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Survival of the Consumed

ekorn's picture

The story of evolution can provide a window into understanding the world. It lends us an explanation of how things have come into existence; and not only in a biological sense. The story has become more expansive and all-encompassing than we may even realize, and it can be used to account for aspects of society and culture. If we accept that the principal diagram for evolution draws on the idea of natural selection, then we can in turn rationalize the former ‘aspects’ from an evolutionary standpoint. Among the most rapidly changing, and therefore most visibly evolved, aspect of society is consumerism. The purpose of this paper is to explore how we can apply the story of evolution, beyond the context of biology, to understand how products have changed in order to adapt to our ever-changing personal needs as consumers.
Technology has essentially come to define and design the way we live as a human species. It is hard, if not nearly impossible, to spend a day away from technology by today’s standards of living. Though technology itself is not imperative for the survival of the human species, it has become a very important tool in maintaining our lifestyle. As a result of this need for technology, consumerism is institutionalized. The essence of such consumerism is based on the notion of supply and demand, by which profit can be made by adapting products to fit the every need of the consumer. Products, as a result, are constantly changing. The moment a new product is introduced, it is almost guaranteed that within a year in modern markets an improved version will be on the shelves ready to meet the consumer’s new needs. Here is where the story of evolution really comes into play. As in nature, where the species will adapt to better suit its surrounding environment, so too will the prototype of a product be modified to better suit its consumer. The evolution of the product henceforth begins.
The perfect case for such a process of synthetic evolution, as we will call it for the purpose of establishing that there is some creator influencing the process (a new take on Creationism if you will), is Macintosh’s iPod. The concept behind the iPod was to hold MP3 files so consumers would be able to listen and store their music all in one convenient and portable place. Jonathan Ive, the most “revered designer of the modern age” and the lead designer of the iPod, had in mind a “product that would seem so natural and so inevitable and so simple you almost wouldn’t think of it as having been designed” (Jones, 46; Jones, 57). The iPod was introduced in late 2001 to a market of not so eager consumers, as sales for the first fiscal year attest (Q1 FY 2002 Data Summary). Despite the small interest in the relatively new concept, the iPod did exactly what it had intended to do, house thousand of songs in one small and portable unit. The inner workings of the device also initially allowed for the use of “a clock, a diary for synchronizing appointments… and for photo storage” (Jones, 59). In its day, the iPod was a breakthrough product, but it still had not been exploited to its fullest potential and the vast consumer market surrounding it. Despite these initial setbacks, profits for the iPod ballooned in the following years, but not because the iPod stayed the same, rather because it evolved.
Today there are already five “generations” of iPods, each with their unique looks and features (“generations” being a term coined in identifying iPod models) (Identifying iPod Models). The iPod is now more popular than ever, almost monopolizing the market for handheld MP3 players. The reason iPods have been so successful, now selling almost 21 million per fiscal quarter (compared to the 125,000 they sold in the first fiscal quarter in 2001), is because they have adapted to consumer needs. The original iPod held 5 GB of memory (1,000 songs), was sold only in white, was around 500 US dollars, and had few additional features. On the market now, the fifth generation iPod holds around 80 GB of memory (20,000 songs), has a color screen, is manufactured in various colors and sizes, is sleeker and lighter, holds and displays videos and photographs, houses games and various other key features, and costs a fraction of its first generation predecessor. The iPod of today has gone above and beyond its original projected function. It has evolved into a better, more functional, state of being.
The evolution that has occurred with the iPod, no matter how synthetic, is one that we have witnessed in less than a decade. Though evolution in nature is a lengthy and therefore less witnessed occurrence, the adaptation of the iPod is none-the-less equal to that of the evolution occurring in the biological world. As species have adapted in the past to their surroundings and changing needs, so has this product and other products on the market. Natural selection in the technological world weeds out the weak, the products that don’t sell, much like in the biological story when species die off as failure to adapt to its surroundings. The next direction Macintosh has taken to assure that its product does not die off, is to incorporate its product into a cellular phone, a necessity for most people functioning in the modern world. If the average consumer demanded an iPod that could converse with its owner, so that the consumer would not need to spend time painstakingly searching for songs or videos, Macintosh would develop such a feature. Soon, some might say, the intelligence of such products will be at par with that of the species that made it (despite machines so-called ‘infallibility’ or inability to learn from its mistakes) (Alan Turing qtd. in Dennett, 428). It has been nearly two years since Macintosh made its last generation of the iPod, but it is highly unlikely that the product itself has finished evolving.
The iPod is a metaphor for an organism, an organism which was built with inherent traits and characteristics. This organism, in the process of evolution, is apt to mutations of its material, much like a living organism (its core and outer components, though they are not genetic in this example by any means). If the organism evolves, keeping some of its fundamental and most beneficial traits, it is more likely to survive in the world (even if it is the world of consumerism, as is the case with our study of the iPod). The story of biological evolution tells us exactly the same thing, dealing with genes instead or raw materials like plastics and metals. This story of evolution is not biological, as the story is traditionally used, but it works all the same to describe consumerism (one of our so-called ‘aspects’ of society and culture). In this story we come to understand that consumerism itself should be viewed as a metaphor for natural selection, and that the manufactured product should be seen as a metaphor for species within the system of natural selection. In the broadest of senses, the human species has essentially taken control over the process of evolution, a process which in turn produced him/her.
Apple Inc.. March 2007. Q1 FY 2002 Data Summary. <>
Apple Inc.. March 2007. Identifying iPod Models. <>
Dennett, Daniel C.. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.
Jones, Dylan. iPod, Therefore I Am. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005.


Anne Dalke's picture

synthetic evolution


Well, you had me smiling from the title on, and also had me wondering, throughout, how much of this paper was tongue-in-cheek, how much of it you intended to be taken “straight.” I liked the edginess of not knowing how serious you were in developing what you call the “metaphor” of the “synthetic evolution” of the iPod; I’m taking the risk of taking it very seriously indeed, to the point of refusing the term “metaphoric,” and replacing it with “exemplar.” I find especially fine the turn @ the very end of the paper in which you show the human species managing, and profiting from, the process of evolution which produced us.

What your detailed account of the adaptive emergence of five generations of iPods is missing is an account of the bi-directional dynamism of this process: wherefrom the evolution of what you call “the consumer’s new needs”? What adaptations do consumers make to new products, and why are we always wanting something more? (Who is “we” throughout this paper?) What motivates new “needs” in us? What’s the difference, here, between “needs” and “wants”? What’s “better” in this context? More functional? Enabling more functions? Is there a limit to the functions that a “synthetic organism” can perform efficiently? A newly evolved organism, like the iPod, alters the environment to which it has been adapted; highlighting that dynamic could add a very interesting dimension to your paper. John Berger’s chapter on advertising, in Ways of Seeing, might offer you one possible way of answering these questions.

I also very much appreciate your idea that iPod’s synthetic evolution allows us to do what we can’t do with biological evolution: witness several generations of change within a single lifetime of our own.