My Broken iPhone

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.