As an anthropology professor who regularly teaches classes dealing with material culture and issues of representation, every semester we discuss the ways that humans ascribe meanings to objects—reading them in the terms of the preexisting cultural categories they bring with them. In the context of museums Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (2000) describes these groups as “interpretive communities.” I like this phrase because it foregrounds the fact that interpretation is never entirely individual—but is informed by sociocultural context. It also emphasizes that there is never a single reading by a unified community—objects and symbols can be read in multiple and overlapping ways.
Anyway, I am always on the lookout for good examples of objects or symbols that appear to have a singular, unproblematic mainstream reading and hidden, marginal or uncommon counter readings. They can be useful in class as entertaining examples to fulfill a pedagogical goal of anthropology—to see “familiar things as strange and strange things as familiar.”
Personally, I take pleasure in the fact that even the most commonly shared objects and symbols of everyday life can be read in contradictory, subversive and potentially revolutionary ways. Human creativity is clearly manifest in humor, sarcasm and parody. I also find it in the parallel—if occasionally darker—realms of rumor, gossip, innuendo, conspiracy and the paranormal. The counter-readings of conspiracy, for example, were a mainstay of one of my favorite television series of the 1990′s, The X-Files. The comedian and the paranoiac can be occasionally united in their ability to cast critical reflections on the taken-for-grantedness of the mainstream. To a certain extent, it seems to me that these are all examples of creativity as counter-hegemonic practice.
It wasn’t so long ago that in the technology world Microsoft was the definition of a hegemon. Their operating system was running nearly every personal and corporate computer system in the world. Their software was literally the window through which most of computer-using humanity expereinced their computers. In the late 1990′s Apple Computer was the difference to Microsoft’s behemoth—more liberal arts than MBA. Jobs was the anti-Gates.
In a world dominated by Microsoft—the metaphorical fear of the “window” was that of the panopticon. I’m thinking of Gene Hackman’s character in 1998′s film, Enemy of the State, trying to escape surveillance in a Faraday Cage. By contrast, at the approaching millennium nothing could have been more benign, harmless, organic and human-sized than the logo of Apple Computer—in both its multicolor and solid color forms.
Over the past decade, however, things have changed. Today a Windows PC sitting on a desk in the office seems quaint when compared to the ways that mobile devices have proliferated–changing the way we interact with technology and people. Technology has come to extend, mediate and change our behaviors on a speed and scale that we are still trying to understand. Technology is not just a tool we use and put down, or a place we go and return from, we are quickly becoming half-human, half-technology cyborgs. Technology punctuates daily life, and we have a whole new list of acronyms that indicate the integration of technology and the everyday: GPS, CCTV, RFID, NFC, LBS.
Perhaps most surprisingly, it seems that the fear of constant surveillance by unknown others is on the wane. Most people these days willingly give up all but minimal expectations for privacy because we love our devices. It is tough to fear the gaze of surveillance when social media has users desiring to attract it its attention—promiscuously competing for its “likes.”
If like Windows, these days the panopticon seems strangely clunky and antique—John Hodgman’s PC to Justin Long’s Mac—then what might replace it as a metaphor for the emotional appeal of mobile devices?
This past week I ran across a great video that provides a sensational answer. The video, which appears to have been produced by a fundamentalist Christian group rereads the popular Apple Computer logo in a novel way—it reads it as the fulfillment of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The apple with a bite out of it from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The apple in the Apple logo is no longer just an apple, but is reread as a sign of succumbing to the temptations of desire itself.
The video is just awesome, it is a perfect example of the complete recontextualization of a symbol by an interpretive community—in this case, a group of fundamentalist Christians. The spoken words and images suggest the threat of a sinister global power that is disseminated by science in ways that are unnatural and against nature. Interestingly, it is not an external surveillance, but something internal that broadcasts itself. It is a vision of every living thing chipped and turned into a self-reporting machine—all trees and animals get their own implants and become living mobile devices. Every thing becomes an iPhone.
“…you’ve got the IBM planetary skin…you’ve got them putting sensors in oceans, in forests, in trees…put an RFID chip in every sapling, every single tree on planet Earth. You know the planet is getting small enough now that they are actually envisioning the ability to identify every single last animal and microchip them all. So its really, what would inspire someone to want to do that? And the only thing that I can think, is that they are tapping into a darker desire…”
The video also awesome because the interpretation is substantial enough and effective enough that after watching the video you might never look at the Apple logo the same way again. I did, however, find an interview with, Rob Janoff, the logo’s designer that refutes this interpretation. Of course, if Rob is an agent of Satan his words must be suspect! After watching the video I found a few more videos that suggest Apple conspiracies, including a humorous one. I have pasted them all below.
The meaning making abilities of humans are awesome to behold!