The iPad and the Death of Techno-fetishism

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Apple’s new iPad commercial signals the death of technofetishism in high technology.

The ad is a radical departure in a number of ways from Apple’s earlier branding strategy. Gone are the white backgrounds, stark compositions, and austere images that places the device and the apps in the foreground. There is no rapid fire forced association of product with adjectives like “playful” and “friendly” that were routine in both iPad and iPhone ads:

But this ad is different. The background is black, there is a the voiceover narration, no title cards, and in almost every shot the device’s screen is out of focus cut off. But what is on the screen is interesting. The only science on display is the medical. We see home movies, a book, personal photos. A business presentation. But what is in focus in absolutely every single shot without exception is the user’s finger.

This is not an Apple commercial about the product. The commercial is about the user. You. Your experiences, your living, mediated through Apple’s products.

This is a corporate image commercial, not a product commercial. The black background and the voiceover signal something more corporate to us and less artistic or creative than earlier ads. The message is no longer “it just works.” The message is the technology is hidden, out of the way. Apple does not want you to think about the “it” at all (after you buy it). The ad signals that the “it” is so refined that it is practically invisible, and therefore, naturally, you and what you are doing move to the foreground.

Apple is doing this because it wants to change how society thinks about technology. Here’s what Steve Job’s said at the conclusion of iPad2 announcement: “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 hearts sing.”

Technology married with the liberal arts.

Now consider the competition:

This is technology as it has always been sold, particularly to men. Textbook techno-fetishism. The man is archetypically masculine: dark skin, leather jacket, prominent brow, strong jawline. The colors are black, gunmetal, blue, with accents of red. Technology signaled by steam, machines, morphing, and virtual reality–a union of the history of fantastic technologies.

The man is literally enveloped by the technology. The ads intertwine shots of the device’s real interface with a holographic science fiction interface that surrounds him. The ad focuses on his eye which is augmented by a ring of blue lights and projected onto which are image from the screen. That the device’s screen is but a window onto the all-encompassing technological force field that will surround you. The ad is about technology as power, and tool for total control of a virtualized experience. The message is that this technology will make you powerful.

In both ads, the user is signaled by their media representation. In Apple’s narrative, you are represented by your mediated memories, your mediated health, your mediated work. The difference is that in Apple’s ad, there is no mass media. The experience, while mediated, is unique and individualized. In Verizon/Motorola’s you are represented by your experiences of mass media, gaming and Hollywood movies, but these are depicted to show that the product is powerful enough to handle this media.

Apple is not abandoning techno-fetishism (indeed it may be impossible to sell technology without representing it as a fetish object). But Apple is trying to change what the desire is behind the fetish, or the power the fetish object promises to deliver. It is not power and control that Apple’s products promise, but enlightenment. The iPad promises to bring to technology all the feelings that used to pass through the humanities. Reflection, joy, playfulness, and examined life.

And there is logic to this. The persuasiveness of techno-fetishism in the technology industry is waning as the cliche moves out beyond technology into everywhere else (like gum): the Xoom tablet is something of a flop, selling only 100,000 units so far.

Postscript: Before anyone says I’m overthinking this, consider that the new iPad commercial was developed by not one but seven creative directors.

More on the iPad fetish

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24 Responses to The iPad and the Death of Techno-fetishism

  1. surlyadopter says:

    “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 hearts sing.”

    What he is saying is that “now that we have sold our products to all the techno-fetishists and hipsters, it’s time to focus on the regular people.” (ie-a much larger market)

    • eqv says:

      The message is the technology is hidden, out of the way.

      I always thought this was basically Apple’s ‘vibe’– all the people I know who have MacBooks “don’t care about all that tech stuff” they just like Macs because they’re “nice-looking and nice to use.” They don’t really want to think about what’s going on below the surface, as long as they can use all the cutesy four-finger pull-and-drag multitouch gestures. And that’s fine. I think there’s definitely a difference between gadget-fetishism and techno-fetishism– gadget as a symbol of identity vs. obsession with the latest technology.

      After the iPad2 commercial finished, youtube suggested I watch a 30 Seconds To Mars video. Ha! Perfect.

  2. foxfire says:

    That is one take on why the Xoom didn’t sell, this is another.
    Tech Sunday: Will.I.Am Gets A Job At Intel

    I am an electrical engineer. I have been using computers since I was 5 years old. I have lived on electronic gadgets all my life. The Xoom just like the iPad is overpriced. I can get a laptop for $300-$400, and I can do more with the laptop. Most of the application I want for a laptop are free, instead of getting nickle and dimed at an app store. I have a android smart phone. I can do anything I would want to do on a tablet as long as I don’t mind dealing with the smaller screen. The tablet market seem like a really small niche in between laptops and smart phones.

  3. Lopt says:

    I just finished writing a post that contained more than its share of dick jokes, but I couldn’t help but noticing the suggestive imagery in the still that serves as a thumbnail for this post. I guess I just figured out what Psychology majors do after graduation– creative design.

    I think they missed the zeitgeist with these ads though. Your Life ™ as mediated to you by Apple would be much more effective if the current national mood was less depressed. As it stands they’re probably better off emphasizing the high end consumptive respite you get by plunking down half a grand and pretending that everything’s just as wonderful as it was in 2007.

    • Pastabagel says:

      I just finished writing a post that contained more than its share of dick jokes, but I couldn’t help but noticing the suggestive imagery in the still that serves as a thumbnail for this post. I guess I just figured out what Psychology majors do after graduation– creative design.

      Ha! I actually had a line in the early drat of this post contrasting the “corporate masculinity” of the current Apple ad with the “creative feminity” of their earlier ads. The voice over is a man, it’s a man’s hand, etc.

      Brings a whole new meaning to “multitouch…”

  4. I offer a simpler explanation: The second version of the ipad is not really all that different from the first one, so what kind of things are they going to show? The same as for the first version? Come on! So they came up with this somewhat new style. But really more as a necessary reaction, and not as a well thought out and perfectly planned marketing ploy.

    • Napsterbater says:

      This isn’t just a new style. It’s not in the same ballpark as the old ads. It’s not even the same sport. Apple’s become ubiquitous. Imagine Pepsi trying the same sorts of ads Coke does. It wouldn’t work.

  5. Comus says:

    “As techonology gets out of the way” appears to be the main phrase on this advertisement. It’s slow paced, classy, reminds me of the top end Nokia advertisements. I think you’re right in the consumer-based marketing shift, which is highly interesting for something that is effectively an identity product. It sort of turns the tables. It is also no longer easygoing and activity-filled. No more stress, no need for you to actually do anything.

    So basically, while its working the larger market of not that tech-savvy consumers it simultaneously works toward the old mac generation: “Remember the days when people said Mac defines you? Now you define Mac.” Which in teh times of a global economical crisis would be a good angle, when things are not so controllable, this is something that you gain full control of, with ease, slow pace and get the added bonus of everything being about you again.

  6. whowashere says:

    The death of techno-fetishism? This is just what techno-fetishism looks like for people who don’t like the idea of techno-fetishism.

    This commercial differs from the Verizon one in that it provides a much less masculinist form of the techno-fetishism, I agree, it does not scream power in the same I love Zack Snyder movies sort of way, but to imagine that Apple became the largest tech company in the world by selling consumer goods without building an incredibly (soft-power) techno-fetishist impulse is madness.

    This is the culmination of the famous “1984” ad- having become the big brother screen that Apple “destroys” in that commercial, they now need to make it seem as though that screen does not exist, that they are against it.

    Apple is not your friend. Apple is not benevolent. They make good products, but those products are expensive, and you buying them is what they want, nothing more. Steve Jobs can flap his jaw all he wants, they can make passes at the creative class and the luxury class and whoever the hell else they want, but when it comes down to it, they need us to be in love with gadgets, so that we’ll buy their gadgets. iPads are not made by factories full of artists working part time at a very reasonable hourly wage so that they can keep painting and also get dental.

    • whowashere says:

      Umm…oops? I think this disagrees with you less than I imagined it did at writing. I read your post twice, yet somehow managed to miss the implied critique. I am very sleepy. I stand behind what I said above, but not necessarily the tone in reply to you, pastabagel.

      Ahem, having eaten internet crow, to bed!

  7. Alex-5 says:

    “Apple’s commercial signals the death of

    Are you insane?

    You believe commercials now? The “voice of truth”?

    Do listen to the text of that commercial: “When the technology gets out of the way … you end up with something like this”
    So what’s inside iPad2? Magic? Apple PR managers are lying to you! Technology never got out of the way, it can’t.

    And consiger you arguments – you mention backgrounds and the fact that 7 creative directors worked on it. I can’t tell you how irrelevant is this info… by coincidense in russian there’s a saying: “7 nanies have a one-eyed baby”. One man can make a masterpiece and 50 man team can make shit. It’s not the number that counts. Nor is the expirience. It’s the result, the product will be ether good or bad.
    Backgrounds are just a design thing, they don’t signify something important.

    “In both ads, the user is signaled by their media representation.” – whose phrase is this? Where have you heard it? People don’t talk like that, PR-managers do. Don’t listen to them, talk in plain English.

    My personal opinion is the same as Comus’s they where just “out of shit” they had to create some new style. “tecnnology out of the way” is a byproduct.

    Dear Pastabagel, please don’t take anything I wrote personal. I must confess I was pretty outraged typing it so I wrote it harsh. But I don’t have anything against you, it’s all against the argument.


  8. Dan Dravot says:

    …indeed it may be impossible to sell technology without representing it as a fetish object

    As long as you keep redefining “fetish object” and “technology” nimbly enough, that’s a very profound remark — if by “profound” you mean “tautological”. Fortunately, you do. And by “fortunately”, I mean “tautologically”.

  9. heysherri says:

    Sometimes a phone is just a phone. I make calls, send texts, and sometimes record notes on mine. It’s pretty awesome, but not in a life defining way.

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  15. gryphoness says:

    This is not overthinking. It is lovely. And I admit I read it in the voice of Don Draper.

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