Aside from the obvious idea of ‘working in the shadows,’ the recent events surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden demonstrate two key aspects of invisibility about which I’ve written recently.
The first is that the compound in which he was hiding was both considerable in size and ‘in plain sight.’ Taken as ‘outstanding’ in it’s context, this compound should likely have been visible and seen. The funny thing is that there is much speculation about the level to which Bin Laden and his compound must have benefited from the ‘blind eye’ of the Pakistani government - which could indeed be true. Alternatively, it could be that a compound that necessarily stands out for its enormity and obvious opulence may have invited a wilful blindness …
Come on, there are houses in your neighbourhood that you don’t question or mess with but around which you know to mind your behaviour. So too could this compound have been made invisible, in plain sight, in the way of the overt strategic invisibility that commanded a ‘look away’ invitation to those that passed by.
The second and very interesting way in which Bin Laden maintained his invisibility has to do with reports that he could not be found because he understood and observed the rule of eavesdropping - that if you don’t want to be heard, don’t say anything. Bin Laden, it is reported, didn’t use a phone of his own and had no traceable electronic signals enter his compound. In this day and age of sophisticated hearing technologies (anti-invisibility tools), he ‘dropped out’ of the grid while staying within its physical confines.
It’s funny how not having a facebook account reduces the number of hits you get on google … and Bin Laden fooled the most sophisticated skip tracers in the world for almost a decade by knowing this.
Later this year I’m expecting to present a paper at the McLuhan 100 Conference in Toronto. The topic of my paper is on the increasing invisibility of technology despite the increased proliferation of ‘digital rhetoric’ and ‘digital culture.’
This ad from Apple proves my point even further … the one I’ve been making for a few months now that Apple’s market share didn’t increase because they make better stuff but because they have a command of invisibility and have built their stuff to be invisible.
"This is worth repeating. It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology is not enough. It’s tech married with the liberal arts and the humanities. Nowhere is that more true than in the post-PC products. Our competitors are looking at this like it’s the next PC market. That is not the right approach to this. These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive. The hardware and software need to intertwine more than they do on a PC. We think we’re on the right path with this."
Steve Jobs, CEO Apple Inc. (iPad 2 announcement, March 2, 2011)
For some time now I’ve been arguing that (media) technologies are becoming increasingly invisible. On the surface this might seem counter intuitive given the current global obsession with defining and thus creating a ‘digital future’ but I still think it’s true.
Take for instance the fortunes of the fastest growing segments of the technology market: mobile devices (I hasten to call them ‘phones’) and (mobile) computers. Most of the worlds largest manufacturers of these hardware spend and make billions on selling objects not because of the objects themselves but because of how well these objects will connect us with our ‘digital stuff.’
Apple recognized long ago that content is king and, it seems, so too now does everyone else. Samsung, Motorola, RIM and many others have started to recognize that it’s not the box that people are buying (i.e. the physical technology) but a gateway to the content they want. And they expect that the content they want will work when they want it, where, and how.
You can see this in the ad posted below. You can also see this in a few seemingly inevitable imperatives built in to most new technology offerings: there is a presumed dominance of convergence over specialization; content is built to be platform independent so proprietary standards, though remarkably too common, are less well respected over free flow platform independence; integration across technology offerings must appear seamless or else the technology fails (in a market sense).
People don’t flock to new devices because they are new, they do so because of the promise of greater, smoother, sleeker access to their (digital) stuff and the technology, the box itself, grows increasingly invisible.
One need only look to cloud computers, Internet protocols, the weeding out of codecs, the number of inputs on flat screen TVs (which are rarely JUST or EVEN for TV anymore), to realize that people want what they want and the technology they choose to access it, as it becomes integrated into their lives and seems indispensable, is virtually irrelevant; invisible.
How did Apple grow its market share so much and so well? Because they recognized earlier than most that content integration and ease of use is where the money is. Good technology is not about sophistication of the object but about the closest replication of ‘perfect analog’ experiences as possible.