All kneel at the temple of Apple’s latest technology

First in line Jason Ray (left) and Moon Ray (right) line up outside the Apple Store in New York, ready for the launch of Apple’s iPhone 6. EPA/John Taggart

Just as with all the earlier versions of the iPhone, rumours abound about what Apple will announce this week in relation to iPhone 6 – new screens, different sizes, powerful chips, faster processing and an exciting new add-on device – the iWatch.

The new product line-up will be launched at the Flint Centre in Cupertino, California, where Apple first revealed the Macintosh to the world 30 years ago.

A giant white cube has been constructed at the centre, which might be used by U2 to “tear up the stage” during the launch.

An over-excited tech commentariat are speculating about the event in hyperbolic terms: “I believe it’s going to be historic,” says Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies.

The masters of publicity

Apple is a master of presenting stories to consumers through the use of images, symbols and icons. These mechanisms transcend the functionality of their devices, mythologise the origins of the brand, and manipulate the machinery of the news and tech media to generate free publicity.

Ironically, the fact I have been voluntarily bound to the Apple ecosystem for more than a decade makes me simultaneously complicit, fascinated and repelled by this global technology design and marketing empire.

Inside the glass temple of Apple’s New York store. Flickr/Chris Cooper, CC BY-NC-SA

To visit the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York (entrance top and in store above) as I did in May is to experience the full force of Apple’s totemic power. Looking more like a temple than a retail outlet, the Apple symbol emblazoned on the giant glass cube is akin to a totem, serving as “an emblem, a veritable coat-of-arms”.

Totems serve to classify the sacred and profane in the social world, producing an aura around any device featuring the “i” prefix and Apple trademark.

The Apple symbol certainly manages to attract enough fanboys and fangirls who invest time, money and emotion in spreading the word of Apple in online and offline settings (much to the annoyance of others).

The Jobs factor

The deification of Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, and his supposed “genius” has gone into overdrive since his death in 2011. Apple’s online memorial to Jobs presents more than a million comments about how he touched the lives of users.

An immodest biography by Walter Isaacson tells the life story of a man:

[…] whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionised six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.

One might assume that Jobs was genetically incapable of bad decisions or mistakes. Or that he had conquered the tech universe single-handedly, with his reported lack of generosity consigning others to mere supporting roles in Apple’s storied history.

The smiling blue-shirts that greet you in any Apple Store and at the “Genius Bar” do little to discourage thoughts of cults and icons, a tendency satirised mercilessly in television programs such as The Simpsons and South Park.

Tech worship is nothing new

As this week’s launch indicates, Apple is adept at manufacturing mass anticipation, or “iPhone fever”, around the availability of its new products. But the notion that people will gather and queue for long periods to witness the wonders of new technologies is a much older phenomenon than Apple.

Many old technologies were new and exciting once. Large-scale public fascination attached itself to the electric light, telegraph, telephone, radio and television, with this pattern a hallmark of industrial urbanised societies.

Devices bearing the hallmarks of innovation and progress are synonymous with insights and experiences that previously seemed inconceivable. We are now told the iWatch will “usher in a new era” – just like all the new eras before it.

There will be no discussion of the mythical power of the symbols, icons and stories circulated by and about Apple at the launch.

Yet, as marketers and brand experts have long understood, these are the mechanisms that energise and swell the numbers of those who subscribe to the Apple “doctrine”. In so doing, unpalatable facts are downplayed and unappealing alternative stories can be ignored or discredited.

Not so sweet Apple

Nonetheless, here are three issues that deserve as much attention as the launch of the iPhone 6:

The love of an icon comes at a cost. Flickr/Ian Higgins, CC BY-NC-ND
  1. alleged price gouging and tax avoidance. Australian consumers continue to pay more for downloads in the iTunes store than their counterparts in the US, with many of the profits landing in low-tax overseas jurisdictions
  2. there is a curious intersection between labour relations, wages and Apple’s apparent “generosity”. Those smiling faces wearing the blue-shirts at the Genius Bar may be earning less than supermarket checkout workers, with scheduled annual pay-rises tracking at below the rate of inflation
  3. adverse environmental impacts flow from a constant cycle of newly released devices. The launch of a new iPhone is almost an annual event. This cycle of planned obsolescence presents major challenges given that mobile devices contain numerous chemical compounds.

While Apple has a serious environmental program to address the impact of its products, the afterlife of an iPhone, iPad or iPod is largely the responsibility of the consumer once it is purchased.

Recycling and take-back programs are having an impact in many developed economies, but some devices still find their way into landfill. Moreover, the export and dumping of toxic e-waste continues to disproportionately impact regions of the world such as Central America, the Subcontinent and Africa.

Of course, whether any of this stops me from upgrading to the new iPhone or checking out the iWatch is an entirely different matter.

As the thoughtful folks at Apple have encouraged me to understand over the years, self-gratification is much more fun than self-denial in a consumer society, especially when the siren song of a beautifully designed new device calls.