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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

A few years ago a leisure centre advertised ‘Keep-fit classes for the over-60s’. Nobody turned up. To broaden the appeal, they advertised ‘Keep-fit classes for the over-50s’. The sessions sold out. Not one of those joining was under 65 years of age.

How many 65-year-olds want to attend anything aimed at the over-60s? And how many small cars would be sold if advertisements showed them being driven by pensioners (the people who actually buy them) rather than elfin 27-year-olds in capri pants?

‘User imagery’ it’s called, and it is a more powerful force than any of us would like to admit. Not only in what it makes us do, but in what it stops us doing. That sense of ‘who I am not’ means, for instance, that I can never go on a skiing holiday, even though I would probably enjoy it, because for some reason I hate the thought of being the kind of person who goes skiing. I cannot own a BMW for the same reason. And it’s the same herd-instinct-in-reverse that explains why many music-lovers cannot stomach going to the opera, why left-wing people cannot wear blazers, why middle-class people stopped smoking, why everyone stopped drinking sherry and why Liberal Democrats are more difficult to convert into Tory voters than Labour voters are — self-image being a more stubborn force than self-interest.


It was this question of self-image that was, until now, the reason I could never wholeheartedly buy into the cult of Apple. In truth, I loved the products — but found the behaviour of the brand’s adherents slightly creepy. Apple-lovers seemed to me a cult obsessed with their own otherness, with a superior sense of being different — a little like Liberal Democrats, funnily enough, or evangelical Christians. Even though in each case the product (£10,000 tax threshold/eternal life/touch-screen interface) was great, the user-base was kind of off-putting.

My aversion to Apple was, I knew, irrational. However, with the success of the iPhone and iPad, I now have more serious concerns.

These are best expressed in an article by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times. She believes the millions who are adopting Apple’s universe of applications in preference to using the open web are making the same choice people make when they leave a thriving yet messy city for a gated community in the suburbs: sacrificing freedom and variety for safety and neatness. The price — that Apple vets every app that is sold — is one Apple fans seem strangely content to pay. Were I to suggest Ian Paisley perform this vetting, they would be up in arms — they would hate the idea of moral discrimination — but aesthetic dictatorship by a Californian liberal is apparently fine.

There is a great irony here, of course — in that the greatest Apple lovers are found in Hoxton or Shoreditch, places they chose for their authenticity and grit. In fact, many almost certainly describe these areas as ‘vibrant’ — a word which when applied to neighbourhoods means both ‘you can buy exotic fruit at the local market’ and ‘hold on to your wallet’. These people would die rather than move to Milton Keynes. But technologically they are doing exactly that.

Totalitarianism has often worked hand-in-hand with design and aesthetics (the SS got their uniforms from Hugo Boss). So all the more reason to beware.


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