In 2010, Steve Jobs introduced the iPad with a now-famous slide showing, as a street sign, the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts.
“It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said. “It's technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yield the results that make our hearts sing."
As a researcher at Inc. Magazine, I’ve seen many references to this slide. And what I take from it is this: Apple’s achievement isn’t just in identifying an intersection between technology and the humanities. Rather, Apple thrives because it recognized that the more human technology behaves, the more intimate we allow it to become--less a computer than a consort.
“More people form more of an attachment to Apple products than to any other comparable products,” said David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center who has written at length about the Internet’s effects on how we think.
“Everything from opening up the box of an iPhone to holding it in your hand is a sensory pleasure. From its weight to the texture of its parts to the brilliance of its screen--it’s a multi-sensory pleasure machine engineered to make you bodily happy when you interact with it. Windows has never hit that level of sensory, aesthetic pleasure.”
Apple's seduction has been slow but steady. With each new Apple product, the physical contact has grown closer, more intimate. First, Apple was on your desk. Then in your laptop bag. Then in your pocket, and in your ears, and on your nightstand. Now you strap it to you and take it to bed, where it knows how restless you are in your sleep. You talk to it. It talks back.
Using haptic technology, it touches you with gentle nudges, vibrations and taps when it wants your attention. It can track your sexual activity. Soon it may be able to create sensations of warmth and coolness against your skin.
And Apple products not only feel and sound increasingly human, they also look that way--or at least more ‘organic.’
To have buttons, chords and lettering is to be inhuman, and Apple began doing more to hide or minimize these things in the early 2000s. For one of my research clients, I often work in an office where many people use Mac Mini computers alongside monitors made by competitors. Compared to the Macs, the competitors' two-toned monitors look strikingly mechanical, with chords, buttons and letters that are more visible. The Mac Mini keeps everything in the back, so the surface is seamless and consists of a single material, like skin.
In terms of Apple’s packaging, it was also around this time that the company began creating a beautiful undressing for its items with a Burlesque-level of attention towards an elegant, lovely reveal.
Apple also began anthropomorphizing its products in earnest with its “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” commercials featuring Justin Long and John Hodgman. Suddenly, Apple had a personality: calm, optimistic, canny and--needless to say--young. The first iPhone debuted in June 2007, six months before the Great Recession officially began. At that scary, overwhelming time, it was infatuating to have in our pockets a device with all the answers--and the means to distract us if those answers weren’t good. No wonder we chose to interact with our iThings over other people.
A corollary of seduction is the surrender of control. So it can be with Apple.
Weinberger, who avoids iPhones but uses a MacBook, in part for the aesthetics of the hardware and software, notes that the more Apple products evolve, the more self-contained they become. Apple's come-hither app store lures you into a universe over which it exerts tremendous control--and for Apple's phones, tablets and watches, this app store is the Alpha and the Omega of downloadable programs.
“It used to be that you used computers as tools to make new technology. You could open them up and do things with them and make things with them,” Weinberger said. “But with Apple, you are increasingly the grateful consumer with less and less control over the machine that you own.”
But do we want to be in control of our portable devices? Or do we want to be cared for, to be known?
The company recently expanded its HealthKit to include “Sexual Activity”--a function that tracks how often you have sex. Scientists' main criticism was that the function was relatively useless unless also paired with something like a function for tracking ovulation. (Which the update also included.)
A major rap on technology is its ability to mine vast amounts of personal data about our lives. But that’s Big Scary Impersonal technology; it’s not our gorgeous, attentive, smart devices--our companions eager to help us navigate new citites, stay amused at weddings, sleep better and even have more and better sex.
Apple’s approaches to anthropomorphism and attraction are ingenious: it doesn’t create products that look like us, but rather products that seem like us--and seem to like us. And we like them back. In fact, we love them.