But forced to predict which ad campaign will be remembered years from now for exhibiting total mastery of the form, I’ll go with “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC.” Apple’s series of ads portrayed PCs as nerdy cubicle drones and Macs as affable loft-dwelling creatives—using a pair of actors as human stand-ins to represent the competing products. The campaign was so conceptually clear, so fiendishly simple, that it spurred a direct response from a wounded Microsoft marketing team.
I had a few problems with the campaign’s initial tone, but many of those were cleared up with the second iteration of the ads. I’ve now come around to believing that the campaign helped not only to send Apple sales zooming, but to forever cement the stark stylistic contrast between the two leading luminaries of personal computing. A decade hence, when we picture Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, will we visualize the men themselves? Or will our mind’s eye conjure John Hodgman in an ill-fitting beige suit and Justin Long in jeans and a hoodie?
Nominated by: Farhad Manjoo, Slate technology columnist
The iPod wouldn’t belong on this list if you were looking at just the thing itself: Sure, it was a really nice music player, it sold like gangbusters, and the scroll wheel—which in later versions turned into the click wheel—was a truly innovative tech interface. Yet the iPod had its heart in the 1980s; it was just a smaller, better Walkman, if you stopped to think about it.
Still, the iPod changed everything in tech. Before the iPod, Apple was a marginal computer company. Afterward, it was a powerhouse, on the way to becoming the biggest, most profitable firm in the business. The iPod taught Apple two things: First, that its seamless, integrated approach—making the software and hardware for a device—worked better in the consumer electronics business than it did in the PC business. Second, that operations matter: The iPod was where Apple perfected its now legendary ability to make lots and lots of devices for very little money. In this way, it set the stage for the iPhone and the iPad, two devices that ushered in the “post-PC” era in tech.
Indirectly, then, you can tie the iPod to much else in tech these days—not just stuff Apple makes, but stuff all of its competitors make, too. If it weren’t for the iPod, you wouldn’t have had the iPhone, hence no App Store, so no Instagram or Angry Birds. But without the iPod, Google’s Android OS would look like the BlackBerry, and there’d be no Kindle Fire, either. You may not think about your trusty old iPod anymore, but remember: It started everything.
Nowhere Man, by Aleksandar Hemon
Nominated by: David Haglund, Slate Brow Beat editor
Aleksandar Hemon’s prose is not “luminous” or “spare”; it doesn’t “limn” anything. It is angry, funny, and sad—and full of unexpected word-combinations that convey not just the outside world but an individual’s experience of it: an elevator, for instance, “rife with a woman’s fragrant absence: peachy, skinny, dense.” That scent is detected by the nose of Hemon’s great alter ego, Jozef Pronek, in Nowhere Man (2002), Hemon’s best book ... so far. Like Hemon, Pronek grew up in Sarajevo, and came to the United States on a visit in his late 20s; he got stuck in Chicago when the Siege of Sarajevo started (as Hemon did). To improve his English, Hemon read Lolita with a dictionary close by, and Nabokov also inspires his stance toward adjectives: “You pile them up until the object is formed completely.”