Illustration: Ella Baron
Every time that we sit down to work in Oxford there is one thing we are guaranteed to see. From the Bodleian Library to any of Oxford’s central coff ee shops, the gleam of a backlit-fruit-centrally-framed-within-finished-aluminium has become a norm.
Here in the Radcliffe Camera, as I write, I sit as part of a static conveyor belt of some twenty Apple Macs – all of which happen to be either 13, or 15 inch Pro models.
From base observation, most of the student Mac owners I know rarely engage in graphic design, or music production – occupations that might warrant splashing out on one of the most expensive laptops on the mainstream market.
The reality is that most of Oxford’s Mac users have spent at least twice the amount of money an adequate PC might cost, student discount included, all for the purpose of writing Word documents. I don’t think any myths are being dispelled when I say that the task being completed by a majority of students sat in Oxford’s libraries – that is periodically scrolling through social media while trying to write an essay – is in no way substantially enhanced by their Apple Mac computer. The truth is, students buy Macs because they look nice. They buy them because they are Apple products. They buy them because they can.
You might ask why the hell this is important. Some people might have saved up, right? Aren’t cheap laptops a false economy? The point is that personal computers, iPhones included, are becoming the most prevalent signifiers of material wealth and privilege among students. Buying an Apple Mac for the purpose of writing Word documents is the symbolic equivalent of inner city dwellers doing the school run in a four-wheel drive Range Rover. As an aside, if anyone is interested in seeing the largest congregation of unnecessary and profoundly ugly four-wheel drives in Oxford, just go to Magdalen College School at picking-up time – you won’t be disappointed.
This kind of consumer behaviour has very little to do with necessity, and a great deal to do with identity. At the beginning of One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse famously wrote “the people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.”
Within hyper-consumerist, modern capitalism we are validated by what we consume – finding identity in the things we own. Clearly a vast number of Oxford’s students have found their soul in the MacBook. It is the luxury item of the modern student.
But the relationship between identity and consumer choice among many students is rarely straightforward. Sat opposite me right now for instance, I see students like me: many of them wearing fashionable second-hand jumpers to go nicely with their first-hand MacBooks. Clearly the irony passes us by. What kind of crisis of identity manifestsitself in this desire to appear fashionably insouciant about one’s clothes, but extravagant in one’s choice of technology? It is but one of the strange anxieties of modern middle-class youth identity.
There is, however, a more pernicious consequence to the cult of Apple. The omnipresence of the MacBook in Oxford can only serve to distort students’ perceptions of what ‘normal’ levels of wealth look like. Many students, and a significant proportion of the population, simply cannot afford to consume in the way society screams at them to do. In an Oxford where MacBook or iPhone ownership is normalised among the student body, the only consequence can be further alienation for those who cannot afford to buy into this warped ‘norm’.
Although it seems things are changing, it is still fairly unfashionable to talk about class on the mainstream Oxford left, which is a reflection of recent historical trends. Yet at this university, above all others, it is crucially important that students start talking and thinking more about class.
If not a prophylactic, it can at least allow us to be aware of the disease we are part of. It is the only way to understand the abnormality of Oxford, and the cult of the MacBook fully. Mike Savage, a Professor of Sociology at the LSE, identifies Oxford as ‘paramount’ in a short list of UK higher education institutions which crystallise an “increasingly cohesive social and cultural elite, whose lives and experiences are separated from the majority of the population.”
When you next sit in an Oxford library or lecture hall and are astonished – or more scarily not astonished – by the ubiquity of the MacBook, just remind yourself that you have been segregated from British society. Figures for 2014 showed that only seven pecent of British children attend fee-paying schools, but made up 43.2 percent of Oxford University undergraduates that year. In this context, the cult of the MacBook is not entirely unsurprising.
It therefore remains healthy and necessary to remind ourselves that Oxford University is anything but a ‘normal’ environment. We belong to an institution in which a large proportion of students had their parents pay for their education, with many of the rest having come from grammar schools, which disproportionately cater to the middle classes.
To believe that you sit among a student body which even hints at being representative of wider society is a joke, but a joke that becomes less and less funny, and more and more familiar, the more we become acculturated to the environment we study in.
It’s a joke that has gone so far as to make me, and many others, perceive a MacBook Pro as standard student equipment, rather than what it really is – an extravagant signifier of wealthy student identity.