Jobs and Lyotard: How Magic Flummoxes

I first began to wonder whether Steve Jobs has been reading Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard when he introduced the first iPad. Now that we have his presentation of the iPad 2, I am more than ever suspicious that Apple have been tracking late twentieth century Parisian cultural philosophers. Lyotard has been especially influential on Apple through his articulation of the concept of Post-Modernism. An analysis of Steve Jobs’s presentation will show that we have some straightforward correlations between the Jobsian postulate of the Post-PC device and Lyotard’s elaboration of Post-Modernism.

  • First, we should note that the “Post-PC” landscape is not a denial of the PC, or even a commitment to the replacement of the PC. This would be a crass misunderstanding: PC’s are not gone, they are overtaken and in certain circumstances no longer appropriate. But they are still with us. Please note: Apple makes perhaps the best PC, certainly the strongest brand of high-end personal computer; Apple’s shareholders know this and treasure it. Apple will not remove the Macintosh from the market. Nor did Lyotard reject modern and contemporary forms of art. Lyotard’s espousal of ‘post-modernism’ was not rejecting ‘modernity’ or the modern, but he was attacking an ideology of ‘modernism’ and an aesthetic that goes with it. He was highly selective and preferential in his espousal of particular styles and forms of contemporary art, architecture and literature. The Post-PC landscape, situates and deprecates the merely PC landscape, but it does not reject personal computers they are given particular emphasis and and non-exclusive value and appreciation. Some of the other stuff becomes more important in a post-PC landscape. Much as Lyotard advocated and championed the work of Duchamp, Barnett Newman and Cezanne, Steve Jobs will have us be quite picky about the Post-PC PCs that will make the grade. The Post-PC environment is one in which we will use many devices to provide computational resources, including personal computers, even laptops like the Macbook Air, built by manufacturers who know how that landscape works.
  • Second, we note the highly charged and symbolic meaning that Apple attach to the ‘magical’ qualities of the iPad and other iOS devices. Apple devices are not ‘magical’ in the sense in which witches potions or sorcerers’ spells are magical. Apple’s devices are not mysterious or mythical, since ‘magical’ is no more a supernatural term for Apple than ‘the sublime’ was a theological term for Lyotard. Jobs’s ‘magic’ and Lyotard’s ‘sublime’ are both core values, with a primarily aesthetic and emotional freight. There is in both cases a preference for arresting and startling simplicity, lightness, abstraction, thinness (?) and functionality. The magic of the iPad works on us as the sublime simplicity of a Newman abstraction startles us. We are lost for words if not ‘flummoxed’ (an anglo-saxon concept, alas not immediately available to Derrida or Lyotard). Magic should flummox but it does not break the laws of physics.
  • Third, the Apple way of cultural transmission with iTunes is designed to provide a form of universal e-commerce and controlled accessibility which reinforces and deepens the commoditization of culture that Lyotard charts. iTunes precisely targets private performances, individual choice and the reproduction of all media forms (music, digital games, TV, film, photography, books, magazines and newspapers) in personal ‘libraries’: “the disintegration of narrative elements into “clouds” of linguistic combinations and collisions among innumerable, heterogeneous language games.” (a sentence taken from Aylesworth’e excellent article on Postmodernism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Lyotard foresaw and wrote the script for the loss of narrative focus and this post-modern move, exemplified in iTunes and the app store, to globalised and yet individually targeted mechanisms of cultural exchange.
  • A deeper look at the post-modernism of Apple’s post-PC universe would need to consider the fundamental role of the independent developer and especially the API which both engenders and controls the activity of developers, apps and the digital performance of those apps in customer use. All of this commercial software superstructure co-incides with the Lyotardian annexation of the theory of performative speech acts so that language and cultural activity is both constrained and enabled by ‘speech acts’ and ‘performative’ social action.

Do we think that Tim Cook is boning up on Foucault, that Jonathan Ive has his head buried in Umberto Eco, and that Steve Jobs having absorbed Lyotard will move on to Deleuze? Of course not. But we do think that the theories of some of these post-structuralist philosophers is playing out in a curious fashion in the evolution of our information technologies. One of the least ‘Parisian’ elements in Apple’s universe is the corporate insistence on control, selection and vetting which veers towards prudishness and amounts in effect to a form of censorship. This vetting of apps and publications for standards of taste and obscenity would have been completely inimical to most French philosophes of recent times. I don’t think Lyotard would have approved. But he would have understood.

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