. blog —

By joanne mcneil

Doug Aitken (Victoria Miro) at Art Basel Miami (via)

The day I moved to Brooklyn was the day my iPhone screen first shattered. I struggled to get my keys out of my purse while a group of students were waiting at the door for a friend to buzz them in. Unlocking the door in a confused jetlagged state, I held it open for each of them while juggling several bags with the other hand. After the last student entered the building, I stopped the door with my foot while attempting to redistribute the weight of my belongings. My iPhone slid out of my back pocket and on to the concrete. 

The resulting spiderweb of a crack had no impact on the iPhone's haptic sensitivity. It looked ruined but worked just as well. Eventually, I got used to reading without much eye strain. There were even some benefits. Everyone knew which phone was mine at dinner parties with iPhones strewn on various counters and end tables. I never worried about dropping it again as the screen wasn’t going to get any worse. And I didn’t worry much about it getting stolen, either.

My broken iPhone brought about many random conversations with strangers. In queues for restaurant bathrooms, on public transportation and park benches, I was asked again and again what happened, and why didn’t I just take care of it? 

"What are you doing?" a man sitting next to me on the train once asked with a look of concern. "You are going to hurt yourself!" Though I told him it still worked, he insisted, "You are going to cut yourself! What? Are you crazy?" I let him touch the screen to see the surface was smooth even over the crack. Another time, another train ride, someone glanced at my phone and looked at me, with a pitying expression, "You know, you can get that fixed. It doesn't cost much. Maybe $25. Really, it's not that much money."

People of all demographics would comment on my iPhone’s cracked screen —children, the elderly, anyone really—but it typically came from men around my age. But, this wasn’t an excuse to proposition me. There was always a whiff of rebuke. These strangers were chiding me for acting irresponsibly with Apple gadgetry. 

Takeshi Murata, Golden Banana, (2011)

There are objects that are timeless in design. You can’t improve much upon simple tools like a spoon or a compass. Brands can do this too—Dieter Rams designs for Braun fit in almost any decade and it is hard to imagine much by Muji looking dated. But a digital device is not an alarm clock or a shelving unit. It will grow obsolete very quickly. Which makes the atemporal look of electronics by Apple more uncanny, more rarefied. The personal computer as Holly Golightly's little black dress. 

The most committed Apple consumers hesitate to throw away their old products. The durable hardware and reliable operating system means old computers can be used for storage or passed on to less demanding users—parents, grandparents, schools, or nonprofits. Unlike a boxy DVD player from ten years ago, a decade-old Apple computer doesn't look out of place today. 

The iPhone in particular seems born out of years of science fiction fantasies of handheld gadgets with boundless capabilities. It appears to have arrived not from China, but from just a few years ahead of time. A little piece of the future we were lucky enough to receive early. 

A Western consumer’s incapacity to begin to imagine the perilous conditions that went into the creation of the phone mostly spares him more than minor cognitive dissonance regarding Foxconn. Sometimes, but very rarely, there are spectral traces—like test photos of the factory a worker forgot to delete. But fresh out of the box, it is hard to believe another human’s hands yet touched it.

There are two prevailing science fictional design aesthetics. One is a worn, rusty, lived-in-looking future. It is the junkyards in Philip K Dick novels and the dust collecting on Star Wars flight control interfaces. Then, there’s the world of tomorrow imagined as a sterile place of white and translucent surfaces. This was typically an earlier vision, that of post-Great Depression and post-war anxiety, although you can trace this aesthetic to Luna Park or Villa Savoye. Future worlds so clean that if you so much as sneeze in them, you risk a teletransporting vehicle beaming you back to a less civilized era. This is the aesthetic that Apple mimics and improves upon. 

Apple even held their media event last month to launch iBooks 2 at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, a building that seems like a cousin to the white iPhone. It will always feel like the cleaner world of tomorrow in this iconic white structure.

Apple gadgets only look out of place in rooms rustic or untidy. No longer are the apartments of young people decorated in thrifted, mismatching things. Instead, you’ll find uncluttered homages to the Apple stores themselves in teak wood and neutral color solid furnishings. With Target and Muji providing cost-saving minimalism, if you can afford Apple products, you can afford to live in an Apple-like space.

A willingness to try Apple products at all suggests appreciation for, if not commitment to its value of simplicity over ornamentation. Design asceticism was a way of life for the company’s founder, a vegetarian and Buddhist known for wearing the same outfit everyday, Steve Jobs. In 1982, Diana Walker for Time magazine took a photo of Jobs sitting on the floor of his living room—empty apart from a record player, records, and lamp. “This was a very typical time. I was single. All you needed was a cup of tea, a light, and your stereo, you know, and that’s what I had,” he later commented. Photographs of the interior of what was his home until his death show some basic tables and chairs—perhaps a spousal compromise.

The cleanliness of Apple design inspires more than a sense of guilt while snacking on something crumbly while using its products. Like an escape hatch from a world of reality television and rehabilitation center celebrities, most notable about Apple's brand identity is what is absent—vulgarity. Even the advertisements seem refined—simple product demos on white backgrounds. 

To return the favor, some Apple consumers practice a kind of Western interpretation of Shintoism, valuing and caring for the products as if they were living creatures. They respect the objects — their painstaking craftsmanship, and the promise of a better, less dirty, less vapid world —by keeping them in just-unboxed condition. 

This is probably why so many strangers in the city found my broken iPhone offensive. Refusing to repair it in a timely manner appears to be a rejection of the tomorrowland that Jobs and Ive worked so hard deliver to us.  

I dropped my iPhone a second time, several months after the first blow and the crack deepened. I could no longer slide the unlock button. Now it’s repaired, and looks like the future again.


— Share this Article —


Duncan Malashock 3 years, 9 months agoReply

Thanks for this article, Joanne; it's nice to hear some personal thoughts on issues I'm sure we all think about, but I don't hear discussed too often.

So I've got to say, I'm no Apple fanatic, but I have to respectfully disagree with some of these ideas.

Personally, I don't think timeless designs come from careful planning so much as they come from tradition. That's, to me, why a compass or a spoon look like they belong in time period in Western history; they already have.

Dieter Rams, on the other hand, had a set of principles that defined his specific style. It's influenced a lot of people, not least of which is Jonathan Ive of Apple, and it may be because Rams's designs are very trendy right now (http://svpply.com/search/all/braun) that he seems like a good example of something that holds up. But I don't think I'd be alone in saying that his designs read pretty clearly as belonging to a (very successful) mid-century style. And Apple too – look at an eMac from 2002 if you want see a 10-year-old Mac that looks good, but somewhat out of place today. I'm not trying to belabor the point, but I don't think successful design and timeless design are quite the same.

Your other argument is based around your "Star Trek" versus "Blade Runner" thing. It seems like you're making a "Birth of Tragedy" argument – and don't get me wrong, I think it's a good point – but I think you may be crossing some wires when you get to 1980s Steve Jobs and his New Age lifestyle; minimal possessions doesn't necessarily mean the minimal tolerance for human factors that you say the Apple designs imply.

See, whether it is now or not, back then, Apple wasn't shelling out this silent white-monolith utopian stuff. I'm sure you remember "the computer for the rest of us," their motto at the time. Their design was probably Rams-inspired, but not inhumane. That was the other guys, the ones with the DOS-based PCs and corporate mainframes. Apple's idea was to make computing friendly and relatable; that's what got them their place in the market today.

And I think some of that spirit is still there; the products are very user-centric in their design. I think it might just be the ridiculous price tag that makes people go all June Cleaver about keeping the dirt away. And on the other hand, their image has definitely become more corporate, and I'm sure you can find a hundred Wired magazine articles that compare Macintosh Apple with the Apple of today.

Again, thanks for writing on this; I appreciated it and I'm sure I'm not alone. I hope my comments are helpful.

dontsave 3 years, 9 months agoReply

I really wish you had said something about how this precious aesthetic actually masks an extremely pernicious philosophy towards computing in general. Apple's "walled garden" approach is one of the greatest threats to users' freedoms as technology moves away from the desktop and towards mobile devices.

While it may be true that there is nothing vulgar about Apple's brand identity for those only concerned with surface-level aesthetics, it definitely doesn't hold for those who worry that they may never again be able to put the computational function of their device before its immaculate form.

Matt Kowal 3 years, 9 months agoReply

^ this. +1. co-sign.

jbwhaley 3 years, 9 months agoReply

Oh, please. This histrionic hand-wringing about how Apple's "closed" ecosystem is killing personal computing is getting really, really old. Have you ever used a mac or an iPhone? (I'm guessing you haven't.) They're just as hackable, just as tweakable as any other computing device.

Nick Briz 3 years, 9 months agoReply

1st: luv to see these discussions in a space like rhizome + thnx for the insights joanne, you raise sum good points. I'm (slightly) ashamed to say that a cracked iPhone screen (on my beautiful 4S) would kill me. I'd like to chock it up to being generally a bit obsessive… but the reality is I'm not this way with other devices. duncan, you raise sum excellent points, but there's more than just the price tag keeping me so reverent w/apple.

2nd: like probably most of the peoples here, I've got a luv/hate relationship w/apple…
jbwhaley, I'm writing this on a mac and as I already mentioned I hav an iPhone, and I can say (as a developer && new-media artist) apple is definitely not "as hackable." as a user, this couldn't be clearer than with tablets: my HP Touchpad is far more hackable than an iPad, and perhaps more importantly, the eco-system is far more tolerant (in HP's case they embrace it) of the hacking. What apple calls jail-breaking HP calls "a home-brew community" – where apple voids your warranty, HP lends developer support.

…even apple wouldn't deny these things. These are two fundamentally different approches. What's getting "really, really old" is our complacency.

dontsave 3 years, 9 months agoReply

And I'm guessing you have never used anything that wasn't an Apple product(?) For the record, I have an iPad 2 and iPod Touch that I use for development. Both are very beautiful and sleek, but I continue to choose my (dull, boring gray) Android phone and tablet over them for my daily use.

Why? For many reasons, not the least of which is the option on all Android devices (an easy to find flag in the system settings) that allows me to install any app easily from anywhere without having to go through the official Android Market.

This is a feature you would never find on iOS for the very simple reason that it would put Apple's absurdly huge App Store profits at risk. Why allow average users the freedom to do what they wish with their own computers when we can force them through our own system and rake in the cash?

How does Apple get away with this? I would argue that they do it, by and large, by hiding behind their aesthetic. They want to make the claim that the pristine Apple Experience would be hopelessly compromised if users were allowed to execute any code they wanted on their own devices. This is of course absurd, but the very fact that it even functions as an argument is testament to the power of the walled garden aesthetic they have cultivated over the past decade.

It cannot be said enough: Apple is a LUXURY BRAND. Not enough people realize this. Their products are the perfect examples of form before function. Your device is first and foremost a beautiful, coveted piece of Apple Design, and only secondarily an actual computing machine. If you can't see this, then all the worse for you, I'm afraid.

Dan Phiffer 3 years, 9 months agoReply

Oh you can find plenty of vulgarity in Apple stuff. Think iLife presets, like the little song that would play by default with iPhoto slideshows. iWeb templates, iDVD menus, or Mail.app templates. Or the schlocky video effects that replaced the formerly pragmatic toolkit in Final Cut Pro X. This doesn't contradict your point. One gets the sense in these condescending flourishes that users are understood to be the vulgar ones.

Postmaster DA 3 years, 8 months agoReply

Apple success lies not in their iconic hardware design, but in catering to a nostalgic sentiment with their software interface design. the key strength in their interface design is that it makes the user think:

“I know how to use this!” (which is always a false promise)
instead of “Looks like I need to learn to use this new thing.” (which is always the case).

A good example is the invocation of faux leather in the address book application up to the latest iteration of OSX. Clearly far from the best way of presenting detailed contact information on a computer screen, but it prevails due to sentimentality and familiarity. The advertising campaigns are of the same vein, sentimental presentation.