When Metaphors Collapse
I remember visiting London in the late 1980’s and being dazzled by the first Virgin Megastore I’d seen. It was powerfully industrial. The metal detailing made me think of the mothership in Alien. It was aggressively hip. Music was blaring from speakers and there were television screens everywhere with music videos playing on loops at a time when MTV was still a novelty. It was the only time that the small plastic boxes CD’s are mostly packaged in seemed cool to me. I was sure it must have been an optical illusion but the racks seemed to go on forever. In comparison the Tower Records on Broadway in New York, where I was living at the time, seemed like a 1950’s grocery store, fusty and sluggish, like a 1950’s grocery store.
It was quite a shock, after moving back to Sydney in 2007 (after 12 years in Los Angeles, and 4 in Melbourne) to find the Virgin Megastore in the ornate marble and wood interior of a 19th century bank building on the edge of Martin Place in the CBD, practically derelict. Virgin’s industrial aesthetic read as mismatch not irony. The store was always empty when I visited. Many of the listening stations were always out of order. It quietly closed early in 2010 I think.
Australia’s first Apple Store opened a couple of blocks from the Virgin Megastore in 2008 and it was an instant sensation. A couple of floors had been sheared off the front of an office building and encased in glass box. The floors were connected by stairs that seemed to float. It was Zen industrial. People queued around the block for it to open every day. Bands performed in a corner, on the ground floor. Australia is on the second rung of product releases but a local television news crew had an iPad flown in from America the day it was released and stood outside asking people if they’d buy one when it went on sale a couple of months hence.
Now we’re at another crossroads, but it isn’t a new format or technology but a questioning of how much stuff we need in our lives and how much commercial control over our choices. The release of Rachel Botsman’s book, Collaborative Consumption, a trend that turns social networking towards the sharing, trading and bartering of stuff between communities follows on the heels of Apple bringing a social networking dimension, Ping, into iTunes 10.
Before I’d read the grumbling about Ping from Venture Capitalists, early adopters, and Tech writers, I’d sensed that Apple was stumbling because the name, Ping, is a metaphor that’s inconsistent with all of its other products and services. The connection with human activities and the physical world was gone.
Starting with the rainbow coloured apple with a bite out of it, Apple had always had retro icons aping real world leather bound address books, wire mesh trash cans, calendars with pages that tear off, clocks, a lectern, an inkwell with a fountain pen, an old fashioned compass for the Safari browser, the Snow Leopard operating system. The System Preferences icon features cogs and gears. The iPad’s key feature is iBooks: represented as wooden shelves with hardback paper books on them. The iTunes icon was an anomaly, it’s a CD with a musical note on it, but at least it was a physical thing. The iTunes 10 icon is a porthole with a black musical note in it.