September 26, 2021

Apple just became more of a California cult than ever

It’s been a tough year for committed Californians. Amidst a weirdly undemocratic gubernatorial recall effort, as smoke spewed from mega-fires, as our friends, choked out or priced out, headed for the exits, loudly proclaiming they’d never liked the place anyway, Golden State residents could be forgiven for wondering whether to abandon their own 1960s-style California dreamin’. It’s 2021, isn’t the West Coast over yet?

They’d also be forgiven for punching the air at the outset of Apple’s iPhone 13 launch event. The tech/entertainment giant screened a banging cover of “California Soul,” a 1969 hit for jazz legend Marlena Shaw, with a diverse group of musicians amidst the state’s beauty spots (pink-dreadlocked violinist in the Mojave, singer in Muir Woods, sax at Joshua Tree).

Apple has named Mac operating systems for Cali landmarks and put “Designed in California” on its packaging for years, but it had never before produced a love letter like this to the state that birthed it.

This timely anthem was almost enough to make you forget that the Cupertino company gets huge local tax kickbacks from the city. Or that it skirts state taxes by funneling cash to its hedge fund subsidiary in Reno, Nevada. Or that the vast majority of its products are made in China. Or that just last year, Apple fought a California Supreme Court order that they pay retail employees for time spent waiting in line to have their bags searched.

Dreams of Californication

That’s Apple all over, though. Less a company, more a trillion-dollar California cult designed to brainwash us with pleasant high-tech visions and the comfort of a walled garden. Fellow Silicon Valley giants are taking tumbles in public perception, but Apple’s image is stronger than ever — it’s the most admired company in the world on Fortune’s list for 14 years running, while Facebook has dropped out of sight — in part thanks to these slickly-produced multi-hour product ads.

Based on incremental improvements to a phone, a tablet and a watch, Apple spins stories about itself that would make a guru look modest. It’s an environmental leader! A champion of privacy and health! A friend to stoners!

But the iPhone 13 launch event upped the storytelling ante significantly. Apple execs ditched the dystopian white spaceship backgrounds for the great outdoors, from the Monterey coast to a San Diego amphitheater. This sent the message that the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch aren’t just designed in California, they are California: suffused in golden sunlight and gold-rush obsession.

If you have the very Californian dream of making movies, the event told us, then the iPhone 13 is all you need to live that silver-screen life. It’s Hollywood in an oblong. California-born director Kathryn Bigelow declared that the new device’s improved camera and processor could “change cinema.”

A comedy whodunnit, in the style of California-educated Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, was filmed on the device to prove the point. Just pay no attention to the professional film and lighting crew behind the phone. (Or to the fact that this isn’t new: the movie Tangerine was filmed on a trio of iPhone 5Ss in 2015, spurring many imitators.)

Maybe a California-style wellness cult is more your bag. That seems to be how Apple has decided to market its $80-a-year Fitness+ service. The classes, now including California’s favorite, pilates, are notable for the instructors’ bright can-do energy. A new feature lets you work out with 30 friends at once — because nothing ensures cult membership like a peer group.

An ad titled “Welcome to the Club” urged us to ditch our gym subscription and go outside for boundless joy with Fitness+. “There is no door, there is no ceiling,” the narrator intoned. “There are walls, but we can break through those… the club is the largest in the world because the club is the world.”

An ad for the Apple Watch Series 7 got similarly existential, man. “To live is to ask the big questions,” it began, all of which can apparently be answered by Apple Watch. “Are the mysteries of the universe out of reach, or can we discover them through the power of meditation?” it ended, cutting to a woman in lotus pose, literally levitating. The Apple Watch’s meditation app, now named Mindfulness, offers a library of Fitness+ guided meditations — a clear shot across the bows of two other California cults (sorry, companies): Calm and Headspace.

But for all this universe-spanning grandiosity, the Apple event was oddly honest in a way that few are. Aligning the company so publicly with California values and style is a recognition of what’s deep in its DNA. After all, this is a cult founded by the quintessential California dropout. Steve Jobs, son of immigrants to the state, was an itinerant hippy profoundly inspired by trips to India, not to mention trips on LSD.

Apple began life at the intersection of 1960s Bay Area counterculture and 1970s Silicon Valley technology. The company lost its way in the Reagan era, when New York suits John Sculley and Gil Amelio took the helm. Then Jobs, the prodigal messiah, guided Apple back towards the light, pushing colorful, clean design and media-making fantasies in the way it still does today. He celebrated the life blood of California’s economy — “the crazy ones” who “think different” — and the counterculture-style remixing of “rip, mix, burn.”

Computers designed like sunflowers, phone screens you could touch, thousands of songs in your pocket: These were Jobs’ California dreams. Through Apple, they changed the world. If it is still true, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang, that everyone dreams of Californication, then these days they do so on an iPhone, an iPad or one of their many imitators. This doesn’t absolve Apple from the urgent ethical need to pay its fair share of local and state taxes. But Tim Cook’s company is definitely the most effective ambassador of California idealism to the world — and an important reminder of why you shouldn’t count the Golden State out yet.

4 thoughts on “Apple just became more of a California cult than ever

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