Commodity fetishism

I was having dinner with a friend this past weekend in a trendy Palo Alto restaurant, and we were talking about Adam Smith and Karl Marx, as you do (well, you do if you’re political scientists). I looked around the room at one point and when he asked me why, I told him I was looking for somewhere wearing an Apple Watch. I figured I was in was a highly likely place to see one. Sadly, I didn’t, but I couldn’t see every diner’s wrist, so I retain hope that the Watch was there, lurking, out of my view.

"White AppleWatch with Screen" by Justin14 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

I wonder if we’ve reached Peak Commodity Fetishism with the Apple Watch. I hope so, because it would be depressing to think we could go further. Commodity fetishism is a term coined by Marx to describe the condition in which objects are valued for something other than what they are used for and the labor that inheres in their production. The first paragraph of this overview is a good, succinct summary of the concept.

Many people are aware that Apple makes most of its vast profits on its hardware (although I would argue that its software is increasingly important, even if indirectly, because of the way it ties people into its ecosystem and the way each software/app purchase fuels other purchases). But unlike many other makers of things, Apple’s things are esteemed not just for the usefulness of the products and their ease of use, but also for the way they look. Design is enormously important to Apple because its customers value it so highly. One might argue that Steve Jobs valued design for its own sake, but at this point it can’t be disentangled from Apple’s marketing strategy.

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I’ve been collecting links for a while, since before the blog move, but kept putting off the post. But I said I would have links at the new blog, so here we go.

First up, the enduring appeal of feature phones. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve gone back to using my Nokia featurephone. It gives me phone, text, email, and a severely compressed browser that mostly allows me to read news sites. It has useful offline stuff too, like an alarm clock, timer, and ToDo list app. The battery lasts for days and the phone itself is tiny.

When I was in Japan a few years ago I was enraptured by the oversized flip phones that I saw people using. Apparently they’re still popular. Engadget has a story that suggests why:

The Japanese editor-in-chief of our sister site Autoblog JP was eventually browbeaten by coworkers (and this guy) into buying an iPhone, but his eyes light up when we ask him about the gara-kei thing. Why do you love these phones? “It’s light,” he says. “It’s small; it’s easy to type on, easy to talk into.” He then flips one open, adding, “It’s cool.” He flips it shut.

What has he gained from the upgrade to a smartphone? He’s silent: He doesn’t use the map app, and says the camera on his flip phone was good enough. I’m at a loss for words. Would he go back to a feature phone? “I just bought this thing,” he says as heaves the iPhone 6 up, “but maybe.”

I think it’s also the simplicity. If you can get the hang of typing on a 10-key pad, then you can communicate when necessary but for the most part your phone is just your phone, plus maybe a planner and a quick reference tool. It’s not a mini-computer and lifeline to the social media world.

Obviously we feature phone users are a dying breed. The same Engadget author wrote a second article about how difficult he found it to live with a feature phone even for a week:

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