Selling Desire in the Post-War Boom

794 words | 3 page(s)

With global consumerism ever increasing, and continually so, it is important to reflect on the periods of history that this attitude seemed to have sprung from, particularly the post-war era. MacDonald introduces this idea with a brief historical discussion on the progression of the word “design” through time, and space. “’Design’”, she says , “has multiple meanings, which can shift depending on the identity of the user and the context of use.” This shift in meaning means that the word design is very flexible, and allows it to be used to connote many different things. One interpretation, which is the one I will be focussing on for the remainder of the analysis, is that of its connotation of “luxury, modernity and desirability” .

For this analysis, the object I have chosen to discuss is the iPhone. This ultra-modern object is an excellent example of many of the main points addressed in MacDonald’s article. The iPhone is a “smart” device which serves a multitude of functions, previously needing more than one device to fulfil, including telephone, SMS services, email, web browsing, gaming, content creation, and portable entertainment (such as music and video). It is also widely accepted as one of the main signifiers of today’s capitalist society, in that it’s functionality is not even its most desirable function. There are many devices on the market that are similar to it, but, despite being one of the most expensive, (it’s most recent model, the iPhone 6, retails for over $700), the iPhone remains the best selling device of its kind, and has done so since the release of the first-generation iPhone in 2007.

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In her article, MacDonald addresses the idea that “novelty has […] overtaken function as a prime concern within the design process” which seems to perfectly fit the general consensus of both the iPhone’s critics and its die-hard fans. The iPhone wholly represents the “metaphor” that MacDonald addresses in her paper, its “utilitarian role […] overshadowed by [its] symbolic role as an official item of contemporary culture.” This symbolic role, she goes on to discuss, gives the owner of the iPhone a sense of privilege and societal worth, in that they own something extremely expensive, that is not only incredibly useful, but looks good. Owning the iPhone gives a person a sense (to whatever extent anyone believes that sense as real or not, the sense is still here) that they are a person with excellent taste. In her article MacDonald uses the example of a fur coat to express this same idea. It is fair to say that the iPhone is very similar to a fur coat in both its purpose as status symbol, and for the problematic ethical elements of its existence. MacDonald addresses ethical issues in her article, also, discussing the idea that increasingly, companies are engaging more with environmental and socio-political policy and movements in order to situate themselves in a better light with the ever-aware consumer. The iPhone seems to evade criticism more often than not, however, even though it is widely accepted that the companies manufacturing processes leave little to be desired.

The iPhone represents an even more nuanced political and societal role than might first seem apparent. Though of course its functionality as described above is an exciting technological development that even as little as fifteen years ago would seem to be completely impossible to achieve, what most who criticise the iPhone will use as the crux of their argument is the constantly “new and improved” models that are released almost yearly, much to the simultaneous excitement and behest of fans. The fact that every year a new, better, more “desirable” and more “beautiful” model is released goes very far in depicting the ever-upwardly spiralling presence of “false need” in society. False need is the kind of need that we only realise we have once we are faced with a new object of desire. The iPhone is the perfect representation of this, as even its problematic ethics, so far, doing very little to change its sales – even with an increased awareness of this fact.

MacDonald concludes by offering a summation that “clearly, design is integrated into the wider patterns of consumerism and society,” suggesting that it is important for designers to be active participants in the debate of critical socio- and eco-political issues, and both shape and are shaped by such environments. With regards to the iPhone, however, it is quite clear that it has, and continues to be, more influential that it is influenced by anything that occurs politically around it.

  • MacDonald, J. “Design and Modern Culture.” Exploring Visual Culture. Ed. Matthew Rampley. Edinburgh University Press, 2005. 50-66
  • Mielach, D. “Is It Ethical to Own an iPhone?” Business News Daily. February 12, 2012. http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/1979-owning-iphone-ethical.html Accessed October 28 2014

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