The machinery of desire

Tuesday morning Steve Jobs delivered his annual Macworld keynote address to adoring Apple fans at SF’s Moscone Center (and those following along via live blogs), introducing the intensely rumored super-thin laptop computer, dubbed the MacBook Air (or “airbook”, as I like to informally label it).

From a product design POV, it is quite simply a marvel of innovative engineering that embodies the now-familiar qualities of the modern techno-consumerist aesthetic: sleek, sexy, shiny, radiating simplicity and sheer elegance (or the perception of such) and serving as a spotlight of “hope” for something new (i.e., digital) and progressive. In a word (or two), fetishized technology, catering to a gleefully unhealthy addiction to the novel (see Crave, Gizmodo, Engadget, and Geek Sugar). A materialistic revelry, if you will.

This latest product is a fitting descendant of what started with Steve Jobs’ second arrival, beginning with the original iMac, then continuing with the iPod, the revised iMac, the iPhone, and so on. Each of these introductions generated extraordinary buzz across industries and social circles, influencing the design languages of competitors, followers and wannabes, not to mention the other pieces of the ecosystem, like web designers and TV advertisers. Tired of Web 2.0 over-trendiness? According to one designer, it all started with Apple, the “undisputed shiny kings of sheen”!

Apple has used this look with subtlety and its portrayal is always in a constant state of evolution.

Ultimately, Apple is flat out brilliant at cultivating and sustaining what has become in effect, a kind of “machinery of desire” that we follow and participate in as voyeurs, as consumers, as hapless fans shelling out the cash (or credit card). It’s a social, cultural, psychological, and deeply emotional effect, playing to our search for something new and fresh and innovative…something different! And of course, Steve Jobs, being the maestro performer he is, plays to that beautifully and knowingly. He’s a superb rhetorician, masterfully balancing the rhetorical stance, although you could argue he over-states the ethos and pathos aspects, tipping the balance in favor of pulling people’s heartstrings with over-dramatized effects. (Pulling out the super-thin laptop from a manilla folder on-stage was just brilliant!)

As a side note, what’s he really thinking in this photo, portraying a Messianic savior presenting the ultimate divine revelation for public consumption. Perhaps he views himself as a modern day Prometheus, bringing fire down from the gods. “Behold! I offer life eternal!” (As we all silently curse pulling out our credit cards, “that bastard…damn you!” yet we all secretly enjoy it :-)

But regardless of the egotistical issues, I think if you take a deeper look, these “steve-notes” are not about the product, or the technology, or their supposedly user-centered qualities. No, these annual performances (and the company and products overall) are much more about the creation and sustenance of desire, the raw human emotion itself– transforming it into a cultural phenomenon and engine for profits, business, innovation, and yes, design appreciation. Apple creates and sells desire. Plain and simple. And in doing so, Apple is vital to the  design discourse, for designing is fundamentally about shaping people’s emotions, values, and lives…and experiences.

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