By Bhanuj Kappal May. 09, 2016
The dream of the internet as a transparent arena, where the individual had autonomy and power is dead. And I blame Apple for it.
Two weeks ago, I watched with the rest of the world as media-averse Apple CEO Tim Cook was forced to jump to his company’s defence on TV. Apple had not only reported its first year-on-year drop in sales since 2013, and a deeper drop in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, but also had longtime Apple backer Carl Icahn dump his 45.8 million Apple shares citing concerns over China’s controlling “attitude”. The result was an 11 per cent drop in Apple’s stock and its first eight-day losing streak since 1998. Cook’s practiced and predictable defence wasn’t going to change those facts.
Still, the mental image of Apple’s spin doctors sitting in a conference room watching their carefully built narrative of unbridled growth and boundless happiness fall apart, warmed the cockles of my black, shrivelled heart.
For a company that has built its fortune over a Reaganite promise of endless prosperity, it’s been a particularly bad week at the office. The Financial Times ran a story asking if Apple was suffering from the “Curse of the Dow”, based on an anecdotal observation that many companies peak just as they gain entry into the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Twitter was abuzz with rumours of the “death of Apple” and technology writers sat down to revise their old “Death of Apple” draft for the nth time (71st, if the Mac Observer’s Apple Death Knell Counter is accurate). This isn’t one of those articles.
Because, let’s face it, despite all the negatives, Apple made more money last quarter than Google or Microsoft combined. The company is most likely to brush aside what Cook called “temporary factors”, and continue on the ridiculous growth trajectory that has turned it from the plucky tech underdog to the new evil emperor. And even if it does slow down, it’s going to remain the biggest tech company in the world for years.
Which really sucks because Apple is a company that really deserves to die, only so that we no longer have to deal with their obnoxious, irritating fans. If the BJP ever put together the portrait of an ideal bhakt, he would look pretty similar to an Apple fanboy. The company’s meteoric rise has inspired an entire subculture of true believers, with the late Steve Jobs as its messianic head deity and the Apple Store as its cathedral. They line up for Apple product releases like devotees at Vaishno Devi, braving the elements as a symbolic offering of their unquestionable devotion. They treat Apple events like sermons from the Pope and then take over our online spaces to spread the Holy Word. If Apple designed Skynet, there would be a line of Apple fanboys paying tribute to our glossy new overlord that you could see from space. Don’t believe me? Ask NYU professor Erica Robles-Anderson, who told Atlas Obscura last year that “(Apple) feels iconic, like an emblem of the personal. And yet it’s a cult. Right? It’s so obviously a cult.”
Of course, if the only problem with Apple were its cultist fanboys, it would be no worse than Barcelona FC or the band Tool. But Apple has built its huge business on the idea that you should treat your consumer like a child who can’t be trusted. The only thing worse than a nanny state is a nanny technology company that exerts so much influence on the tech world.
The last decade or so has seen a virtual land grab on a scale not seen since the heady days of European colonialism as companies try to “capture” audiences by setting up arbitrary access barriers (aka border control) on the boundaries of their online empires.
How would you feel if you had to haul your car to one of only 10 specially authorised garages in the country and pay hundreds of dollars every time you had a puncture? Or if changing the tyre yourself voided your car insurance? Well, you happily sign up for the same kind of deal every time you buy an Apple product. Whether it’s hardware or software, the company is so protective of its products that it won’t let you take a look under the hood of the product you paid (too much) money to buy. They’ll even go to the extent of asking for US copyright law to recognise jailbreaking – hacking iPhones to allow users to run any apps they choose on the phone – as illegal.
Apple claims that its policy of locking down software and hardware is for the customer’s convenience and safety, but as someone who grew up learning about technology through a process of constant tinkering, it’s insulting to be treated like an infant. I buy the product, I tinker around with it, I pay you more money if I fuck it up. Capiche? Capiche.
Many Apple customers may think this is not such a big deal because after all, Apple products “just work” (which is the Apple fanboy equivalent of “but the trains run on time.”) But what happens when the product you paid so much money for suddenly doesn’t “just work” and you’re hundreds of miles away from an Apple Store?
Apple’s worst crime though, is what its business policies have done to the internet – once a wild and free land that belonged to anyone with a computer and a dinged-up old modem. The last decade or so has seen a virtual land grab on a scale not seen since the heady days of European colonialism as companies try to “capture” audiences by setting up arbitrary access barriers (aka border control) on the boundaries of their online empires.
It’s the rise of the “walled garden”, an approach Apple pioneered with its arrogant, iron-fist control of iOS software and which has now spread to all corners of Silicon Valley. Not content to just sell you products, these companies want to keep you within their walled gardens so that they can siphon off the value you create – content, individual entrepreneurship, private information – as corporate revenue. Apple’s runaway success has inspired other companies – Facebook, Microsoft, even Google to a certain extent – to ignore the internet’s transparent and collaborative culture in favour of one of jealousy, secrecy, centralised control, and tools/software that may only be used in carefully circumscribed ways. The success of Apple’s restrictive business model is reflected in how much of activity on the web happens in, and stays in, the closed spaces owned by Silicon Valley’s massive IT companies.
This, in my opinion, is the real transgression. The dream of the internet as a transparent, decentralised arena, where the individual had autonomy and power is dead. It has been replaced by a world where technology concentrates power in the hands of a new elite. And for being one of the leaders of that elite, if for nothing else, I hope Apple dies a slow and painful death.
Bhanuj Kappal writes about music, culture, and anti-nationals. After doing a bunch of odd jobs in the culture industry, he’s now decided to be a freelance journalist, and live at the mercy of newspapers’ accounts departments. Will write for food.