Week 5 of the Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield is all about Apple, the story of its rise, fall and remarkable renaissance since Steve Jobs’ return in 1997, as well as the way in which its products have disrupted a whole host of media-related fields, not least the music industry.
Even though it seems like old news, there’s nothing that sums up Apple’s stunning rise in the 2000s like the iPod – the ‘Perfect Thing’ – a consumer product that was as trendy and desirable and user-friendly as just about any you could mention from all of history, and which helped to transform the world of music and, perhaps even more incredibly, is now barely even produced having been subsumed by the iPhone. The iPod still has its fans though, and second-hand iPod Classics almost go for more on eBay today than they might would have cost new.
I turned to the Social Shaping of Technology theory as this week’s academic perspective. In particular, SST theory makes a strong counterpoint to the technological determinism I introduced the students to in week one. SST argues that the main driver is of technological change is not, for example, the relentless improvement in capability of microprocessors, but rather owes more to a range of other social and economic factors, not just technical ones.
For me, Steve Jobs, his design chief Jony Ive and Apple in general offer a compelling argument for this. As Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs lays out in considerable detail, he retained a remarkable input on even the smallest details of Apple’s products, often driving engineers to distraction while also heeding his own instinct for beautiful-looking products, and going against conventional industry wisdom. At any other major tech company, then-market leader Sony for example, the iPod’s iconic trackwheel would surely have been ruled out through a series of committee meetings. But Jobs wanted it, and that brilliant design feature arguably more than anything helped set Apple onto a path of success unprecedented in corporate history.