But when they lost Steve Jobs, the Apple products lost their heart.
Here is the thing about consumer goods like Apple. Like all art that touches us and speaks to our souls, Steve Jobs’ Apple products connected to us on a person-to-person level. Steve Jobs spoke to us through his products. He said, this thing is beautiful. Remember how dismissive he was of consumer complaints about the fact that the earlier models of the iPhone didn’t work as a phone unless you used a special case on it? It was like telling Pollock that Blue Poles was too big. It’s as big as it needs to be, would have been Pollock’s response. It is art.
Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, first published in the late 1970s, describes how works of art contain a spirit which has nothing to do with the price of the ticket at the door or the barcode on the novel. This spirit, Hyde argues, operates in a “gift” economy – an artist receives some part of her talent as a gift, perhaps from her own soul, in what University of NSW professors Ann Game and Andrew Metcalfe would call a “gift-relation.” This is a time and space that an artist carves out of her day, which allows for moments of grace.
Hyde’s artist must on-give her gift through her art, which then circulates amongst us, replenishing souls as it does so. We have all probably got memories of books which have made an indelible print on our hearts or minds, or a performance which seemed to speak directly to us, or a painting which transcended speech the first time we looked at it.
I think that the iPhenomenon is a market example of the same principle. There is a core group of Apple followers who line up at the stores, buying everything that Apple puts out. This kind of lust goes beyond fandom and consumerism. Sure, there is a lot of simple consumer manipulation at work. But terms like brand loyalty are also hiding something else which is also going on, something more personal.
When someone buys an iPhone, they are receiving a little bit of Steve Jobs. He operated like an artist in his designs, putting some part of himself into them. He did not think exclusively of the marketplace when he made his phone – in fact sometimes he didn’t think of them at all, as the complaints about the phone’s faults have attested. But he did see creating something which could behave as a computer in people’s pockets, transforming how they lived their lives, as a life work. He communicated some form of personal truth through his Apple products. A phone made solely with buyers in mind could never command the kind of loyalty that Apple does. A phone which combines savvy marketing and technological merits with the final ingredient – the precise vision of an artist – can.
There is a similar phenomenon at play in the world of the TV personality, which I call the “Oprah-effect.” People literally love Oprah, although they may never have met her. You can see why – she is personable, friendly and warm. She is loving. And so people don’t just like her – they love her. You could get 10,000 people to like a TV personality. But if you can get just one viewer to love that person, then you can get a million people to love her; and then you have a multimillion dollar business.
Love. Yes, love. We talk about brands and money and consumers, but ultimately we are talking about the mass distribution of things or personalities that people can love. Just as in a work of art, but perhaps more direct, a TV personality who can communicate some part of their true selves to a camera and a live audience is imparting something which is more than the sale price of the TV set or the cable subscription. If they can speak from their soul to yours, you are touched. You are grateful. You and they may operate in the consumer economy, but you are also operating in the personal one – the economy of the gift between people. You have shared something which is inalienable; something in other words, which cannot be bought.
Perhaps Oprah and iPhones are ever more popular because of this – because in a world where productivity and self-interest are preached as the core goals, we are grateful for instances of real contact. It is perhaps sad, or perhaps shoddy, that such instances come mediated, and with all the impurity of money attached. Some would call it an indictment on the current condition, or the failure of community. But we could also see it as a new direction for human flourishing. We could take heart from it, knowing that the human soul will always find a way to grow, and share, and love; no matter what the disincentives.