Apple: master of the ‘youniverse’

The new iPhones show that Apple still has its eye on the future - and its finger on the pulse of a self-absorbed society.

Norman Lewis

Topics Science & Tech

For years, I have argued that today’s culture of low expectations – combined with economic short-termism – has been the greatest inhibitor of innovation. The launch of Apple’s new iPhones last week couldn’t have expressed this more clearly. The immediate Wall Street response was one of disappointment: Apple’s iPhone 5C, which was billed as Apple’s bid to gain greater market share in China by providing a more affordable device, was deemed to have too high a retail price to succeed. As a result, Apple’s share price fell by 5.4 per cent and CEO Tim Cook came in for particular criticism.

Which is crazy. Yes, Cook is not Steve Jobs – that’s one criticism Cook cannot do much about. Yet a superficial glance at these new products should, at the very least, suggest that Apple’s legacy is not only in very safe hands but that Apple has a bright future, too. That’s because Apple’s new iPhones, especially the 5S, show clearly how Apple is anticipating and shaping our hi-tech future.

So what is it that Apple is continuing to do so well? What is the secret of its success? The short answer, as these new smartphones show, is that Apple remains the master of self-absorbed consumption. In particular, Apple is spectacularly adept at playing upon and developing contemporary narcissism.

Take the iPhone 5C. This is not just Apple’s foray into cheaper handsets; it also represents Apple’s move into the world of fashion, customisability and personal preference. With five colours to choose from, and six ‘cheese board’ cases, there are now 30 combinations for people, particularly younger people, to express themselves. Together with the new operating system, iOS7, which will come pre-loaded with wallpaper colours to match the device itself, this is a phone for our narcissistic times, where self-expression and a need for recognition have become a social currency, and where the ability to customise and personalise is a social imperative. Apple’s device takes the allure of broadcasting your outward appearance to new heights. Yes, there have been other coloured smartphones with numerous coloured cases, but no one has melded form and functionality to create such compelling and fun experiences as Apple has.

Where the iPhone 5C plays to the cultural moment, the iPhone 5S is the device that really helps Apple to shape and influence the future. It is not just a smarter phone; it is also the computing platform of tomorrow.

The 5S’s first and most important new development is its introduction of the industry’s first 64-bit processor (the A7), which allows Apple to introduce a fingerprint reader. This is the bedrock of its future strategy.

Secondly, the new M7 chip, which runs alongside the 5S’s A7 processor, monitors the motion sensors built into the phone. The M7 is a ‘motion coprocessor’ which continually measures the data coming from the iPhone’s gyroscope, accelerometer and compass without having to wake up the A7 chip, improving battery performance. And linked to this is a new ‘core motion’ software interface, which will allow developers to tell in an instant whether the phone – and, by extension, the person whose pocket it is in – is stationary or walking, running or driving. This is what makes the 5S a wearable device. And because it’s a device that is a lot more sensitive to tracking its environment, it can become a hub for wearable, particularly health, accessories, whether they are made by Apple or not. (Learning from its rival Google, which pioneered the ‘perpetual beta’, Apple will wait and see what information its users generate to help develop and then launch its own iWatch device, which will represent Apple’s first steps towards an integrated wearable eco-system.)

Finally, Apple is breathing new life into Bluetooth technologies. As part of iOS7, Apple’s iBeacon software will allow iPhones to detect proximity to other Bluetooth devices with greater precision and less battery consumption. With certain peripheral devices, iBeacon will allow GPS-style positioning within shops, for example, or to detect when a person arrives home which could then trigger light switches or open smart-door locks.

Taken together, Apple has created a personalisable, customisable, context-aware platform for which it will be easy to develop next-generation applications. The ‘internet of things’ is approaching realisation. But crucially, Apple has understood that the key connector in this ‘internet of things’ is you, especially in a culture of narcissistic consumption.

Tim Cook is right to call the iPhone 5S the ‘most forward thinking phone yet’. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss the fingerprint sensor as a gimmicky way of unlocking your phone. Finger shminger, you might think. But it really is a big deal. Why? Because in bringing finger-print authentication to the smartphone, Apple is remastering the digital ‘youniverse’, seamlessly homogenising and unifying offline and online worlds.

Touch ID, as Apple calls it, is one of the authentication mechanisms we will all be using in the future – it could become the core of our digital identities. No longer will our digital identity be made up of numerous usernames and passwords scattered across numerous platforms, applications and services. Touch ID could constitute a unified personal profile centred on your personal portable device, which contains your preferences, your applications, your content, your settings, your address book and which could be ported to other devices so long as they recognised your little fingerprint. Touch ID thus homogenises the offline and the online worlds in a way that goes beyond the internalisation of digital technology by younger generations.

In a world obsessed with privacy but driven and contradicted by an overwhelming narcissistic impulse, something as personal and unique as a fingerprint transforms digital identity into a physical attribute. This promises the homogenisation of the offline and online worlds and the annihilation of the distinction between public and private.

The importance of what Apple is attempting cannot be understated. It is trying to change the meaning and content of digital identity, and transform mobile computing and telephony forever. And it does this by placing the self-absorption of contemporary culture at the heart of its strategy, and provides, at the very least, the appearance of a more secure ‘youniverse’. This is a world where your digital identity is no longer different sets of usernames and passwords scattered across platforms and services; rather, it is something that is unquestionably you. And it’s all centred on the point at which your physical and digital selves can fuse: your thumb. Welcome to the digital ‘youniverse’.

It is not clear if anyone, Steve Jobs included, grasped the human drivers behind digital technology adoption, particularly among the younger generations. It was not technology that led to compulsive public self-expression and the need for constant affirmation, but fundamental shifts in the constitution of childhood in Western society. The changing nature of childhood informed the development of online chat rooms, blogging and then social networking though services like Facebook. Apple has had an uncanny ability to seize upon these shifts in user behaviour and design and take advantage of them. In the process, Apple has helped shape the world and our expectations.

The new iPhones show Apple as a company that is living in the present while making a bold and ambitious bid to shape our future. Although it is an ambition drawing upon and developing our tendency towards self-absorbed consumption, Apple’s ambition should be saluted, not denigrated by Wall Street short-termism.

So, for pushing the boundaries in the face of today’s scepticism and cynicism, Apple is doing society a huge service. Whether Apple’s sceptical investors know it or not, Apple will probably earn them a lot of cash, too. If only the market punished rather than rewarded stupidity.

Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

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Topics Science & Tech


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