Apple: A love affair turned sour
Apple's beautifully designed gadgets inspire slavish adoration in millions of people. But for Gilbert Adair the magic is gone
Monday 16 August 2010
I recently staged a mildly satisfying act of personal revolt.
My contract with Orange having lapsed, it proposed to upgrade my mobile, gratis, to either a BlackBerry or an iPhone. The choice was a no-brainer. The BlackBerry is far less pricey and about a squillion times less adaptable than the iPhone. Its cramped keypad, forcing one's thumbs to tiptoe across its tiny, buttony keys (to start with, at least, one feels rather like a blind man confronted with Braille), proves absolutely no match for the iPhone's sleek touch-sensitive screen over which all one has to do is wave one's index finger like a conjuror's wand. Added to which, I had been an Apple Mac enthusiast for virtually a quarter of a century, ever since I swapped my very first computer, an Amstrad, for what I thought of as the Amstradivarius of the sexy little Mac SE30, and had repeatedly lauded its original interface, to any-one prepared to listen to me, as one of the great designs of the 20th century.
Yet in the end I chose the BlackBerry.
Why so? One motivation, I cannot tell a lie, was sheer contrariness. When, back in the Eighties, I bought the exorbitantly expensive SE30, my acquaintances regarded it as a reckless, even foolhardy, purchase to have made. Pure and pristine its interface might be, I had paid more for less. I would have endless compatibility issues with PCs – which, in truth, I did have in the early years, but the problem was, after all, one shared by my correspondents. Few email servers were equipped to handle Apple products – also true, but I found one that was, and have been its customer ever since. And games manufacturers, I was warned, barely bothered targeting Mac users, a fact about which, as a writer, someone for whom a computer was primarily a professional tool (hard now to recall that it was once also quaintly called a word processor), I couldn't have cared less.
On the contrary, I positively relished the ostracism. To me it felt as though I'd been inducted into a Masonry, a secret society, an occult fraternity of embattled, like-minded initiates.
Well, that cryptic complicity, that period when Apple was kept alive, and then only by the skin of its teeth, because the Microsoft monolith needed competition, however feeble, to deflect charges of monopoly, has long since gone. And although I'm neither a crank nor a churl, I can't believe I'm alone in regretting its passing. There exist few states of mind as gratifying as knowing something that scarcely anyone else knows.
Opting for a BlackBerry, though, wasn't just a matter of resentment at no longer being able to feel smugly out of step with the benighted majority. It wasn't just that I had become increasingly irritated by the reverence and hype which now accompany all new Apple products, or new versions of old products. Not just that I flinch from photographs of Steve Jobs, like Moses bearing aloft his iTablet of Commandments, brandishing some supposedly groundbreaking new doodad. (And not even Moses had to be reminded by God that, if His message was to be satisfactorily communicated, the tablet would have to be grasped in one and only one specific way.) Not just that my teeth are regularly set on edge by similar coverage of Mac groupies salivating over their iPods or iPads. In short, if I rejected the iPhone, it wasn't just because of my suspicion that the whole Apple phenomenon was a gigantic iCon trick.
In reality, I had over the years grown more and more disillusioned with what had once been the company's core product, its computers. Apple, like nature, abhors a vacuum; and, in thrall to the fundamental imperative of the capitalistic system that even perfection be shown to be capable of improvement (otherwise, how will potential customers be inveigled into upgrading something which still, dammit, works?), it gradually transformed its interface, that flawless wedding of function, form and aesthetic felicity, into a fidgety hybrid of words and images. It was, moreover, the images, the cutesy marginalia on which most of its designers' ingenuity had been expended, that definitively gained the upper hand.
Now, it's true, I'm a writer – and I acknowledge that a writer's needs will inevitably strike the non-writer as irrelevantly specialised. I belong to another epoch. I don't play video games. I don't download music. I don't have a Facebook account. I am not a member of the twitterati or tweetering classes (though I might be tempted to subscribe if there arose a chance of reading the tweeted minute-by-minute impressions of an American convict as he's strapped into the electric chair). I also have a loathing of the insidious Tesco-isation of literature represented by Kindles and iBooks. And just as I never took the slightest interest in the opinions of Joe Bloggs, the man on the Clapham omnibus, so today I can live perfectly happily without those of Joe Blogs, the man on the Clapham website.
I'm an elitist, you'll say. And, yes, I suppose I am. I'm certainly old enough not to give two hoots whether I'm considered one or not. Yet I quite understand why Apple felt obliged to jettison its sometimes off-puttingly austere and aristocratic image and I really don't begrudge anyone the pleasures which are to be obtained from iPhones or iPads. The sadness, for me, derives exclusively from the degeneration of a once beautiful artefact into a microwave of trivia, of information that doesn't inform, of fast facts, as we say fast food.
And what supremely dispirits me is the creeping infantilisation that has followed in the wake of this degeneration. A couple of decades ago, when the mind-blowing implications of the electronic revolution were just starting to sink in, I was one of several cultural critics who (somewhat prematurely, as it transpired) predicted the decline of the word and the corresponding hegemony of the image. If only. If only so radical a reversal had occurred, then I'd have nothing to complain of. I love words, but I also love images. It's their bastardised offspring – graphics – that I have come to abominate.
The kind of graphics I am talking about are everywhere these days – from Google's logo going all Christmassy or Halloweeny or Olympic Gamesy (for even graphics now possess their own micro-graphics), to those gimmicky, over-designed websites (websites for sore eyes?) that are transformed into obstacle races as soon as one attempts to obtain some basic item of factual information from them, to such neo-logistic monstrosities as "Aviva", "Xstrata" and the uniquely hateful "QuinetiQ", an alphabetical configuration of such grimacing ugliness just typing it out makes me want to throw up. Even the BBC – no, not even the BBC, especially the BBC! Think of that horridly versatile little 2 of BBC2, for instance, a particular bête noire of mine. Think of the frequent fact that one may find oneself sitting through a brilliant display of credit-title visuals only to discover that the programme that follows it is just the same old pile of rubbish. And for a truly excruciating example of the BBC's growing obsession with graphics one need only recall its election night coverage, which offered us the unforgettable spectacle of David Dimbleby and Jeremy Paxman marooned in a grandiose, near-transparent two-tier set which itself was nothing but a monumental graphic, and poor Emily Maitlis desperately struggling to get a giant temperamental touchscreen to do her bidding. Oh, how one longed for the low-tech reliability of Peter Snow's swingometer, or even the good old days of the iWireless.
Where graphics are concerned, though, the iPhone and iPad remain in a league of their own. Even that lower-case "i" is a graphic, a logo rather than a letter (just as, if I'm going to be heroically impartial, the upper-case "B" in the middle of "BlackBerry" is a graphic).
Or take the Apple iBook app. When you're reading a book – that is, a real book – the last thing you want to be made conscious of is the act of turning its pages. On an iBook, needless to say, the turning of a virtual page generates its own distracting little graphic. In fact, when a friend of mine initiated me into the marvels of the application on his new iPad, what appeared to enchant him above all was precisely the repetition of its animated page-turn, which he just couldn't get enough of. I began to imagine him, comfily settled in front of an open fire, a glass of wine within reach, "reading" Pride and Prejudice, let's say, from start to finish – by which I mean, focusing solely on the fascinating flick of every single one of its 298 turned pages.
When stretched out on the river bank just before her descent into Wonderland, Alice, if you remember, peeped into the book her sister happened to be reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"' Nowadays the question will have to be revised. What is the use of a book without graphics?
Eventually I asked my friend what else the iBook could do and he was delighted to demonstrate its capacity to alter the size and style of the typeface, to leave a marker at that point in the text at which he'd left off reading, and so forth. And, as he rattled on, waving his finger over the iPad's hieroglyphic grid of applications, I suddenly realised what he reminded me of – one of those hi-fi fanatics who are more concerned with the quality of the sound than the quality of the music and who tend, in consequence, to listen a lot more often than most of us to the 1812 Overture.
This, then, is the terrible truth about Apple. From being the coolest company on the planet, it has turned into a nerd's paradise. And it has become incomprehensible to me how anyone alert to the beauties and mysteries of the English language can bear to waste more than an idle, thumb-twiddling 15 minutes with any of its recent products.
But's what's the use of worrying, as the song has it. It's a lost cause. The i's have it. The very computers which made Apple's fortune, but which seem no longer to hold much interest for Jobs and his elves in Silicon Valley, may already be bound for the scrap-heap of antiquated technology. And 12 months from now my BlackBerry is going to look as embarrassingly passé as last century's Nokia.
So what's in the offing? Could it be the iPatch, a mask-shaped mini-iPad that would be clamped directly onto the face, thereby dispensing one from ever again having to engage with the real world? iWonder.
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