iPhone 6' Campaign with All-New Photos from the iPhone 6s," 9to5 Mac, February, 1 2016, http://9to5mac.com/2016/02/01/shot-on-iphone-6s/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
24. David Pierini, "Photographers Thrilled with Exposure from 'Shot on iPhone 6' Ad Campaign," Cult of Mac, June 24, 2015, http://www.cultofmac.com/327169/photographers-thrilled-with-exposure-from-shot-on-iphone-6-ad-campaign/ (accessed Jun 9, 2021).
25. Pierini, "Photographers Thrilled"; Christine Champagne, "Apple Showcases iPhone Photography from around the World in New Campaign for iPhone 6," Fast Company, March 2, 2015, https://www.fastcompany.com/3043031/apple-showcases-iphone-photography-from-around-the-world-in-newcampaign-for-iphone-6 (accessed June 9, 2021).
26. Apple, "World Gallery."
27. Apple, "World Gallery."
28. David Pierini, "What Cielo D. 'Shot on iPhone 6' Became a Billboard and a Symbol of Hope," Cult of Mac, June 24, 2015, https://www.cultofmac.com/327448/what-cielo-d-shot-on-iPhone-6-became-a-billboard-and-asymbol-of-hope/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
29. Apple, World Gallery Photo Book (created by TBWA\Media Arts Lab, 2015).
30. Google search for "Apple World Picture gallery," https://www.google.com/search?q=apple+world+picture+gallery&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwicqovX0oDwAhUUhP0HHWlJD7MQ_AUoAXoECAIQAw&biw=1252&bih=574.
31. Marita Sturken, "Advertising and the Rise of Amateur Photography: From Kodak and Polaroid to the Digital Image," Advertising & Society Quarterly 18, no. 3 (2017), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/671206 (accessed June 9, 2021).
32. Apple, "World Gallery."
33. Apple, "World Gallery."
34. Apple, "World Gallery."
35. "Also Shot on iPhone" (March 4, 2016), as accessed through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20160304015159/https://alsoshotoniphone6.tumblr.com/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
36. "Also Shot on iPhone."
37. Cooper Green Collective, "iRaq," 2004, image found on "The A-Z of Visual Ideas," O'Reilly, https://www.oreilly.com/library/view/the-a-z-of/9781856697149/14_chapter-title-6.html (accessed June 9, 2021).
38. Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 86.
39. Sturken and Cartwright, Practices of Looking, 86.
40. Michael Schudson, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society (London and New York: Routledge 1993), 217.
41. Schudson, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion, 217.
42. Apple, "World Gallery."
43. Apple, "World Gallery."
44. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006).
45. Sut Jhally, "Advertising as Religion: The Dialectic of Technology and Magic," in Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, ed. by Lan Angus and Sut Jhally (New York: Routledge, 1989), 217–229, emphasis in original.
46. Apple, "World Gallery."
47. Sturken, "Advertising and the Rise of Amateur Photography."
48. Sturken, "Advertising and the Rise of Amateur Photography."
53. See Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (dir, Alex Gibney, 2015) or watch the interview here: The Steve Jobs Experience, "Steve Jobs serene interview on Japanese Public TV," YouTube video, May 9, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbYK9AEyh7I (accessed June 9, 2021).
54. Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 41.
55. Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 139.
56. Brett T. Robinson, Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013), 24.
57. Thomas Streeter, The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 45.
58. Streeter, Net Effect, 63.
59. See Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Noonday Press, 1972).
69. For a discussion of this scene in Mad Men, see my earlier essay, "American Dreams ft. David Lynch," Cultural Critique 99 (Spring 2018): 35–65. Also available at https://www.attentionbook.xyz/tuningintoamerica.
70. Northrop Frye, Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, ed. Jan Gorak (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 13.
71. David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (New York: Back Bay Books, 1997), 60–61.
74. Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing, 60.
76. Apple Computer advertisement, Wall Street Journal, August 13, 1980. See also: Steven Sinofsky, "Bicycle for the Mind," Learning By Shipping, August 11, 2019, https://medium.learningbyshipping.com/bicycle-121262546097 (accessed June 9, 2021).
77. Apple Computers, Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktop Interface (Apple, 1987), 2, https://blog.prototypr.io/rediscovering-apples-human-interface-guidelines-1987-59731376b39e (accessed June 9, 2021).
78. Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (London/New York: Marion Boyars, 1978).
80. Barry Katz, Make It New: A History of Silicon Valley Design (MIT Press, 2017), 67.
81. Apple Computer Inc., Simplicity Is the Ultimate Sophistication: Introducing Apple II, the Personal Computer [brochure] (Apple, 1978), front page.
"How Apple's Marketing Revolution Began—80 Vintage Ads," Neat Designs, February 22, 2012, https://neatdesigns.net/how-apples-marketing-revolution-began-80-vintage-ads/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
82. Katz, Make It New, 71.
84. Katz, Make It New, 97.
85. Katz, Make It New, 72.
86. "80 Vintage Ads," Neat Designs.
87. Apple Computers, Human Interface Guidelines, 10.
88. Apple Computers, Human Interface Guidelines, 7.
89. Cited in Katz, Make It New, 109.
92. Sam Biddle, "How to Be a Genius: This Is Apple's Secret Employee Training Manual," Gizmodo, August 28, 2012, https://gizmodo.com/how-to-be-a-genius-this-is-apples-secret-employee-trai-5938323 (accessed June 9, 2021).
93. Robinson, Appletopia, 120.
94. Robinson, Appletopia, 123.
95. Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, 139.
96. Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures, ed. Matt Colquhoun (London: Repeater, 2021), 36, 175.
98. Arthur Asa Berger, Ads, Fads, and Consumer Culture: Advertising's Impact on American Character and Society (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), xiii.
99. See Rob Siltanen, "The Real Story behind Apple's 'Think Different' Campaign," Forbes, December 14, 2011, https://www.forbes.com/sites/onmarketing/2011/12/14/the-real-story-behind-apples-think-different-campaign/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
100. Graham, "Apple's Ad Agency Has Layoffs."
103. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015, dir. Alex Gibney).
104. "Apple Better."
105. Jessica Bursztynsky, "Apple Becomes First US Company to Reach a $2 Trillion Market Cap," CNBC, August 19, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/19/apple-reaches-2-trillion-market-cap.html (accessed June 9, 2021).
106. Maria Bose, "Immaterial Thoughts: Brand Value, Environmental Sustainability, and WALL-E." Criticism 59, no. 2: 247–277, 253.
107. Bose, "Immaterial Thoughts," 247.
108. See Isaacson, Jobs, 117.
109. Apple, Environmental Progress Report 2020 (Cupertino: Apple, 2020), 3.
110. Will Oremus, "What Really Happens to AirPods When They Die," OneZero, May 29, 2019, https://onezero.medium.com/what-really-happens-to-airpods-when-they-die-9ba2fe97b346 (accessed June 9, 2021).
111. See for example: Mike Musgrove, "Sweatshop Conditions at iPod Factory Reported," Washington Post, June 16, 2006; Agence France Press, "Apple under Fire again for Working Conditions at Chinese Factories," Guardian, December 19, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/dec/19/apple-under-fire-again-forworking-conditions-at-chinese-factories?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2 (accessed June 9, 2021); Ian Carlos Campbell, "Former Employees Say Apple Stood By while Suppliers Violated Chinese Labor Laws," The Verge, December 9, 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/12/9/22166286/apple-china-labor-violations-temporary-workers (accessed June 9, 2021); Tyler Sonnemaker, "Apple Knew a Supplier Was Using Child Labor but Took 3 Years to Fully Cut Ties, despite the Company's Promises to Hold Itself to the 'Highest Standards,' Report Says," Business Insider, January 1, 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/apple-knowingly-used-child-labor-supplier-3-years-cutcosts-2020-12?international=true&r=US&IR=T (accessed June 9, 2021).
112. Brian Merchant, "Life and Death in Apple's Forbidden City," Guardian, June 18, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/18/foxconn-life-death-forbidden-city-longhua-suicide-appleiphone-brian-merchant-one-device-extract (accessed June 9, 2021).
114. Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 361.
115. Shaun Nichols, "Apple Is Making Life Terrible in Its Factories—Labor Rights Warriors," Register, August 26, 2016, https://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/08/26/apple_criticized_for_factories/ (accessed June 9, 2021); China Labor Watch, "Study Casts Doubts on Apple's Ethical Standards," February 24, 2016, http://www.chinalaborwatch.org/report/113.
116. See for example: Lily Kuo, "China Transferred Detained Uighurs to Factories Used by Global Brands," Guardian, March 1, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/01/china-transferred-detained-uighurs-tofactories-used-by-global-brands-report (accessed June 9, 2021); Emma Graham-Harrison and Stephanie Kirchgaessner, "Apple Imported Clothes from Xinjiang Firm Facing US Forced Labour Sanctions," Guardian, August 10, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/aug/10/apple-imported-clothes-from-xinjiangfirm-facing-us-forced-labour-sanctions (accessed June 9, 2021); Ana Swanson, "Nike and Coca-Cola Lobby Against Xinjiang Forced Labor Bill," New York Times, November 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/29/business/economy/nike-coca-cola-xinjiang-forced-labor-bill.html (accessed June 9, 2021).
117. Amnesty International, "Is My Phone Powered by Child Labour?" (June 2016), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/06/drc-cobalt-child-labour/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
118. Jenny Chan, Mark Selden, and Pun Ngai, Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China's Workers (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020), 220.
120. Pun Ngai, Shen Yuan, Guo Yuhua, Lu Huilin, Jenny Chan, and Mark Selden, "Apple, Foxconn, and Chinese Workers' Struggles from a Global Labor Perspective," Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 17, no. 2 (2016): 166–185, 174.
121. See Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.
123. Jameson, Postmodernism, ix.
125. Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 517.
127. See Jonny Evans, "Complete Transcript, Video of Apple CEO Tim Cook's EU Privacy Speech," Computerworld, October 24, 2018, https://www.computerworld.com/article/3315623/complete-transcript-video-ofapple-ceo-tim-cooks-eu-privacy-speech.html (accessed June 9, 2021).
128. Samuel Gibbs, "Steve Wozniak: Apple Starting in Garage is a Myth," Guardian, December 5, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/dec/05/steve-wozniak-apple-starting-in-a-garage-is-a-myth (accessed June 9, 2021).
129. See Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias, The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).
130. Ian Bogost, "Apple's Empty Grandstanding about Privacy," Atlantic, January 31, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/01/apples-hypocritical-defense-data-privacy/581680/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
131. Apple, "World Gallery: Shot on iPhone 6."
132. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 174–175.
133. Andrew Orr, "iPhones Have 100,000 Times More Processing Power Than Apollo 11 Computer," Mac Observer, July 17, 2019, https://www.macobserver.com/link/iphones-processing-apollo-11-computer/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
134. Leander Kahney, "The Inside Story of the Iconic 'Rubber Band' Effect that Launched the iPhone," Cult of Mac, June 29, 2017, https://www.cultofmac.com/489256/bas-ording-rubber-band-effect-iphone/ (accessed June 9, 2021).
135. Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 63.