- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

The circle is now complete. With the introduction of the IPod Hi-Fi, a pricey stereo system to complement the astronomically popular IPod portable MP3 player, Apple Computer has made it possible to buy and listen to music in multiple formats without ever sniffing a rival technology brand.

I don’t mean to proffer a declaration of foul monopoly, as in the days of Microsoft’s Internet-browser battle with Netscape. What I’m getting at isn’t about economics; it is more, well, mystical in nature.

Let me ask this: Have you ever spoken with an Apple enthusiast and felt like you were being proselytized?

Apple’s increasingly formidable presence in the music market has put this trend into ever-sharper relief. It already has given us the “Pod People,” those silent music consumers who walk among us, atomistic and aloof, with those telltale white cables depending from their ears.

But it’s more than the music, although that seems to be the thin end of Apple’s culture-dominating wedge; it’s the entire suite of Apple products and how they’re marketed and retailed.

What is it about seeing a Mac laptop, emblazoned with that simple yet highly distinctive Apple logo, in a product-placement moment of a movie and immediately being washed over with that sense of high style?

And how is it that the vehicle we use to deliver the music (whether it’s the IPod or the online ITunes Music Store) is more culturally substantial than the music that’s actually being listened to (which, some would argue, is the same as it ever was, if not worse)?

When I phoned Apple’s corporate headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., I asked to speak to someone who could enlighten me about the thought that went into the design of Apple’s products and its retail spaces. I was politely told by a spokeswoman that “that’s not something we typically talk about.

“We prefer to let the customer have their own experience,” she added.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like Col. Sanders and his secret fried-chicken recipe, Apple is in the business of commodifying mystique. And it’s not about to spill the beans.

Yet there is no mistaking the signals Apple is sending, and it has succeeded wildly in cultivating a sense of elevation in its customers.

A steep flight of stairs into an art museum, wrote culture critic and former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities Lynne Munson, was meant as a “metaphor for the effort required to reach a state of knowledge.” It was a gesture to the visitor that he was headed “up” — not merely in the literal sense, but also intellectually and, perhaps, morally.

Apple retail stores have street-level entrances, but once you walk in there’s no mistaking the aura of elevation. Clerks wear black shirts; the store space is uncluttered, antiseptic and futuristic, while the products themselves — the IPods and the IMacs and the PowerBooks — are in sleek gray or white. The technical help desk is called the “Genius Bar”; and on any given Saturday morning, you might find Apple’s “geniuses” putting on computer seminars — another sign you’re in higher company.

Maybe I’d better ask Woody Allen first, but the IPod revolution — which has expanded Apple’s customer base from an elite coterie of Mac users to, well, everyone else — seems to substantiate some of the observations made by the late academic Marshall McLuhan in his famously complex 1964 study of the then-emerging mass media culture, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.”

When I read stories about IPod users rhapsodizing about how their IPods are profound reflections of their personalities; how their IPod shuffle mechanism has the seemingly mystical ability to randomly spit out the right song for the right moment; how life screeches to a halt when their IPod suffers a technical glitch — when I read these stories I think of Mr. McLuhan’s chapter on “gadget lovers.”

Riffing on the Greek myth of Narcissus, Mr. McLuhan wrote that technology gadgets were like narcotic extensions of the self; we worship them as idols and thus become a self-enclosed system.

Sound familiar?

“Servomechanism” was the term of art that Mr. McLuhan employed: a device that controls something from a distance.

He said of gadget love: “We must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An Indian is the servomechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse or the executive of his clock.”

Or the Pod Person of his IPod.

Or maybe I’m just all wet here, in front of my Pleistocene PC and boombox.

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