iMac – the making of an iCon

The masses are always “in the know” about pop culture; although trends change routinely, we can almost automatically recognize (without much consideration) the cultural icons that are currently worthy of our admiration, and those that aren’t. Yet I wonder: what qualifies an item to be a part of “popular culture”?

Raymond Williams defines objects of popular culture as those which are (a) widely accessible, (b) popular and (c) intentionally constructed to be popular. [1] What, then, distinguishes Williams’ objects from other mass-produced, accessible and well-liked items? Where is the distinction between shoelaces or paper clips (objects that meet all three of Williams’ requirements, yet do not instinctually appear to “perform” popular culture), and cultural “relics” that, without contest, symbolize societal trends and values?

I would therefore like to amend Williams’ definition; I assert that the quality which separates these two types of objects is a seamless integration of function and form (aesthetics). The visual design of pop culture objects allows one to experience a product that seems elite, whilst also encouraging the consumer to personalize and “own” a product. Thus, in promising a prestigious lifestyle tailored to meet a consumer’s desires, the object’s aesthetic qualities promote it from mass-produced object to mythical cultural icon. To illustrate these claims, let us examine an object which, although largely excluded from the discourse, is undoubtedly a staple of contemporary Western/North-American/”developed” culture: the personal computer (PC).

My claim is that the PC was first upgraded from its status as an advanced professional tool to an intentionally popular, available lifestyle-companion upon the introduction of the Apple Computer’s 1998 PC, the “iMac”. This machine’s clean, sleek aesthetic presence, paired with its functionality, lead to its overwhelming success and eventual place (alongside the microwave, the telephone, and the corset) in cultural memory. Furthermore, I believe the PC’s success is symptomatic of a larger theme among all objects of popular culture: an inherent symbiosis between design and technology, form and function, medium and message, art and science. Objects of popular culture, it would seem, can only become so upon an appreciation of both function (science and technology) and form (aesthetics).

Modern PCs qualify as objects of popular culture according to both Williams’ definition and to my own. The PC is often considered a benchmark of twenty-first century progress: an icon/myth/symbol of the modern world’s command of science and technology, and “civilized” man’s dominance over the natural world. While a significant majority of the Western/”developed” world relies heavily on personal computers and other digital technology, these items have not always played such a pivotal/vital role in our everyday lives; rather, the machine’s distantly-related mammoth predecessors have little in common with this modern necessity. In only a few decades, it seems, the PC has evolved from a novelty, hobby item to a frequently used device. Thus I wonder when our heavy reliance on the PC began, and at what point it became “natural” or logical to include this mass of binary code and silicon within a dialogue about contemporary pop culture.

Yet in order to reason that the iMac and its avant-garde aesthetics revolutionized the personal computing industry, we must first consider this PC’s ancestry – the predecessors that were unable to “make the cut”. The first personal computers were introduced in the late seventies and early eighties; they were labeled “personal” due to their size (drastically smaller than earlier models which were often large enough to fill a room, yet still hefty by contemporary standards.) These computers, like the first automobiles and cameras, were functional and simple. Developed primarily to compute complex mathematical and financial problems, they were built and marketed as high-end tools for professionals and corporations.

The 1975 MITS Altair, for example, was the first mass-produced PCs to gain respect in the professional world. Marketed specifically towards financial consultants and business executives (fig. 1), the Altair offered a straightforward approach to computing and data processing: it could be used simply to input data, perform calculations, and output data. The machine’s sturdy design reflected its function: various rectangular boxes could be stacked and/or assembled to form a professional “computing center”. As can be seen from its promotional “head-shot” (fig. 2), the Altair’s CPU, its “brain”, was a “no-nonsense” piece of machinery: lacking textual or visual information or visible switches or controls, it was clear from inception that this machine was intended only for use by trained/educated professionals. This, a first in the history of personal computers, was not so much a “personal” computer at all, but rather a professional tool intended for specific purposes. Similarly, an advertisement from the early eighties for a Commodore “Executive 64” computer (fig. 3) further suggests that a PC was an ideal device for the executive wanting the “power to keep up”; it was a luxurious apparatus “for the movers and shakers of this world” and made no mention of potential uses outside of the office. As one computer enthusiast described in the early nineties, the use of personal computers was limited to a small audience of those with the desire and patience to decipher the technology:

Computers are regarded with some ambivalence by most, being sources of frustration and anxiety as well as pride and fascination. Developments in computer technology are common knowledge … and usually have very little impact on the work of most people.[2]

As the PC slowly became accepted as a standard business tool, developers began creating software that could appeal to a wider range of users – an accounting program for Dad, a word processing program for Mom, an action game for John, a music program for Jane. A 1982 advertisement for a “Home Computer Program Library” (fig. 4), for example, features an impressed Bill Cosby noting the advanced colour-screen programs available in the collection (specifically a variety of educational games for children). Yet while innovations in PC technology created new uses for such devices, the market remained restricted to a small group of privileged consumers – those who could afford to invest in such new technological gadgets. As McKie and Singer describe/discuss in Communications in Canadian Society:

Personal computers in Canada … introduced to well-off children in their tender years by solicitous parents in hopes of securing advantage in school later, they have become, in some respects, the amulets of success. [3]

The personal computer, it seemed, had become a commodity for the sole enjoyment and advantage of the upper-classes. Thus the PC’s reputation as a professional, academic and erudite tool limited its ability to “sell” the common consumer, and impeded any opportunities to extend PC-sales to a mass-market. This restricted application of the PC drastically shifted, however, in 1998 with the introduction of a new personal computer by Apple Computer, Inc. Close to filing for bankruptcy and conceding the digital race to the Windows-dominated world of IBM, Compaq and HP, Apple made the crucial decision to overhaul its PC, and eventually introduced the “iMac.” (fig. 5)

As Apple’s desperate attempt at corporate reinvention, the iMac was not only successful, but rather revolutionary. While it housed many powerful computing abilities, the truly notable, unique quality of the iMac was its design. Covered with a hard casing of translucent white and “Bondi Blue” plastic, the iMac was a smooth, round, compact mass of electrical components seamlessly integrated within the frame of a single sloping body.

Over the last two decades of computer history, no other personal computer had successfully integrated a design as aesthetically advanced. Where other PCs were stackable, rectangular boxes, the iMac was a smooth, round mass; where other PCs were composed of multiple stackable units and monitors, the iMac was integrated/merged and compact; and where other PCs were dull, muted beige or off-white in colour, the iMac was outlandishly styled with bold hues and unusual patterns.[4] For consumers, these visual enhancements were especially important. As Boyle explains:

If you’re appealing to people who are ambivalent about or scared by technology, you reduce their choices to give them confidence… a simplified design will pull [the consumer] in.[5]

Thus the sleek pared-down iMac indicated that the machine was non-threatening, user-friendly, and tame-able. Through its striking yet uncluttered physical design, this new Macintosh presented dramatic technological innovations to the public; for consumers, the machine’s design reflected a break with the past (the PC as elitist), and forced a new approach to technology (one of simplicity, ease and progress).[6]

Even the iMac’s marketing campaigns and packaging remained relatively consistent to reinforce the visual identity of the technology and to suggest its more obvious differentiating characteristic: its elegant simplicity.[7] One particular advertisement, bearing the caption “Chic. Not geek” (fig. 6) best characterizes Apple’s marketing strategy. In providing sufficient around the image of the iMac, the ad’s composition conjures a similarity to classical portraiture – it is homage to the simple beauty, style and grace of the object. Furthermore, the text perfectly identifies the uniqueness of the product – its ability, unlike that of any other PC, to act as both a functional digital tool, and an aesthetic work worthy of admiration. (Perhaps this was the latent message behind Apple’s “Think Different” slogan: that thinking “outside the box” with regard to personal computers requires valuation of the product outside of pre-determined qualities and expectations. Perhaps to “Think Different”, we must give value to the iMac not only on the grounds of its functional merit, but also those that are aesthetic.)

Although it seems easy to spot the startling visual differences between the iMac and prior traditional “beige box” personal computers, I wonder how this marked attention to aesthetics rendered one more valuable than the other in/to popular culture. According to one report:

Although the impact of style is hard to measure, market research indicates that it does exist. Most buyers see attention to visual design as a sign that the company is paying attention to other elements of device design.[8]

Was it even possible for the iMac to single-handedly transform the personal computer from an everyday object into a pop culture phenomenon solely by introducing a leaner visual design? And if so, why did mass society/culture choose to accept this particular object?

I believe that the iMac’s aesthetics earned its entry into the pop culture “hall-of-fame” for two main reasons: (1) it introduced an opportunity for the masses to experience the prestige/luxury of being elite (via class emulation), and (2) it allowed the consumer the chance to personalize his or her own digital celebrity.

Some scholars have noted the class-specific nature of consumption in the way it constructs differences between popular working-class “mass”-culture and leisure-class “high”-culture. According to George Ritzer, for example, “consumption … becomes status-dependent, motivated by emulation of the higher classes”.[9] As Croteau and Hoynes explain:

What kinds of stories do advertisements tell about ourselves and our society? … They tell us that … if we purchase a certain automobile, we will gain prestige …[10]

Thus while the iMac’s target audience was without doubt the average “mass” consumer, its simple contours, colours and details are reminiscent of “high” industrial design and upper-class aesthetic valuation. Perhaps, I propose, the iMac’s highly-evolved sense of style and design allowed the working class to perform a part of elitism otherwise reserved for the fortunate leisure class – an appreciation for a sleek, “high art” aestheticism. As one PC enthusiast notes: “[Personal computers] are objects of desire, subject even to brand allegiance and snobbery”.[11] Even Apple’s own website allows space for some indulgent self-love:

Our designers and engineers agonize over every millimeter of every new Macintosh model … The result: ergonomic products that are the toast of the design world. You can see obsession with design and detail wherever you look … They’re objects that would be striking even if they weren’t computers.[12]

The iMac’s visual “style”, then, stood for more than simply high aestheticism; rather, it connoted a lifestyle.[13] To the critical eye, the lifestyle offered to consumers seems materialistic and shall, buttressed by capitalist notions of commercialism and success. However, the iMac’s aesthetics offered something even more valuable than exclusivity and lavishness: the promise of a lifestyle that could be adapted and modified according to the fantasies and desires of each owner.

While the first edition iMac was available only in one colour, owners of later versions could choose from a range of rich palette of colours, or creative patterns from which to uncover “their” iMac. Yet even though “Bondi” (a nickname given to most first-generation iMacs from its original shell colour, “Bondi Blue”) was mass-produced and obtainable all over the globe, consumers had an odd human-like monogamy with iMacs; it seemed that Bondi was given a certain celebrity status by each of its owners. (I speculate as to whether this is linked to Bondi’s supposed facial features – that is, to whether there was a visual similarity between the compact machine and a human head/face).

Even Apple’s simplistic marketing strategies positioned the iMac as a celebrity, an icon of the computing world, as if the logic of the advertisement were to scream: “Praise me because I am unique… but praise me as well because my uniqueness is only a more intense and public version of your own”.[14] Interestingly enough, not one of the iMac ads mentioned any technical specifications – neither its speed, software nor its memory appeared a sufficient rival for the dominating/over-powering intensity of the PC’s presence. Furthermore, although it was deemed sufficient, the iMac’s functions were rarely mentioned. Gamson suggests a similar inclination among (human) celebrities:

… Talent was often mentioned but rarely treated as sufficient… The only stars who survived [] were the ones ‘who had that rare gift designated as screen charm or personality, combined with adaptability and inherent talent …[15]

Perhaps, then, the true appeal of the iMac to an audience of both producers and consumers of popular culture was the opportunity for characterization it offered. With “talent” provided by Apple’s technology, and the fantasy of an elite lifestyle provided by the machine’s high-aestheticism (“charm”), consumers could match any iMac “personality” to their own. I believe the iMac enjoyed unrivaled success due to its ability to single-out the individual – to make the buyers forget they are part of a mass-market. [16] Just as a convertible sports car is iconic (and cliché) of a man’s middle-life crisis, the iMac and its hyper-aestheticism became iconic of a consumer’s longing to assert his or her own individuality (he or she chooses to consume that particular object), [17] and a desire for a change in lifestyle and personality.[18]

Hence in examining the case of the induction of the personal computer into popular culture via the Apple iMac, it seems reasonable to conclude that products of substance and function alone cannot triumph in the task of creating a cultural craze. Rather, it appears that some aesthetic regard and valuation is integral to the livelihood of popular culture. So before trying to predict next year’s craze or cultural phenomenon, take some advice from Malcolm Smith, VP of Product Design at Flextronics Design: “Everyone is playing with the same specs … what’s left is the visual appeal and the usability”.[19]

FOOTNOTES

[1] Raymond Williams as quoted by Denise D. Bielby and C. Lee Harrington. Popular Culture: Production and Consumption. P. 2
[2] Tracy, Ed. computers as material culture. <http://www.landsnail.com/apple/local/design/>.
[3] McKie, Craig, and Benjamin D. Singer. Communications in Canadian Society. Nelson Canada, 2001. P. 97
[4] Zager, Masha. The Smart Money Behind Computer Aesthetics. 5 Dec. 2002. NewsFactor Network. <http://www.newsfactor.com/perl/story/20172.html>.
[5] Zager, Masha. The Smart Money Behind Computer Aesthetics. 5 Dec. 2002. NewsFactor Network. <http://www.newsfactor.com/perl/story/20172.html>.
[6] Tracy, Ed. computers as material culture. <http://www.landsnail.com/apple/local/design/>.
[7] Tracy, Ed. computers as material culture. <http://www.landsnail.com/apple/local/design/>.
[8] Zager, Masha. The Smart Money Behind Computer Aesthetics. 5 Dec. 2002. NewsFactor Network. <http://www.newsfactor.com/perl/story/20172.html>.
[9] (No information available about source) <http://www.blastfromthepast.bermudafunk.org/materiality.htm#fn23back>
[10] Croteau, David and Hoynes, William. Media/society: industries, images, and audiences. 3rd ed. 2003. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA. P. 185.
[11]Tracy, Ed. computers as material culture. <http://www.landsnail.com/apple/local/design/>.
[12] Top 10 reasons to switch – Why switch to Mac? 2004. Apple computer, Inc. <http://www.apple.com/switch/whyswitch/>.
[13] Introduction: issues in the theory and practice of media convergence” by Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell. In New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality. Edited by Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell. 2003. Routledge: New York, NY. P. xvi.
[14] “The Assembly Line of Greatness: Celebrity in Twentieth-Century America” by Joshua Gamson. In Popular Culture: Production and Consumption. Edited by Denise D. Bielby and C. Lee Harrington. 2001. Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA. P. 261
[15] Ibid. P. 266.
[16] “The rise of American Advertising” by T.J. Jackson Learns. In Media in America: The Wilson Quarterly Reader. Revised edition. Edited by Douglas Gomery. 1998. The Woodrow Wilson Center Press: Washington, D.C. P. 52.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Zager, Masha. The Smart Money Behind Computer Aesthetics. 5 Dec. 2002. NewsFactor Network. <http://www.newsfactor.com/perl/story/20172.html>.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Croteau, David, and William Hoynes. Media/society: industries, images and audiences. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003.
  2. Everett, Anna and John T. Caldwell. “Introduction: Issues in the theory and practice of media convergeance.” New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality. Ed. John T. Caldwell, and Anna Everett. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  3. Fleishman, Avrom. New Class Culture: How an Emergent Class is Transforming America’s Culture. Westport: Praeger, 2002.
  4. Gamson, Joshua. “The Assembly Line of Greatness: Celebrity in Twentieth-Century America.” Popular Culture: Production and Consumption. Ed. Denise D. Bielby, and C. Lee Harrington. Malden: Blackwell, 2001.
  5. Gillespie, Tarleton. “The Stories Digital Tools Tell.” New Media Theories and Practices of Digitextuality. Ed. John T. Caldwell, and Anna Everett. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  6. Jackson Learns, T.J.. “The Rise of American Advertising.” Media in America: The Wilson Quarterly Reader. Ed. Douglas Gomery. Washington: The Woodrow Wilson Center, 1998.
  7. Kling, Rob. “Social controversies about Computerization.” Computerization and Controversy: value Conflicts and Social Choices. Ed. Rob Kling. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996.
  8. Manovich, Lev. “The Poetics of Augmented Space.” New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality. Ed. John T. Caldwell, and Anna Everett. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  9. McKie, Craig, and Benjamin D. Singer. Communications in Canadian Society. Nelson Canada, 2001.
  10. Servon, Lisa J. Bridging the Digital Divide: Technology, Community and Public Policy. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
  11. Top 10 reasons to switch – Why switch to Mac? 2004. Apple computer, Inc. <http://www.apple.com/switch/whyswitch/
  12. Tracy, Ed. computers as material culture. <http://www.landsnail.com/apple/local/design/
  13. Zager, Masha. The Smart Money Behind Computer Aesthetics. 5 Dec. 2002. NewsFactor Network. <http://www.newsfactor.com/perl/story/20172.html

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