The Geek’s Chihuahua
Think back to 2007, when you got the first iPhone. (You did get one, didn’t you? Of course you did.) You don’t need me to remind you that it was a shiny object of impressive design, slick in hand and light in pocket. Its screen was bright and its many animations produced endless, silent “oohs” even as they became quickly familiar. Accelerometer-triggered rotations, cell tower triangulations (the first model didn’t have GPS yet), and seamless cellular/WiFi data transitions invoked strong levels of welcome magic. These were all novelties once, and not that long ago.
What you probably don’t remember: that first iPhone was also terrible. Practically unusable, really, for the ordinary barrage of phone calls, text messages, mobile email, and web browsing that earlier smartphones had made portable. And not for the reasons we feared before getting our hands on one—typing without tactile feedback wasn’t as hard to get used to as BlackBerry and Treo road warriors had feared, even if it still required a deliberate transition from T9 or mini-keyboard devices—but rather because the device software was pushing the limits of what affordable hardware could handle at the time.
Applications loaded incredibly slowly. Pulling up a number or composing an email by contact name was best begun before ordering a latte or watering a urinal to account for the ensuing delay. Cellular telephone reception was far inferior to other devices available at the time, and regaining a lost signal frequently required an antenna or power cycle. Wireless data reception was poor and slow, and the device’s ability to handle passing in and out of what coverage it might find was limited. Tasks interrupted by coverage losses, such as email sends in progress, frequently failed completely.
The software was barebones. There was no App Store in those early days, making the iPhone’s operating system a self-contained affair, a ladleful of Apple-apportioned software gruel, the same for everyone. That it worked at all was a miracle, but our expectations had been set high by decades of complex, adept desktop software. By comparison, the iPhone’s apps were barebones. The Mail application, for example, borrowed none of its desktop cousin’s elegant color-coded, threaded summary view but instead demanded inexplicable click-touches back and forward from folder to folder, mailbox to mailbox.
Some of these defects have been long since remedied in the many iterations of the device that have appeared since its 2007 debut. Telephony works well, and who uses the phone anymore anyway? Data speed and reliability have been updated both on wireless network infrastructures and in the smartphone itself. But other issues persist. For those who cut their computing teeth on desktops and laptops—the things that we used to mean when we used the word computer—manipulating mobile software still feels awkward and laborious. Those many taps of the original Mail app haven’t been altered or remedied so much as they have become standardized. Now, we use all software in the convoluted manner mobile operating systems demand, from email to word processing to video editing.
But to issue complaints about usability misses the point of the iPhone, even all those years ago, and certainly today. The iPhone was never a device one should have expected to “just work,” to quote Apple’s familiar advertising lingo. It is a device one has to accommodate. It taught us how to tolerate Apple making us tolerate it. It put us in our place before Apple. This was the purpose of the iPhone, and this is its primary legacy.
Then, as now, the iPhone demands to be touched just right, in precisely the right spot on menu, list, or keyboard, and with precisely the right gesture. Likewise, it demands not to be touched just after, when being pocketed or moved or simply turned to place at one’s ear. Doing otherwise erroneously launches, or quits, or selects, or deletes, or slides, or invokes Siri the supposedly intelligent personal assistant, or performs some other action, desired or not, slickly coupled to a touch or gestural control.
The iPhone resists usability, a term reserved for apparatuses humans make their servants. An iPhone is not a computer. It is a living creature, one filled with caprice and vagary like a brilliant artist, like a beautiful woman, like a difficult executive. Whether it is usable is not the point. To use the iPhone is to submit to it. Not to its interfaces, but to the ambiguity of its interpretation of them. To understand it as an Other, an alien being boasting ineffable promise and allure. Touch here? Stroke there? Stop here? Do it again? The impressive fragility of the device only reinforces this sense—to do it wrong by dropping or misgesturing might lead to unknown consequences. Unlike other portable devices—a Walkman or a traditional mobile phone—the iPhone embraces fragility rather than ruggedness. It demands to be treated with kid gloves. Even before you’ve first touched it, you can already hear yourself apologizing for your own blunders in its presence, as if you are there to serve it rather than it you. The iPhone is a device that can send you far out of your way, and yet you feel good about it. It is a device that can endear you to it by resisting your demands rather than surrendering to them.
Rather than thinking of the iPhone as a smartphone, like a Treo or a BlackBerry or, eventually, the Android devices that would mimic it, one would do better to think of the iPhone as a pet. It is the toy dog of mobile devices, a creature one holds gently and pets carefully, never sure whether it might nuzzle or bite. Like a Chihuahua, it rides along with you, in arm or in purse or in pocket, peering out to assert both your status as its owner and its mastery over you as empress. And like a toy dog, it reserves the right never to do the same thing a second time, even given the same triggers. Its foibles and eccentricities demand far greater effort than its more stoic smartphone cousins, but in so doing, it challenges you to make sense of it.
The BlackBerry’s simplicity and effectiveness yielded a constant barrage of new things to do. And eventually, so would the smartphone—social media feeds and status updates replaced work with play-as-work, with hyperemployment, a term I’ll explain soon enough. But that first iPhone resisted utility old and new. It acclimated us to the new quirks of touchscreen life, of attempting to accomplish complex tasks that would have been easy on a normal computer but laborious on a tiny screen that ran one program at a time. Today we’ve acclimated, accepting these inefficiencies as givens. But such an eventuality was never guaranteed, and iPhone had to train us to tolerate them. Like the infirm must endure physical therapy to reform damaged limbs and tissues, so the smartphone user needed to be trained to accept and overcome the intrinsic incapacities of the handheld computer.
This was harder than it sounds in retrospect. That first iPhone receded into itself at times, offering its owner no choice but to pet it in vain, or to pack it away it until it regained composure, or to reboot it in the hopes that what once worked might do so again. It was a beast of its vicissitudes. And it still is, albeit in different ways. To own an iPhone is to embrace such fickleness rather than to lament it in the hope for succor via software update. And even when one does come, it only introduces new quirks to replace the old ones: the slowdowns of an operating system upgrade launched to execute planned obsolescence, say, or via new sensors, panels, controls, and interfaces that render a once modernist simplicity baroque.
Indeed, when you would meet new iPhone users, they would share much more in common with smug, tired pet owners than with mobile busybodies. “Here, let me show you,” one would say proudly when asked how she liked it. Fingers would stretch gently over photos, zooming and turning. They’d flick nonchalantly through web pages and music playlists. As with the toy dog or the kitten, when the iPhone fails to perform as expected, its owners would simply shrug in capitulation. “Who knows what goes through its head,” one might rationalize, as she might do just the same when her Maltese jerks from sleep and scurries frantically, sliding across wood around a corner.
The brilliance of the iPhone is not how intuitive or powerful or useful it is—for really it is none of these things. Rather, the brilliance of the iPhone is in its ability to transcend the world of gadgetry and enter another one: the world of companionship. But unlike the Chihuahua or the bichon or even the kitten, the iPhone has no gender bias. It need not signal overwrought Hollywood glam, high-maintenance upper-class leisure, or sensitive loner solitude. iPhone owners can feel assured in their masculinity or femininity equally as they stroke and snuggle their pet devices, fearing no reprisal for fopishness or dorkship.
The Aibo and Pleo, those semirealistic robotic pets of the pre-iPhone era that attempted to simulate the form and movement of a furry biological pet, failed precisely because they did nothing else other than pretend to be real pets. The iPhone got it right: a pet is not an animal at all. A pet is a creature that responds meaningfully to touch and voice and closeness, but only sometimes. At other times, it retreats inextricably into its own mind, gears spinning in whatever alien way they must for other creatures. A pet is a sentient alien that cultures an attachment that might remain—that probably remains—unrequited. A pet is a bottomless pit for affect and devotion, yet one whose own feelings can never be truly known.
The iPhone offers an excuse to dampen the smartphone’s obsession with labor, productivity, progress, and efficiency with the touching, demented weirdness that comes with companionship. Despite its ability to text, to tweet, to Facebook, to Instagram, perhaps the real social promise of iPhone lies elsewhere: as a part of a more ordinary, more natural ecology of real social interaction. The messy sort that resists formalization in software form. The kind that makes unreasonable demands and yet sometimes surprises.
And of course, the kind that overheats and flips into mania. Mania, it turns out, is what iPhone wants most. To turn us all into the digital equivalent of the toy dog–toting socialite obsessive or the crazy cat lady, doting and tapping, swiping and cooing at glass rectangles with abandon.
This is a book about some of that mania, and where it might be taking us.