[OPE-L] Notes on the political economy of the Apple Genius Bar

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Mar 02 2006 - 08:09:02 EST

Sent to aut-op-sy by the author, Sasha Costanza-Chock.
In solidarity, Jerry

---------------------------- Original Message ----------------------------
Notes on the Political Economy of the Apple Genius Bar
Los Angeles - February 2006

        Within a few months after purchasing an Apple Powerbook in November of
2003, I noticed a pattern of slowly fading pixels that, over time,
produced a series of odd-shaped white splotches that spread across the
display.  After some research, I found that the problem was a recognized
factory defect and that replacement of the display would be covered at
no cost. I finally took my machine to the Apple Store at LA's simulated
'European' market street, The Grove; I wandered along faux cobblestone
past movie-set facades and entered The Apple Store, den of terminal hipness.

        As I entered the Apple Store, I was struck by the soft white lighting and
the clean display of Apple machines and accessories, each allocated as
much space as a work of art in a modern gallery. Like an art gallery, the
overall effect is to foreground the aesthetic quality of the machine as a
fetishized object-in-itself; all trace of the process of production is
removed. The production of Apple electronics would be a ripe,
low-hanging fruit for critical political economic analysis. A systematic
investigation into the manufacture of Apple computers would almost write
itself; for example, the geography of networked production of Apple
computers and iPods could be traced back along the chain of component
parts to the much-marketed 'nimble fingers' of young female workers in
the export processing zones of Southeast Asia and China. The material
elements of electronics production could also be followed further back
to the sites of resource extraction of precious (and toxic) elements
such as gold, mercury, and cadmium that are used in the current designs
of most advanced electronics. For example, labor conditions at mines in
Subsaharan Africa, where much of the world's gold is extracted, are
notoriously vicious, with continued practices including extortionate
prices for 'company' housing and food, indentured labor under armed
guard, and regular assassination of labor leaders.  In these areas Apple
would serve as a case study in the new international division of labor,
the networked firm, the geographies of globalized production, the denial
of responsibility for labor exploitation, environmental destruction, and
regulatory capture endemic to transnational corporations operating
through extensive chains of outsourcing and subcontracting.

        Political economic analysis could also examine the other end of the
life cycle of the sleek Apple gadgets; there is a growing recent body of
journalism, academic reports, policy recommendations, and grassroots
campaigns mobilizing around the problem of electronic waste. 'Obsolete'
personal electronics, including thousands of Apple computers and a
growing number of iPods, are exported to processing areas in the global
South, especially southern China, where a 2002 team of documentary
makers and researchers (Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Basel Action
Network, Greenpeace, and others) found whole villages (children
included) involved in electronics breakdown, disassembly, burning, and
melting down spent PCs and cell phones in woks (without masks, of
course) in order to extract precious, toxic elements including gold,
silver, lead, cadmium, byrillium, mercury, etc.

        However, under the mark of critical political economy of culture we
might choose instead (or additionally) to foreground the production of
the Apple brand identity. For example, one element of this would be to
examine the history of Apple's marketing campaigns, from the seminal
'1984' TV spot, through the systematic purchase of iconographic
'countercultural' black and white portraiture for the 'Think Different'
billboard campaign, through the current blitz related to the iPod. How
much did these various campaigns cost? What were the firms involved?
What ideological work was accomplished by Apple's appropriation of
anticolonial activists, domestic militants, the most famous socialist
scientist in history, and other revolutionary thinkers?

        My trip to the Apple Store focused my attention on something else,
though: after explaining my screen defect problem to one of the
dreadlocked, very hip and sexy twentysomething Apple Store employees, I
was informed that what I needed to do was go upstairs and make an
appointment at the Genius Bar. The Genius Bar turned out to be a twenty
foot long polished wooden surface, fronted by a row of stools full of
people with hardware and software problems of various degrees of
complexity, and staffed by 4 young men with black T-shirts bearing the
large white letters 'Genius' on the front (in Apple's clean, clean
font). I signed my name on the queue (the computerized appointment
system was down) and sat to wait my turn. I noticed the air of intensely
affected 'relaxed coolness' emanating from the man who took my name.
While waiting, I overheard the following conversation:

        Customer: "So, how do you get to be a Genius?"

        Genius: "Well you know, it's a whole process. Like when I
interviewed, it was with about 20 other dudes. Only 2 of us made        it.
You don't have to be an uber-nerd though."

        Customer: "Really?"

        Genius: "Yeah, they want that special combination of someone
        who's technically savvy, but also really good with people. Some
        of these guys were real
        lock-me-in-the-basement-with-a-soddering-iron types, you know
        what I mean? You have to be able to relate to people, make them
        feel comfortable, and also know something about the technology."

What struck me about this discussion was the simultaneous combined
emphasis on the exclusivity of the Genius position (only 2 out of 20
qualify), which is supposed to include a much higher than average level
of technical knowledge - but only in combination with the ability to
effectively perform affective labor. The Genius is in this way a kind of
archetypal immaterial worker within the flexible accumulation regime of
late (informational) capitalism: his (they are almost all male) role is
to simultaneously perform low-to-middle skill information work (software
troubleshooting; all hardware problems go to a technician in a back
room) and a particular kind of affective labor, common to all forms of
retail or customer service work, which is to make customers feel calm
and at ease. However, the specificity of Apple's brand image and niche
market (young, urban, hip, creative professional) requires a highly
nuanced form of the broader category of affective labor, one in which
the affective worker performs slight detachment from the customer, a
friendly but also aloof air, affirming the status, skill, and hipness of
the Genius, in a performance of superiority that - and here is the
genius of the Genius - affirms the customer's own self image and branded
identity as skilled immaterial or creative worker by virtue of the
shared (fetishized) Apple machine.

        I'll stop there for now, but the field is rich to explore. In my
experience of submitting a 'factory defect' to a Genius, we can find
traces of each category of worker under informational capitalism: the
unskilled labor that extracted raw materials for electronics assembly,
probably performed by third world women in special (un)regulated export
processing zones, shipped across the world and then serviced by a
combined low-skill software / affective worker as part of the ongoing
production of branded identity and commodity fetish.

Sasha Costanza-Chock
schock AT riseup.net

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Mar 03 2006 - 00:00:01 EST