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Published online on April 28, 2016.

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(Cryptic C62 / Wikimedia [CC])

James Poulos

America cares about Apple. It’s not just one of the most powerful American companies. It’s one of the most profitable and valuable firms on the planet, a reassuring symbol of American ingenuity in uncertain times. In a critical analysis in early 2015, the Financial Times concluded that Apple’s total economic output over the previous year reached about $87 billion, in between Slovakia and Oman. At its peak in 2015, the company’s market capitalization was over $750 billion, which, if it were converted to GDP — not an apples-to-apples comparison, but you get the point — would have been bigger than all but the sixteen biggest national economies. The company dominated the smartphone industry, pulling in some 90 percent of the industry’s profits.

But times have changed: there is trouble in the big fruit’s Garden of Eden. Even as the company has developed high-gloss new initiatives in music and television in recent years, some analysts were cautioning that Apple may have already peaked, a victim of its own success. And now, with this week’s disappointing quarterly report, resulting in a stock tumble that quickly wiped tens of billions of dollars from the company’s market capitalization, it seems that the narrative of Apple’s recent follies is catching on. It’s an easy tale to spin, offering all the archetypal drama of a celebrity’s descent from flawless performances to bloated misfires.

Why all the fuss? The data behind the business buzz offers only the beginnings of an answer. Down in the weeds, our financial analysts are parsing Apple’s numbers. Up in the firmament, our creative-class tastemakers are turning against its vibe. Apple’s public image (again, rather like a celebrity’s) is beginning to feel like a tiresome act. And because its products are so deeply emblematic of its brand, that’s indicative of an especially alarming trend for the company. Apple’s bottom line is important, but its cultural currency is essential to its prestige. “New things are better than old things,” Gawker’s Ashley Feinberg snidely explained. But novelty alone cannot explain why “thunderous applause,” in her words, greets every “inane announcement” — presented at such length, and with such ritual, by Apple’s leadership.

Apple fandom fueled the rise of a whole host of successful new media companies. As Feinberg noted, churning out titillating teasers and breathless reviews of Apple products was irresistible for sites like Gizmodo, Engadget, Mashable, and the Verge. There wasn’t a better way to chase clicks. Then, over time, that news cycle began to lose its savor. As media consumers kept clicking, media producers grew disillusioned or just plain bored with the cottage industry of praise and attention that had grown up around Apple.

Meanwhile, an even more powerful kind of resentment continued to build — one with a political edge. From the left, critics threw a spotlight on the working conditions in the Chinese factories where Americans’ favorite devices were built, decrying those who saw Apple as more of a candyland than a sweatshop. Even when the performer Mike Daisey was caught lying on This American Life about just how bad conditions were, some mounted a qualified defense of his fabulism. “Daisey’s lies inspired honest questions about the gadgets in our pockets,” wrote Joshua Topolsky, the Verge’s founding editor in chief, in a Washington Post article. “Did he betray the trust of the public and journalists by lying? The answer to this question is easy: Yes. But were the lies necessary?” Well, “Daisey found a way to tell the sad, human part of this story.”

From the right, meanwhile, Apple faced a barrage of condemnation during the controversy over Indiana’s passage of its Religious Freedom Act in 2015. In an op-ed (also in the Post), chief executive Tim Cook called legislation like RFRA “very dangerous,” running “against the very principles our nation was founded on.” Critics hit back. Capturing the tenor of the charges, Carly Fiorina told the Wall Street Journal: “When Tim Cook is upset about all the places that he does business because of the way they treat gays and women, he needs to withdraw from 90 percent of the markets that he’s in, including China and Saudi Arabia.... But I don’t hear him being upset about that.”

These different lines of attack broadened the discontent surrounding Apple. But they didn’t cut to the core of its brand identity like the non-ideological objection that the company was simply losing the plot. Worse than its economic performance peaking, Apple’s inspiration level now appears to be hitting a high water mark.

Ironically, that could threaten Apple less than the rest of us. The company’s retreat from preeminence would likely take shape as a controlled descent into a robust but increasingly status-quo business. Even with a cushy landing, however, Apple’s decline threatens painful cultural change. Americans made a massive psychological investment in Apple because, under Jobs, it had us convinced that its products made labor meaningful. For “knowledge work” to feel truly relevant and worthwhile, “late capitalists,” “bourgeois bohemians,” and other creative-class types need to imbue it with a deeper meaning, and Jobs delivered. In many ways, Apple defined how we thought of our place and purpose in the tech economy.

That’s partly because Apple delivered the goods so effectively. The stuff just worked, out of the box, without referring back to cumbersome instruction manuals or navigating through superfluous or excessive features. And it kept on working. But it’s how Apple delivered that struck a chord. Despite setbacks and missteps, Apple met with great success in working to integrate software and hardware within a design aesthetic that pressed several big cultural buttons at once. On the one hand, its sleek, tactile minimalism felt like a step into the future. On the other, it was also approachable, attainable, even friendly, dispelling latent concerns that technological progress was destined to alienate and divide us ever more.

No wonder public enthusiasm flirted with something a bit cultish. No longer did technology simply supply us with better, faster tools to process work. Now, it gave us a worldview we could all share — one in which tech, design, and ethics converged into a way of work we could emulate in our own attitude toward consuming, manipulating, and creating information. Apple’s ethos helped allay widespread, if inarticulate, fears that ultra-modern life forced us to choose between unity and individuality. Confronted with that possibility, Apple counseled, all we had to do was “think different” — using its products to do so, of course.

Apple became an idol because it manifested a kind of unity in everyday life that seemed to respond specifically to the social and economic anxieties of the age. Comfortably revolutionary, it invited its fans to embrace a cosmopolitan kind of triumphalism without thinking too hard about what, if anything, came next. Now, with cries of Peak Apple in the air, the anxieties about our technological future that it bracketed are creeping back in.

How can we brush them aside this time around? Maybe there’s a new idol waiting in the wings. Doubtless, plenty of first-rank tech companies could replace Apple at the top of the economic totem pole — including ones that have indulged in their fair share of failed product offerings. Yet none of the world’s leading online tech companies, from Alibaba to Google, seem able — or willing — to capture the imagination as powerfully as Apple.

That might change if Apple’s dominance does recede. It might give us pause, however, that even a company as ambitious and powerful as Google’s parent company Alphabet — which has now surpassed Apple as the world’s biggest company — seems so poorly poised to inherit the mantle. One reason for the inspiration gap in today’s online tech world is that it’s stuck online. No matter how impressive virtual reality may be, Apple’s success reminds us that there’s no substitute for bringing the future into the material world. But Google’s boldest projects are decidedly physical: for example, in 2013, (along with Apple chairman Arthur Levinson) Google formed Calico, a biotech company dedicated to extending the human lifespan by a century. So far, the public response has been less than jubilant. That kind of revolutionary change feels a lot different from Apple’s, whose devices work “like magic” whether you’re 5 years old or 95. Life will be much different if it’s defined by a company that reinvents human nature. By and large, we still want a safer idol.

A different kind of technological leadership, focused on transportation, might strike a better balance between imaginative force and prudence. Visions of travel have indulged the wildest of dreams, of course — leaping through space and time, zipping along at the dizzying speeds. Yet until very recently, transportation technology has all but plodded along, from California’s languishing high-speed rail project to the parlous state of the manned space program. Consider: it made news a few months ago that the Concorde, that symbol of the 1970s, might come back. Here is a field of endeavor where a tech-driven company could mount a series of bold achievements that inspire without unnerving.

Elon Musk, for one, understands the scope of this opportunity, which stretches from cars (Tesla) to trains (the hypothetical Hyperloop) to rockets with interplanetary plans (SpaceX). When it comes to capturing the imagination, Musk and his ilk are well-positioned to be the next Jobs. Only, instead of propelling us ever deeper into our devices, they can help pull our gaze back upward and outward, toward remarkable but recognizable horizons. Perhaps the best part of “thinking different” was a preparation for getting outside of our heads.


James Poulos is a writer living in Los Angeles.

James Poulos, "What the Talk About 'Peak Apple' Says About Us," TheNewAtlantis.com, April 28, 2016.