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Inside the cult of Apple worship

In bowing to the Apple gods, what are we all really buying into?


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 25, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 12:54 pm CDT

You’ve got to hand it to Apple. If nothing else, they elicit strong reactions.

For instance, it was reported this week that a man in England waited in line two days to purchase the iPhone 6 in an attempt to win back his estranged wife. Darius Wlodarski, the bloke in question, apparently purchased his wife an iPhone 5 a few years ago and hoped that upgrading to the 6 would be a romantic gesture of recommitment.

These passionate feelings surrounding Apple seep into every facet of their business. It’s why people were horrified when the first kid to get an iPhone 6 in Australia dropped it on live TV. It’s why 4Chan decided to prey on Apple users’ dedication to the company by pranking them into bending their phones.

And it’s still working, particularly where iPhones are concerned. The 6 sold ten million copies in its first weekend out, upholding the iPhone’s place as Apple’s main revenue stream. In some ways, Apple’s commitment to pushing the iPhone has been so strong that they’ve effectively killed the iPod, bulldozing over their own innovations with more innovations, as is probably inevitable.

Apple’s culture, and not just its corporate culture, captivates people in a way few other companies can. “Tim Cook didn’t just release a bunch of doohickeys, hoping to garner consumer electronics sales,” wrote ReadWrite’s Adriana Lee after they unveiled the iPhone 6 a few weeks ago. “With Tuesday’s event and previous announcements, he’s paving the way for an army of gadgets, software updates and services that hit upon—and, let’s not forget, monetize—almost every facet of modern life. It’s a brash push into both your hands, as well as your wallet, wrist, home, health, fitness and car.”

The iPhone is the route into all of this. If Apple is trying to take over the world, the iPhone is its direct line to taking over your life first. And as we move forward into Apple’s sleek, sterile future, we have to examine what makes the iPhone such a singularly powerful piece of technology.

Undeniably, the sea of little black rectangles with the Apple logo on them out there, and those who stare into them, have formed a kind of special relationship. There’s such a closeness between iPhones and iPhone users that one could write a book called, “Our iPhones, Ourselves.” The key here is how well our iPhones “know” us. Like any successful product in the digital age, their ability to cultivate information on us is uncanny.

On the subject, Ed Finn at Slate writes, “But of course we’re not surrendering our iPhones or our cloud-based storage anytime soon, and many have begun to embrace the notion of the algorithmically examined life.” He continues to suggest, “As our digital selves become more nuanced and complete, reconciling them with the ‘real’ self will become harder. Researchers can already correlate particular tendencies in Internet browsing history with symptoms of depression—how long before a computer (or a school administrator, boss, or parent prompted by the machine) is the first to inform someone they may be depressed?”

The power of the iPhone in this regard is how far-reaching it is. People from all walks of life are passionate about their iPhones. They might not be from the same country, speak the same language, or even worship the same god, but if they have an iPhone, they have a huge part of their identity in common.

Speaking of which, Joe Houde, at the religious blog Impacting Culture, said last year, “I know I’m not alone when I say that the first thing I look at in the morning is my iPhone, and the last thing I look at before I go to bed is my iPhone. It bookends my day, appropriately summarizing its full integration into my life.”

More recently, Cherish Low, at the Malaysian website Astro Awani, declared, “For me there is no second thought about getting my hands on the new iPhone. It does not matter if other competitors introduce new funky features, if the smartphone has a matte back cover or if it is water-proof with screen that will not crack as easily. Apple’s iPhone has set the tone for the smartphone category in terms of design, look and feel, user experience and it is still a leader in the app ecosystem (from the aspect of the quality of apps and revenue).”

It’s fitting that Low brings up applications, since it’s the iPhone’s initial focus on apps which has continued to make it many people’s preferred way of compartmentalizing their lives. By now, “there’s an app for that” is such a huge part of the culture, it’s hard to remember there was a time where the idea that there really could be an app for everything was somewhat novel. Now, the virtually endless amount of apps that we have at our fingertips seems to be way more important to the existence of the iPhone than its simple ability to make phone calls and send text messages. 

To wit, people are so dependent on their plethora of apps, that a study conducted by Ebay which challenged iPhone users to go without their chosen apps for a mere four days proved to be debilitating. MaCNN actually reported that, “One user summed up the experience by saying that they felt ‘so lost’ during the four days of disconnect, and that when allowed to return to using the apps they felt ‘truly at peace’ again.”

Obviously, it’s a given at this point that the Apple isn’t the only smartphone manufacturer which gives users access to a veritable buffet of applications, but it was Apple who made apps a big deal first. This is another way in which the iPhone has stayed ahead of the curve. It doesn’t necessarily offer anything exceptionally separate from what other phones offer, and sometimes, its features aren’t even that dissimilar from that of other smartphones. Yet iPhones lead the pack by banking on the notion that the way in which they do what they do will be unique in a way that other smartphones aren’t.

The next frontier they hope to conquer in that spirit is wearables. A Businessweek profile from this month on Apple CEO Tim Cook quoted the company’s senior vice president for operations, Jeff Williams, as saying, “One of our competitors is on their fourth or fifth attempt, but nobody is wearing them.”

But Apple is banking on the same people who stick by the iPhone no matter what competitors emerge seeking out Apple’s wearables similarly. And taking the amount of attention the Apple Watch has received into account, this doesn’t seem impossible. In an almost dystopian prediction of the world the Apple Watch will lead to at Time, Lev Grossman summarized the potential power of the product as “technology attempting to colonize our bodies.”

Understandably, that makes Apple sound pretty scary. Reuters characterizes the company’s reign under Steve Jobs as “cult-like.” And it’s impossible to deny that their ability to churn out hype and propaganda makes them a formidable beast.  

And Apple has, indeed, done plenty of shady stuff overtime. Their current charge to be environmentally friendly has arrived on the heels of years where they basically disregarded their carbon footprint entirely. And a diversity report from August found the makeup of their company to be severely lacking in employees who aren’t white males.

Then there’s what some have described as the hypocrisy of their working environment. Last October, one member of their staff told Business Insider, “Apple is interesting. On one hand, you have ‘Think Different’ propaganda posters all over the wall (you have all seen these ad campaigns and know what they are about). On the other hand, Apple has the strictest rules of any place I have worked. Apple cares about its brand image above all else.”

Somehow though, Apple’s brand image is always more about user experience than the internal goings-on of the company, and that’s where things get really cult-like. To be sure, any successful business wants you more focused on the product than the people selling it. But with Apple, these two things are nearly impossible to differentiate. So much of Apple is about making you believe you are a part of something, that when you do have a problem with your iPhone, it can feel like it’s as much your fault as it is theirs.

Michelle Quinn of the San Jose Mercury News expressed as much when she wrote about her bewilderment at learning that the battery on her iPhone was being drained so quickly not only because of her own habits, but because of flaws on the part of Apple, too.

Quinn interviewed various experts about this odd struggle. She wrote, “Popular consumer products like the iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy, which has had its own battery issues, have a certain aura, said Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. ‘One may be even more reluctant to judge the product when it is a star-type product such as the iPhone with a large, fanatical following,’ Perner said.”

Quinn isn’t the only iPhone user who’s started to express concern over the power the device the device has on one’s life as of late. Brian S. Hall at ReadWrite declared last March, “I love my iPhone. I take it with me everywhere. But I am starting to fear it may be killing my creativity.” He elaborates:

Numerous studies and much accepted wisdom suggest that time spent doing nothing, being bored, is beneficial for sparking and sustaining creativity. With our iPhone in hand (or any smartphone, really) our minds, always engaged, always fixed on that tiny screen, may simply never get bored. And our creativity suffers.

Peter Toohey, author of Boredom: A Lively History, told the New York Times that boredom is the experience of ‘wanting to, but being unable to engage in satisfying activity.’ No wonder those of us with smartphones are able to avoid boredom so easily. We can always engage in some satisfying activity, no matter how trivial—snap a picture of our meal, play a quick game of Angry Birds, check-in on Foursquare or leave a tip.”

Others have been more emphatic in their declaration of the iPhone as an insidious force, and not just in its mission to suck up boredom, but in its potential to reduce simple human interaction. In point of fact, Apple released an ad this past Christmas which depicted a teenage boy spending all his time on his iPhone as his family gathered for the holiday. But in the end, it is revealed that he was taping them the whole time to create a beautiful tribute to their Christmas together.

The spot was extremely well-received, and certainly accomplished its goal of tugging at the heartstrings. However, not all were so impressed. Forbes’ Jennifer Rooney characterized the commercial as everything that is dangerous about Apple and our collective obsession with our iPhones. “The problem is that while he [the teenage boy] was creating, he wasn’t really living the day, he was a mere voyeur during it,” Rooney argued. “The message? Life is better through video. Don’t live life, tape it.”

Again, this interpretation could be extracted from any mmartphone ad with a similar message. But as always, it is the iPhone’s place in it that creates such fervent love and hate.

And make no mistake, there are plenty of people out there who absolutely hate Apple. Whether it’s the feeling among Android supporters that iPhone users are all snobs, or the anger that spread like wildfire when Apple decided it would be a clever stunt to shove U2 into everyone’s music library, hatred of Apple, and of the iPhone specifically, burns almost as bright (if not brighter) than the love of all those self-satisfied individuals who stood in line for days to receive the company’s latest gift to the world.

But Apple doesn’t care if you think they’re full of themselves. In fact, they bank on it.

In 2012, Time’s Tim Bajarin published a piece entitled, “6 Reasons Apple Is So Successful.” In it, he included justifications such as:

1) “The products have to be easy to use.”

2) Apple “[keeps] things simple.” 

3) The company “[offers] great customer service and in-store experiences.”

4) “Apple only makes a product if Apple can do it better (i.e. the Apple Watch).”

5) “Apple stays at least two years ahead of its competitors.”

However, none of these reasons were as important as the first he listed, “For any product that Apple creates, the people who create it have to want it themselves.”

Apple is about pleasing Apple, first and foremost. And in this seemingly selfish approach to conducting business, they’ve managed to please millions of consumers, too. In 2011, Charles Arthur at the Guardian talked to Don Norman, an expert in the field of cognitive science and design, who claimed that, “Many people try to make a product that everybody will love; Microsoft is a good example… If you make a product that everybody loves—you do all your market surveys, and when people don’t like something about it you change ityou end up with a bland product that everybody will accept but nobody truly loves.”

Norman goes on, theorizing that, Apple, on the other hand, says, “’We’re not going to even worry about it. We’re going to make something that we ourselves love. We just assume that anything that we really love, lots and lots of people will love. And if other people really dislike it and hate it, so what. Tough on them.'”

Arthur astutely notes, “By contrast, ask someone about other comparable products out thereAmazon‘s new Kindle Fire, RIM’s PlayBook, HP’s TouchPadand you’ll get indifference, even if the prices are the same, or they’re made in the same Chinese factories as Apple uses.”

But most tellingly of all, Norman says that, “The iPhone…is part of you…because people have observed that mobile phones are a very personal item.”

Therein lies the genius of Apple. From the original “Think Different” campaign, to the Mac vs. PC ads, Apple is all about making you believe that they are in a class of their own. And in a culture which has become ingrained with the concept of originality, of selfhood above all else, this is their greatest accomplishment.

In this sense, your iPhone doesn’t just make you a smartphone person, it makes you an Apple person. And to be an Apple person means being someone who goes against the grain, who follows the beat of their own drum, and who thinks different. The irony of this is that you are in essence becoming part of a larger, autonomous group, whose identity is tied to a corporation. 

But this connectedness is a powerful thing, too, even if it is a contradiction. To be an iPhone user is to always be connected with something that is bigger than yourself—to be connected with an entity that doesn’t care what others think, because they’ve created a culture all their own. And now you can be part of that culture, too, for the low, low price of $200.

Simply put, the iPhone has become the perfect representation of the meeting place between individuality and collectivity. You’ll stand out right away to those who don’t have one, but you’ll be able to bond instantly with those who do.

People who would reject this notion should beware, statistics indicate that half of all U.S. homes now own Apple products, bringing us that much closer to complete and total Apple domination. Introducing the iPhone 6, Tim Cook said, “The product isn’t just a collection of features… It’s how it all works together.” Because when it comes down to it, iPhones are the gateway to the palace that is Apple, not the palace itself (or the prison, if you prefer). They are the beginning of an existence where we’re all living inside Apple’s vision. The end, wherein we are completely encapsulated, is still to come.

Perhaps the only lingering question for Apple is how they can retain the veneer of being different when everyone is using their products, and therefore, everyone is the same. There’s a great line from one of Steve Jobs’ other ventures that goes a little something like, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

But hey, we’re a long way off from all that. In the meantime, feel free to enjoy watching videos on that new big screen.

Photo via slagheap/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 25, 2014, 10:00 am CDT