The Figurehead

Ive got a few thoughts.

Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, former Jobs protegé, and Dieter Rams enthusiast is stepping down. It’s been a long and captialistically successful tenure for both Ive and the company, and the sway Apple has held over the global design language is already being attributed to his work.

How much of Apple’s success can be ascribed to Ive’s efforts is an open question. The company’s opaque corporate structure and masterful control of information access make it easy to fixate on Ive as the sole creative genius responsible for Apple’s vast array of products.

Jony Ive’s hand is apparent in the translucent tangerine iBook, the glossy obelisk iPhone, tiny tic-tic AirPods, and the new, trypophobia inducing Mac Pro.

Ive appears to have become Apple’s design guru at just the right time — the company’s growth on the back of the NeXt reverse takeover, new iMac, and then iPod have helped his design achieve monumental reach. The most valuable company in world has benefited tremendously from the globalisation of its manufacturing base, and the Apple design team have been able to produce objects of aching precision through mastery of this supply chain.

Take a look at the difference between the designs of the 2006 and 2019 Mac Pro (nee Power Mac). The removal of visible joins, the zero tolerance interlocking components, that grill. This is high-end design achieved not through revision of what it means to interact with and use technology (as the iPad and iPhone are), but through mastery of aluminium and steel machining via complete control of its manufacture.

Apple’s desire to master their own destiny through ownership of the entire technology stack has enabled them to surf the wave of globalised supply, and further allowed them to consolidate their successes with ever greater control and ownership.

This is the trajectory of Apple’s designs under Jony Ive — more tightly controlled from every possible angle, to the extent that their devices can no longer be fully understood, let alone meaningfully repaired.

If the legacy of Steve Jobs time as Apple’s design figurehead was to get the world to understand the value of design, then maybe Ive’s is the understanding that great design means complete control of the entire experience

It’s also hard to overstate the impact of Apple’s design during this time. The shift in household appliance design following the Bondi iMac. The way our laptops look. The entire phone industry. Round rects and super-ellipses. Our lives are surrounded by expressions and re-expressions of the Ramsian minimalism proselytised through the Californian behemoth.

Few designers can dream of such a reach. We’re lucky if our design makes it in front of people with half of what we originally envisioned, let alone having that design shape a global cultural concept of what it means to do good design. (The company’s control of the devices on which so much of our cultural capital is crafted has probably helped here, in a Churchillian fashion.)

This doesn’t mean that Apple has been immune to trends within the broader technology design aesthetic — iOS 7’s dramatic shift away from depth and texture (usability be damned) is probably the most recognised aspect. Of course, this was brought about through years of flat web and interface design thinking done at other companies and agencies.

As much as taste can be led by astonishingly creative individuals, it’s worth remembering that design is rarely an individual effort — instead, great design is a team sport.

Far too often, famous designers and artists are really totemic apparitions masking a team dozens to hundreds strong. At this level of (relative) fame, the designer becomes a brand mark for the labours of their design team. A final seal of approval on collective creativity.

Antoni Gaudí’s defining work isn’t even finished, and is carried on one hundred years later by a talented group of engineers, architects, and builders. Andy Warhol’s factory of artists created the body of Warhol’s ouevre. Zaha Hadid’s eponymous architectural practice has outlived her. Dieter Rams, the clear and direct inspiration for so much of the work produced by Apple, worked alongside other designers at Braun and Vitsoe.

The few Apple designers who have had public profiles during this time — probably most notably Marc Newson — show that for all its cliched "think different" and "a thousand no's for every yes" campaigning, Apple and Ive are beneficiaries of the same structure.

With the departure of Jony Ive, now is the time to acknowledge that his and Apple’s tremendous design legacy is achieved only through the collective labour of the Apple design team, it’s engineers, and the anonymous workers who actually build these seemingly impossible objects.

Death to figurehead designers. Long live the design team.

The Right to Be Lazy

The central ideological support for the work ethic is that remuneration be tied to suffering. Everywhere one looks, there is a drive to make people suffer before they can receive a reward. The epithets thrown at homeless beggars, the demonization of those on the dole, the labyrinthine system of bureaucracy set up to receive benefits, the unpaid 'job experience' imposed upon the unemployed, the sadistic penalisation of those who are seen as getting something for free — all reveal the truth that for our societies, remuneration requires work and suffering. Whether for a religious or secular goal, suffering is throught to constitute a necessary rite of passage. People must endure through work before they can receive wages, they must prove their worthiness before the eyes of capital. ... Work, and the suffering that accompanies it, should not be glorified.

From Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams.

Mad Dreams of Equality

The internet is not a giant open space where equals meet. It's a place where symbols of equality serve the concentration of power and wealth. The owners of an antigora don't send in tanks to flatten the lumpen, but still fatefully gain an information advantage that tilts events in their own favour, even though it is from an arms-length, almost inert position.

The method is perfectly and precisely boring. Gradually, those who have entered the antigora come under the influence of algorithms. There is no brute force, but instead the micromanagement of choices presented.

A constant stream of suggested behaviours are placed in front of people, and on a gradual, statistical basis, the crowd acquiesces. It is not possible to look at a million options, so the recommended ones become the only ones. The vastness of the internet becomes its narrowness.

Sex partners are specified, but more to the point, products are sold, loans are made, votes are cast, attention is directed. Giant financial meltdowns (mortgage backed derivatives, automated trading) occur on autopilot, no one at fault, the public holding the tab. Wages don't rise because algorithms figure out how to manipulate people into freelance arrangements where they are on call and unable to plan a career. There are many flavours of systemic information asymmetry, but at heart they are all similar.

Token numbers of commoners in the antigora are thrown bones, like a way to maker a respectable amount of money by self-publishing a romance novel, driving people around, or posting a funny video. This spurs mad dreams in the rest.

A slight — but cumulative and compounding — imbalance turns into a gigantic gap in wealth and influence. Off to the side, those who spy quickly become ultra-billionaires and dream of immortality. A few of the kinder ones float ideas for keeping the masses from starving once the robots get good. A basic income model? Humanity as a kept species.

From an essay by Jaron Lanier in The Future of Public Space

It’s the future. Deal with it.

Did you know that in 2014 two rats shared one mind over a wire three thousand miles long? Have you heard that a man in Japan can read your dreams from your head with a machine? No. You sit reading news that has nothing new in it, telling yourself that because you hold in your hand some glossy skeumorphic lozenge you are technologically au fait, and that because you know where in the endless repetition of tribal politics and fairy dust economics your world is, or have consumed many of those books published in pale cream jackets by university presses, you are somehow informed about what is important.

You are not. Meaning is being made in the saccades and the interstitial space you ignore. When the miracles begin, you will declare that the world has taken a great leap forward, and—wearing the amazed expression of a pantomime clown—you will quote Proust as tomorrow’s children make jokes that derive their humour from puns invoking senses you do not have. You will wear your bewilderment first as modish nostalgia and then as politically charged performance art, and finally as a proud, doomed ethical position whose idiot gravity you cannot escape. You will go to your grave protesting that everyone else has misunderstood. Oh, bravo. Bravo.

From Gnomon by Nick Harkaway.

The Genetic and Neural Fate

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

From My Own Life by Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Tattered Ruins of That Map

... In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

purportedly from Suárez Miranda, Travels of Prudent Men, Book Four, Ch. XLV, Lérida, 1658

On Exactitude In Science by Jorge-Louis Borges

Awful, Composite of Grief

It had perhaps once been a hunting dog, perhaps left for dead in the mountains or by some highwayside. Repository of ten thousand indignities and the harbinger of God knew what. He bent and clawed up a handful of small rocks from the gravel apron and slung them. The dog raised its misshapen head and howled weirdly. He advanced upon it and it set off up the road. He ran after it and threw more rocks and shouted at it and he slung the length of pipe. It went clanging and skittering up the road behind the dog and the dog howled again and began to run, hobbling brokenly on its twisted legs with the strange head agoggle on its neck. As it went it raised its mouth sideways and howled again with a terrible sound. Something not of this earth. As if some awful composite of grief had broke through from the preterite world. It tottered away up the road in the rain on its stricken legs and as it went it howled again in it’s hearts despair until it was gone from sight and all sound in the night’s onset.

From The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy.