When the head of Apple strode on to stage at the California Theater on Tuesday evening the expectant crowd whooped and cheered. It was a similar – albeit more low key – reception at Pier 57 in New York City on Thursday, when the head of Microsoft appeared.
The tail end of October has been dominated by the Big Two launches: Apple’s iPad Mini and Microsoft’ Windows 8 and Surface tablet. Complete with banked photographers and ecstatic press scrums trying to get a glimpse of the latest “model”, they felt as much like fashion shows as product launches.
But that should come as no surprise. It is all part of a shift in technology that has gradually moved away from an emphasis on utility to today’s holy trinity of look, feel and lifestyle. A shift pioneered by Apple but increasingly championed by all tech firms, it takes its cues from fashion, positioning tablets, computers and software as cultural beacons: stamps that immediately say who you are or, rather, who you aspire to be. If anything proves just how far technology is ingrained in our lives, it is this.
Yet what’s most significant about this move is not what it tells us about Apple or Microsoft or any other technology firm, but what it tells us about ourselves.
Everyone think different
For most people, a modern tablet computer or operating system is a minor miracle of excess, able comfortably to accomplish every daily digital task demanded of it. But what we merely do is no longer the key factor. Far more significant is the way that owning and using these objects makes us feel: status, self-expression and how we would like to be perceived by others.
It is something that is subtly and repeatedly emphasised by tech firms. The rhetoric around the iPad mini is familiar enough, with official descriptions emphasizing its beauty, fluidity and tactile intimacy of experience. Even Microsoft, though, are now playing the same game for all it's worth, with the public presentation of Windows 8 coming across as an attempt to out-Apple Apple.
According to Microsoft’s product guide, “Windows has been reimagined to focus on your life. The beautiful, fast, and fluid design is perfect for a range of hardware... it’s smooth, intuitive, and gives you instant access...” And so on. What’s on offer is a kind of technological sublime, promising not only the ultimate lifestyle accessory, but a place where the experience of living itself can be perfected.
The move from technology manufacturer to fashion label has helped Apple become the world’s most valuable company. More than anyone, it has defined the increasingly image-conscious space within which digital technologies try to position themselves. Think of its 1984 advert for the first Macintosh or its “Think Different” campaign of 1997, which emphasised that buying into a technology immediately bought you membership of a cultural elite. This worked well, but what really gave it a kick was when gadgets left the office and appeared on the high street. With mobile phones and MP3 players, people were able to show off just how different they were all the time by simply popping a million identical pairs of white headphones into their ear.
Today, Apple had completed its transition from a technology company into a lifestyle brand: something that comes complete with apparent media privileges. As Alexis Madrigal, editor of the Atlantic tech noted when Apple showed its latest commercial: “Gotta say: that's a damn good iPad Mini commercial. Luckily, the press does all the work of explaining the thing, so Apple can just brand.”
The conveniences of a compliant technology press are not to be underestimated. But there is a still more significant aspect to being a lifestyle brand within the digital space, closely related to something I call emotional obsolescence: the point at which a purchase stops imparting the gratification it first afforded.
The promise that novelty and beauty can bring happiness and status is hardly a new feature of consumerism. Yet this sentiment, imported from the realms of brands and fashion, has arrived among digital technologies in a particularly intense – and intensely lucrative – form.
As the author (and fellow BBC Future columnist) Matt Novak noted on Twitter when Apple introduced its fourth generation iPad on Tuesday: “the real story here is that Apple shortened its planned obsolescence cycle to 6 months.” Aiming to achieve a revolutionary technical breakthrough several times a year is an impossible business plan. Fuelling a frenzy of public feeling at the same interval, however, is eminently possible.
Hence the heady ecstasy of the modern product launch – and the fact that the best generator of technological profit margins in 2012 isn’t features or value for money, but the very fact that there is another model out there which is newer and different. It is an emotional experience that money most certainly can buy.
It’s also a seductive, dangerous game to play. Can one company continue to dominate perceptions of quality, cool and desire? Microsoft, Samsung, Google and many others are betting not. Will consumers continue to buy into shorter lifespans and incremental changes to products? Only time will tell.
To my mind, though, what ultimately differentiates digital technologies from fashion and other forms of consumption is the nature of the promise being sold – and of the emotional obsolescence being rammed down purchasers’ throats. The notion of shoes and clothes making you a better person is one kind of fiction, and a powerful one at that. But with interactive media, what’s being promised is a lifestyle in a far more literal sense: a complete system for expressing yourself in the world, not to mention regularly topping up the premium status of this existence with purchases.
Similarly, an operating system that “works the way you do” – as Microsoft puts it – makes a powerful appeal to our sense of self. It may also offer a magnificent user experience. Yet it begs the question: if this is so great, why should I keep on seeking something better?
One answer is that this seeking is just another part of how we work: never satisfied, seeking perfection in continual motion away from the present. And while this isn’t the whole story, it is a large part of the vision of lifestyle and humanity that the freshest crop of product launches are selling.
There’s an important warning in all this. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle puts it, in her recent book Alone Together, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities.” More than ever, we need to make sure we know what we're really signing up for when we plug into these new seductive lifestyles. Buy and enjoy by all means. But remember: few things are more perfectly engineered to fade over time than seduction.