Blind Man with a Pistol


The Thin Edge of the Wedge
25 February 2008, 5:20 pm
Filed under: Technology | Tags: , , , , ,


As the entire world already knows, Apple Inc. revealed the MacBook Air last month at the 2008 Macworld conference. The “world’s thinnest notebook” retails from $1799 to $3098 USD. It’s “ultrathin, ultraportable and ultra unlike anything else” according to the Apple website. It “rethinks conventions.” “Innovation” is thrown about like it’s going out of style. In short, the MacBook Air promises revolution. I’m not interested in discussing whether or not the Air constitutes a “smart” buy, or if it performs better than other lightweight laptops, but rather, to examine this “ultra” computer as the fulfillment of the bizarre technological fantasy of the thin. What’s the skinny in technology?

Curiously, while the MacBook Air is the thinnest notebook currently on the market, it is not the lightest; despite the fact that the Toshiba Portege R500 underweighs the Air by more than a pound, unsexy featherweights remain far behind Apple in pursuit of the cool. It is no accident that Apple eschewed a lighter computer, a model doubtless better suited to the commuter crowd ostensibly targeted by the Air, in favour of a slender one. Bypassing the unsettling tendency to label most of Apple’s products indiscriminately “sexy” (a label adopted by the Apple website) it seems to me that the slimness of iPods, iPhones and now the MacBook Air, have much greater cultural implications.

Not only does technoculture exhibit a fanatical obsession in its flight toward the ultimate (or “ultra”) in slim, it does so at the expense of function. In fact, Apple’s counterintuitive choice to build a thinner, rather than lighter product indicates that it is not really interested in function at all. We don’t want to see the guts of a computer (begone Cray-2! You are banished from our memories!) we just want an image of one. The image of a computer sliding out of a manila envelope is much more engaging to contemporary society than a computer that does stuff.

In Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson posits a theory of “depthlessness” in which a logic of depth–say, interior psychology to exterior expression, or meaning to word–has been replaced by a logic of surfaces. There is little doubt that Apple masterfully converts its products into desperately desired commodities and excels at promotion of the image. But what’s more, as Jameson argues, “this depthlessness [is not] merely metaphorical: it can be experienced physically and ‘literally’ (12). The MacBook Air, which seems to insist that it is less a computer than a conception, not a box of chipsets and wires but a simulation of one, represents the embodiment of this logic of superficiality. It’s called the “Air,” after all: it’s not even there! Indeed, the Air seems to enact a kind of technological physical closure: it lacks a removable-media drive, Ethernet and multiple USB slots. The body of the Air is as inviolate as its perfect, slender image.

What does this say, then, about technoculture in general–besides, that is, that they like their gadgets svelte? As our desktops, redolent with speaker and monitor cables that cheap IKEA and Office Depot desks ceaselessly attempt to conceal (without success), silently retreat into PDAs and two-dimensional laptops, computer commodification dispels the myth that technology increases the opportunity and potential for social change. Instead, it would appear, technology is complicit in capitalism’s ongoing project in perfecting the image, the spectacle. Of course, it’s not as if Apple ever pretended it was pursuing anything else, but it’s nice to know what kind of revolution we’re talking about.

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