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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice


Understanding the human experience.
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The Human Experience: Apple and Standardized Personalization

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Like others, I learned of Jobs’ passing on an Apple device. S and I were just on our way out the door to pick up dinner when I hit the Facebook app on my iPhone. One of the updates near the top of my feed was from a friend in the tech sector and it read: “I had a feeling Jobs was in pretty bad shape when he stepped down from Apple.” Instantly, I went into search mode. Hungry for more information, I hit the home button and selected the Twitter app knowing that the people I follow would have shared relevant links and information about this event. Before my eyes I watched as my stream filled with #RIPSteveJobs tweets. I told S—he went to get his iPhone. We looked at each other. Like so many others, particularly of our generation, we have been shaped by Apple and their products. My first experience on a computer was via Apple. We played Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? on Apple computers when we were in elementary school. In fact, that was probably the beginning of my love of video games—Sim City, The Sims, Diablo, and American McGee’s Alice remain some of my favorites and they were played on a Mac. Part of S’s career has grown from his familiarity with Apple products. I was mostly speechless as I tracked the responses, numbly reading Tweets aloud to S while he drove. We talked about how the ubiquity of Apple has helped drive most people to the Cloud.

We definitely weren’t the only ones engaged in this exercise. Over the last few days there has been no end of commentary on the death of Steve Jobs—what he meant to people, the ways he drove innovation, the parts of him the public didn’t get to see or didn’t often discuss, and how he might have changed other areas of of our lives if he’d applied himself differently. This is yet another addition to the growing documentation of his passing, but in true AiP fashion, it is more than just a story about what he meant to me—it covers what he meant to us all.

I’ve read some of these commentaries, and flagged others to read over the weekend, but with few exceptions many so far have shared a common theme of hagiography—saint-making, in layman’s terms. But the Patron Saint of Technology is St. Isidore of Seville, a Bishop and scholar who compiled an early encyclopedia of human knowledge in simple Latin so that the material was accessible to a great many people. So this title seems to have already been taken. Indeed, if we want to draw these sorts of analogies, then Jobs has a more Promethean quality to him—he gave us fire, knowledge, at our fingertips, providing not just access, but new ways of interacting and understanding our lives. It’s easy to get swept up in these discussions, as I sit typing this on my old Macbook (which was the first laptop I ever purchased for myself), but larger questions loom. Jobs’ permanence extends beyond sainthood, which is only applicable via belief to a small group of people. The broad impact of Apple provides an opportunity to assess the global qualities of iCulture.

Jobs has been heralded as an innovator, and he has indeed challenged us to think different and stretch the boundaries of digital—and then he put that world in the palm of our hands, setting a standard for access to information and apparent freedom to be ourselves. That, after all, was the point of the old iPod ads, right? The ones with the dancing silhouettes? It promised that you could be who you were, that your style would fit with the device—which would be standard, but the experience, well that was yours.

Which silhouette best represents you?

So you could listen to Daft Punk or Nickelback or John Denver or Run DMC, and your tastes wouldn’t define you. Those remained yours. Instead, what others would see in your purchase of an iPod was the indication that you were a savvy digital music owner. And this was the message inherent in other Apple devices as well. There is a certain status that MacBooks and iPhones and iPads convey. Yes, it’s partly monetary, but it’s also suggestive of a comfort with technology—a willingness to adapt to and to adopt the trappings of digital life and make them your own. And yet, the standard was still a standard. What Jobs did with Apple was package consumerism under the banner of “personal.”

Anthropologists might call this commodity fetishism—when our relationships come to be defined (expressed, mediated, and transformed) in terms of the objectified relationships between things (i.e., commodities and money). In many ways, the world has come to be run by these sorts of objects. Even as we express ourselves with these devices, we are increasingly bound to them. They take on the properties of ourselves and we in turn are governed by them. Have you ever left your phone at home? How did it make you feel? Alone? Adrift? Disconnected? And yet, there was a time when those feelings never would have occurred to us. These feelings aren’t conscious. They’re not a attitude. They just are. They’re intimately tied to our relationship with our devices, which we hold in great regard.

As much as Jobs and his army of developers, designers, and marketers have driven innovation, they’ve also told us what that innovation looks like, and how it should be used. Jobs captured their labor within the signature shell of the Apple products, generating a shining tribute to capitalism. However, capitalism works inexorably toward standardization—the labor of many, combined to produce a single end . Jobs told us that the standard could still have individual properties. These devices are personal only within the confines of the Apple model. And as people around the world clamor for the status awarded by these devices, we increasingly move toward a homogenized digital culture. By this I don’t mean that we’re on our way to being the Orwellian drones of the first Apple commercial. We may be one people, but our whims, our causes, and our resolves can vary—within the boundaries of technology at hand. What is standard are the tools we use for expression, to connect with each other, to share our lives. Increasingly, we lean on these tools for these purposes, which is how they come to run the world, and our lives.

It’s not “1984,” but is it close?

Steve Jobs and Apple have had a tremendous impact on the lives of many people around the world. Entire generations will grow up in a world that they helped create with no sense for what passed before—the standard has been established. But we have been here before. Think of the ways music has changed, for example—from vinyl records to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs and MP3s. It happened quickly, and the standards are broad reaching. Perhaps in this case it’s more powerful because Jobs and Apple seem to be the singular force driving change. Now that Jobs is gone however, it remains to be seen how we ourselves will take these products and apply them to our lives.

Thanks Steve, for putting a computer in my classroom. It set me on this path to connect the dots, to ask questions. Thanks for providing the basis for what has become my life’s work—understanding the human experience, which is increasingly a digital one.

Image credit: Flickr/verndogs

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rshoff 2:07 am 10/10/2011

    My elderly mother contacted me via FaceTime. Her iMac to my iPad to let me know she had heard the sad news. Apple opened the complicated world of the internet in a simple and meaningful way to just about anyone interested.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 10:25 am 10/10/2011

    Thanks for sharing, rshoff. One of the things I didn’t cover above was indeed accessibility for other populations. There is a nice article by Tim Carmody over at Wired that discusses how Apple products helped his autistic son augment his communicative skills.

    I know you didn’t say that you mom is disabled, and this might seem a bit like a non sequitur, but it’s what I thought of when I read your second sentence. Thanks for stopping by!

    Link to this
  3. 3. Hasufin 1:36 pm 10/10/2011

    “As much as Jobs and his army of developers, designers, and marketers have driven innovation, they’ve also told us what that innovation looks like, and how it should be used.”

    “Perhaps in this case it’s more powerful because Jobs and Apple seem to be the singular force driving change.”

    My observation of the computer industry is that it runs like this: technology changes – say, a new kind of display or the ability for computers to share data. That technology is then applied, haltingly, to existing models. Then Jobs’ team – either having created the new technology, or licensing it, or shamelessly cribbing it (I’m looking at PARC, here) – takes that technology and applies it in a new and remarkable way that nobody else had the chutzpah or vision to try. And a year later the rest of the industry sees the new idea and says “Ooooh. we should make that.” Jobs took the new technologies and showed us what we could really do with them.
    I hope that doesn’t stop just because he’s dead. We need new ideas, all the time.

    Link to this

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