In its now-ubiquitous campaign, the iPod holds the promise of cool: silhouetted figures dance on a colored field, brandishing their sleek white iPods, serving alternatively as dance partners, status symbols and fashion accessories. It's a justifiably celebrated body of work — memorable, beautiful, consistent and seductive.
Or is it?
Since their introduction in 2001, more than 120 million iPods have been sold. Yet Apple reports that it receives a call every 6 minutes reporting a theft. And theft is only part of the problem: recently, a number of gang members tried to steal an iPod from a teenage girl, who responded by calling her mother for help. Once her mother appeared, the gang surrounded the couple, took the iPod, and killed the mother. (More disturbingly, this is only one of multiple recent examples of murder involving iPods in the small urban community of Rochester, New York, which has recently seen a significant increase in crime.)
But here's the real question: could a climbing crime rate and the rise of the iPod be related? Has the iPod's design increased its likelihood of theft, and if so, what role could Apple's designers play in developing solutions?
In the summer of 2007, Apple made Fortune's list of the top ten most admired American companies, scoring first in the category of innovation. Less promisingly, however, the company scored last in the category of social responsibility. It's recently been challenged on precisely this issue by shareholders, by the media, and by no shortage of activists. Criticisms include Apple's reluctance to eliminate toxic chemicals from its manufacturing process; its slow adoption of recycling; and its affiliation with a Chinese supplier who was found in violation of labor laws last year. Consumer watchdog and environmental advocacy groups have mounted protests as well as lawsuits in an effort to force compliance by targeting Apple's bottom line. While the company has usually been prompt in its response to criticism, its attitude on these subjects has been more reactive than proactive.
And what about the surge in reports of iPod-related crime? As early as 2005, iPod thefts were shown to have radically impacted crime data in New York City's subways: iPod-related felonies were up in the first half of that year by 18 percent. A study released this past September by the Urban Institute, a research organization based in Washington D.C., claims that the iPod "is a lightning rod for criminals" and suggests that the crime surge is directly related to their proliferation.
Oddly, in their patent application, Apple confirmed that there is a "serious problem" with iPod theft, and that iPod owners have been seriously injured and murdered. Nevertheless, as of this writing, Apple has yet to develop a widespread form of security for the iPod. To date, the only security device developed by Apple is a screen lock introduced for the fifth-generation iPod, which can hide its controls using a four-digit combination. Other potential solutions include software that would "phone home" once connected to the internet, and tracking software that would require users to log in once connected to iTunes. (Apple itself applied for a new patent last year that wouldn't allow users to recharge their iPod if they couldn't prove the device is theirs, but the company hasn't begun marketing the application.)
But if iPods are targets of theft, isn't the implicit message that iPods are objects of desire? "You can't buy ads that say that; you can't put out press releases that say that," observes David Brooks, a public relations consultant in Bedminster, N.J. "Half of you is cringing, but half is bursting with pride." Other critics lament Apple's lack of social responsibility. Clarke L. Caywood, professor of public relations at Northwestern University, says that Apple should be worried and act the part. "Maybe their product is too visible. The public relations department at Apple ought to be scrambling with the design department."
When desire turns so often to theft and even murder, how can you target, let alone measure the degree of a manufacturer's complicity? In this case, the design of the product is intrinsically connected to its desire, and while Apple's designers deserve credit for creating the most coveted gadget in recent memory, their relationship to this critical social problem remains deeply ambiguous. It's time for them — for all of us — to use our design skills to develop equally innovative solutions to issues of larger human consequence.