It’s nothing new to examine artifacts as material manifestations of humanity, but in this age of new media technologies, we are especially provided with opportunities to see ourselves (or not) in the products of our collective human labor. I co-opt the term “thing power” to describe this reflective potential of our ‘technological things.’
The popularization of the tablet—iPad, Kindle, Nook, etc.—provides an interesting opportunity to hear what our gadgets have to say about us. When the first generation iPad was released, criticisms were voiced that it was intended for consumption, rather than encouraging creation and communication. And it’s no stretch to see even the most recent tablet models as (for the most part) vehicles for consuming content offered exclusively by Apple, Amazon, or B&N. These corporations have made efforts to counter the consumption-argument with campaigns that emphasize their products’ abilities to foster communication and encourage learning. But whether or not the technologies’ creators or critics are correct is less important than the chance that these dialogues give us to examine what gap exists between material culture and our values as a society. To what extent are we simply consumers? Or if we do use our tablets to Skype, Tweet, record video and mix audio, to what extent are our creative or communicative acts influenced by the codes (or other constraints) of these technologies?
This ad for the iPad 2 is particularly interesting in that it seems to make the claim that Apple has overcome this gap and achieved unity between subject and object. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that not only is this claim presumptuous—Siri, as intuitive as she may be, continues to humor users with hilarious misunderstandings—but also that it is dangerous. The “false identity of particular and universal”—or superficial superimposition of thing and concept, product and person—is exactly what Horkheimer and Adorno warn that contemporary media culture works to achieve. If we immediately embrace the ‘magic’ of our tablets (or whatever new thing is sold to us), we abandon the perspective held by thinkers as diverse as Jesus and Hegel, Thoreau and Marx—that “by their fruits ye shall know them.” And if we stop examining the products of our labors and subsequently stop re-examining our social relations, practices, institutions and ideologies, we forfeit any social progress that could potentially come from such self-reflection.