Is 2024 The New 1984?

How Apple Has Become the Opposite of Different

June 27, 2024

Is 2024 The New 1984?

If Steve were alive today, the Apple Vision Pro is what he’d be wearing.

By Aria Novosedlik


Remember the ‘1984’ Superbowl ad, the heavy-handed Orwellian parody that cast Apple as the rebel, the non-conformist, the challenger brand to end all challenger brands? 


As Super Bowl ads go, people have been trying to recreate the excitement of that spot ever since. It was a gamechanger. Apple ended the spot by proclaiming itself as the great liberator: “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984”, it claimed. 


Ridley Scott, Apple 1984 Superbowl

Frame from Ridley Scott’s iconic Apple 1984 Super Bowl spot.

Apple’s 1984 might have been different than Orwell’s, but our 2024 isn’t. Politically we live in an increasingly totalitarian world, with a handful of autocrats vying for global hegemony. The economy is a mirror image of that. We’re ruled by a handful of techno-oligarchs competing for world domination, and Apple is one of them. As the most valuable brand on Earth, Apple’s not the upstart anymore. It’s the boss. 


And since it is once again claiming leading edge status after its integration with OpenAI (a partnership it’s calling ‘Apple Intelligence’) and its introduction of the Apple Vision Pro (an AR/VR spatial computing device), the ups and downs of its monopolistic path to power are worth a brief re-examination.


As great as it was, Apple’s iconic 1984 ad didn’t move the needle much. Product sales spiked for about 10 minutes. Consumers quickly realized that, while the commercial was revolutionary, the computers weren’t. Apple began its descent towards bankruptcy and a year later Jobs was jobless.


After a dozen years he was back, re-hired by Apple in a last-ditch effort to salvage the company, which was quite literally a couple weeks from going under. Microsoft, which offered the same product for a fraction of the cost, had the challenger brand on the ropes.


Apple hadn’t really done much at all to up its game since Jobs’ departure in 1985. So upon his return, and after a brief boardroom brouhaha that put him in the CEO’s chair, he wasted no time. He tightened up the product, simplified the product line, bought out all apple knock-off companies, then aggressively rebranded. He also left 4,100 people jobless in the process. In his words: ‘We’ve got to get the spark back’.


Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi’s ghost shills for Macintosh 1997.

That spark came in the form of Apple’s second game-changing iconic brand campaign, ‘'Think Different’. This time he had the goods to back up his claims. ‘Think Different’ not only resonated with the general public, but especially spoke to designers. 1997 was the year that people realized that computers don’t have to look like soulless grey boxes. Designers went nuts for these things because finally we had a machine that worked as well as it looked. The iMac made design itself a value proposition, and designers took to it like bees to honey. 

Imac, Bondi Blue, 1998

The 1997 ‘Think Different’ campaign featured the likes of Einstein, Bob Dylan, Ghandi, Picasso, Mohamed Ali, and Martin Luther King. Who wouldn’t want to identify with such symbols of monumental greatness? If you ran that ad today, you’d be crucified for equating the fight against systemic racism with the fight against Microsoft. It’s not like Steve Jobs, Tim Cooke, and Jony Ive went on a hunger strike to spread their vision of the iMac to the rest of the world. That said, the iMac was revolutionary and it marked the beginning of a new Apple era.


With the release of the iPod a few years later, Apple became a household name, no longer limited to design studios and a handful of upper middle-class folks. The iPod gave consumers a little taste of the Apple experience, introducing a whole new market to the brand. But it was the iPhone that vaulted the brand into the stratosphere. With the release of the iPhone the ecosystem was complete. Now, Apple owned computers, music, phones, cameras, and headphones. Designers couldn’t get enough Apple, and yet Apple was not concerned about designers anymore: Apple wanted the whole world. Indeed, it needed the whole world in order to keep the product development machine humming.


original Iphone

The original iPhone: the face that launched 2.3 billion ships (to date).

The irony is that in the process, Apple was losing its innovative edge. To quote ftp, ‘Apple was no longer in the business of creating the perfect product for Apple fans. It was now in the business of making the perfect product for everyone.’ 


No longer is Apple catering to the renegades, the creatives and designers. We have officially become the side-chick. We aren’t using Apple products because we want to be seen as the ‘others’, the ones that ‘Think Different’. We’re using Apple because it’s all we know, and of course, it is still the prettiest girl at the party. What else would we buy?


Apple is now a luxury fashion brand, used as the canvas for all kinds of blingification, as demonstrated below. ‘Think different’ may be the official tag, but we’re not buying it because it’s part of our maverick identity. We’re buying it because it’s the default. It’s the status quo. It’s religion. Which is ironic, since religion is where branding began back in the 16th century. 


Iphone 11 GQ, Middle East

For a mere $100k, you can buy this gold iPhone by Russian brand CAVIAR. It has an extra watch dial on the back, just in case you actually care what time it is.

Scientific studies using MRIs have shown that Apple users feel extreme emotional allegiance to the brand in the same way they feel allegiance to their family members. Even though we work with them every day, it seems we’re just as susceptible to the power of brands as anyone else. We know how they get us hooked. In the case of Apple, maybe it’s time to ‘Think Different’ and see if there are other products that rival MacBooks.


I bought my MacBook in 2019 and it’s a disaster of a machine. I’ve got first degree burns on my thighs because, as Don Norman points out, Apple desecrated the first commandment of design school: ‘form follows function’. It wanted to make a MacBook so slim and sleek that its cooling fans are small and poorly positioned, thus causing the computer to overheat and automatically shut down so it doesn’t suffer heat death. 


While I’ll be getting a new machine soon, I still know that it will be hard to consider a different kind of laptop. Breaking up with Apple is hard to do. It’s been a part of my identity ever since I was a child, raised in the shadow of my father’s design firm. When we bought the iMac, suddenly I was the ‘cool kid’ because I had something nobody else had. Now, everyone has it. It’s still symbolic. Not for its uniqueness, but for its status.


Back in 1984, one of the taglines for Apple’s campaign was ‘A computer for the rest of us’. Now that Apple is pivoting to the world of AI, its tagline is ‘AI for the rest of us’. It’s worth noting that Apple’s version of AI is encrypted so that none of your data can be stored on any servers – not even its own. All of your AI requests exist on your device, and yours only – so long as your device happens to be an Apple device. Yet again, Apple is striving to keep its ecosystem closed, which does ultimately have privacy benefits for is customers. It also helps it continue on its path towards world domination in so many different markets—hardware, software, service, entertainment, and so on.


Frame from the latest ad for the Apple iPad Pro. An orgiastic metaphor of market domination.

Winston Smith, the main character in Orwell’s novel, wants is to be an individual with a sense of privacy, and a sense of identity, not just a soulless cog in Big Brother’s totalitarian machine. Apple’s monopolistic intentions are more a manifestation of Orwell’s 1984 than of Apple’s. Our digital devices resemble nothing so much as the two-way ‘telescreen’ in Orwell’s 1984 which allowed Big Brother to watch people as they watched TV. 


So what’s Apple’s identity now? Is it just the way that it looks and the fact that it is the most valuable brand in the world? It’s been in hot water lately for its most recent iPad ad, wherein the creative tools like pianos and paint buckets are compressed into a tiny little iPad. People are upset by the violence of it and appear to realize that maybe ‘Apple everything’ isn’t really such a good idea. Forbes noted in an article a year ago that ‘Apple wants you to think different, just not too different’. 


From where I sit, Apple no longer wants you to ‘Think Different’. It just wants you to ‘Think Apple’. 

Aria Novosedlik is a Toronto-based designer, writer and researcher.