Two Elegies for Apple
iPhones are manufactured with planned obsolescence built in: processors and RAM allocations that can’t keep up with operating system upgrades purposely designed not to account for earlier models. Apple makes too much of its profits from hardware sales, so handsets have become akin to fashion seasons, because couture can justify rapid replacement in a way that mere electronic facility cannot.
Hardware upgrades entail power and capacity. The new activities made possible by new silicon. But there’s another kind of planned obsolescence: that of degradation.
Thrice now, with three different iPhones many years apart in service, I’ve reached a point when the home button begins failing. The level of atrophy displayed in this singular haptic interface varies. My iPhone 4 button stopped working completely; on my iPhone 5, it merely behaves erratically. The degeneration mostly exhibits in the form of an overly eager Siri, like an elderly relative at a family gathering.
“What? What did you need?” With that shrill beep-beep you can’t disable, the one that doesn’t even respect the mute switch.
No, I wasn’t talking to you, Siri. You can go back to sleep. But even that takes time. She has to settle back into the unseen background of the OS, as if creaking back into a plastic-covered davenport (that’s what she’d call it).
It’s come to be expected, like any degeneracy. Like someone might apologize for her elderly dog as she carts it down the stairs, now we apologize for our elderly smartphones, and to knowing, empathetic nods. A bum home button is just a sign of a device’s inevitable end, a memento mori for our digital companions. “I know it’s old for an iPhone,” we might whisper, as if it can understand, like we might do for a Yorkie.
We say “my phone is dying” when it needs to be charged. “Sorry I didn’t call; my phone died.” But our phones also die for real. Apple sees to it. They count on it.
It’s upsetting to be lured into personifying a smartphone. It’s a burden we shouldn’t have to face. A dull knife or a failing vacuum can’t perform their jobs either, but at least they don’t incite guilt or anger. Apple’s decades-long project to make computer technology friendly and personable has been too successful. Maybe we’d be better off if we returned to the inhuman honesty of simple machinery.
Steve Jobs was a fascist. That’s what everyone loved about him: he told us what he wanted, and he convinced us we are going to like it. And we did, and we do, not because he was right (despite popular opinion) but because it’s so rare to get such definitive, brazen, abusive treatment in this era of lowest-common-denominator wishy-washiness. It doesn’t matter if he was right because his design sense is so definitive that it outstripped truth in favor of legend.
In that sense, Jobs’s departure from Apple’s helm and, soon after, his death have to be seen in the same way as would the departure or deposition or death of a dictator, but in reverse, because Jobs himself was Apple’s primary feature and value. Did Jobs successfully “download” his own authoritarianism into Apple writ large, such that it can continue into the future as a machine without figurehead? Even years later, it’s hard to say. Though it’s a metaphor rather than an analogy, most authoritarian political regimes are cults of personality, and in that respect, the golden era may be over. That’s the reason for all the elegiac sentiments we saw in the press after the announcement of his resignation as CEO and then again after his death. It wasn’t Jobs’s untimely end everyone lamented but rather the end of his regime.
From the perspective of legacy, Jobs should have deployed nepotism and divine right, rearing one of his children as a successor. Perhaps he did, after a fashion, in his close friend Jony Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of design, who survived the rule of business at Apple before Jobs’s return to power in 1997. Fascism and modernism go hand in hand: symmetry and simplicity, in the service of total unification of the population, toward the realization of its autarch’s unyielding vision. Tim Cook may make the trains run on time, but the people don’t want trains, they want cold, gray dirigibles slinking across the bright sky, glints of sunlight blinding them, so far below, so far below.