Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
When times are grim, and menacing clouds literally gather on the horizon, it can be immensely reassuring to have some event that restores faith in the future. All that is needed is for a confident individual to take to the stage and expound in rousing words that despite the setbacks and sorrows of today, tomorrow can be – nay, will be – even better! In moments of despair reporters desperate for good news and an audience eager for distraction will lap up these pronouncements and excitedly echo them out for all to hear. Such instances can be the moments in which a leader’s brave calls to action, or summons to unity, secure their place in history…or, as it turns out, the promise of a brighter future can just be an opportunity to unveil a new smartphone.
And so it was that the images of the wreckage wrought by hurricanes was, at least temporarily, interrupted by the sleek design of the new wave of Apple products. The pastor of a megachurch in Houston may have needed to be shamed into opening his doors to those seeking refuge, but Apple needed no such encouragement to fling wide the doors to its faithful. These ranks were seemingly swelled by people eager to marvel at a description of a future that wasn’t just a prediction of more devastation. It may be in rather poor taste to hock luxury gadgets in the aftermath of terrible storms, but it may also be that people were happy to be distracted by something shiny.
And these gadgets were shiny, indeed.
A large part of Apple’s “event” consisted of unveiling the types of things that surprised no one: the new operating system will be slightly different from the old one, the new model (the 8) will be slightly different than the older models, those older models are being slowly ushered off to planned obsolescence, and so forth. But, of course, there’s always something more! And the big reveal at this year’s event was far more interesting than last year’s reveal (when apple announced that it was eliminating the 3.5 mm headphone jack from its new models). For Apple did not merely unveil the all-new all-not-very-different iPhone 8, they unveiled the actually-pretty-different iPhone X (pronounced “10”).
Gone from the X is the home button, indeed gone from the front of the X is pretty much everything, thereby allowing the X to be a giant screen. Certainly, the X boasts tech-specs that are meant to make everyone go “ooooo” – with the tech aficionados marveling at the incremental ways in which the X is superior to the 8, while everyone else happily laps up the promise that these improvements are actually meaningfully better. And the X ushers in the era of Face ID, meaning that users will unlock the phone merely by looking at it. The future has arrived! Of course, the X features a price tag matching its marvelousness: $999 for the basic model, and even more for the one with more memory.
In short, we have seen the future! It looks expensive.
In fairness to Apple, the X and Face ID are genuinely significant things. Though not necessarily for the reasons or in the way that Apple would have you believe.
To start with: Face ID (which [admittedly] had something of an embarrassing unveiling when the exec who was demoing it failed to get it to work properly). By using a camera capable of creating a highly detailed 3D model of a user’s face, the X promises to provide users with better security than the old Touch ID system. And, apparently, Face ID is advanced enough that it can recognize users even if they wear glasses, and hats, and get a haircut…oh my! But what matters about Face ID is not that it means your face is your password, but that it means that Apple is taking something that strikes many people as rather creepy and turning it into a selling point. Apple is following the standard tech tradition of banking on the fact that people will choose convenience and cool over other concerns.
There is less than universal acclaim for facial recognition software, and the spate of stories wherein it is predicted that face scanning AI will be able to tell a person’s politics, IQ, and sexuality inspire genuine concern. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Facebook found itself accused of violating its users’ privacy for scanning their faces (in their photos) without their explicit permission. Facial scanning and recognition technologies easily spark the type of uneasiness that could be easily exploited in an unsettling episode of Black Mirror – but Face ID isn’t a plot point, it’s a sales point. Apple is forging ahead with Face ID, concerns be damned. Now, a case could obviously be made that the Face ID system works on the phone only, and is meant for the phone only; however, this misses the point. What Face ID does is that it acclimates people to a world wherein having one’s face scanned becomes normalized. The iPhone X becomes the technology world’s foot in the door that will allow them to be able to push forward with further uses of this technology. After all, if you’re using your face as your phone password, why not use your face as your Facebook password? If you’re giving Apple that information, why not give the government that information. It’s a slippery slope, but the sled on which we’re riding down it is the iPhone X.
Apple product events are rarely significant for the products themselves, rather they are significant for the technological trends they push forward. With Touch ID, Apple successfully convinced many people not to dwell on their possible concerns about biometric data – and Face ID is just the next step in this process. Face ID isn’t about the iPhone X, it’s about making face scanning technology normal. It’s about cutting short the debate on “do we want face scanning technology” by cleverly switching the topic to “don’t you want an iPhone X”? Will Face ID succeed in normalizing face scanning? Probably. Or, as Jacques Ellul’ wryly commented decades ago:
“Every computer gadget will succeed because it is carried by the mood of our society.” (Ellul, 268)
That “mood” of our society is one that loves the newest gadgets – especially when they are stamped with the Apple logo. If the US government were to unveil a plan wherein all residents (citizens and non-citizens alike) had to show up to have their faces scanned, it is easy to imagine that there would be a massive wave of public outcry. But when Apple wants to do something like this? That’s fine. True, this is starting as something optional – you don’t have to get a phone with Face ID, but when a particular technology eventually becomes dominant it has a habit of eventually eliminating the freedom of choice under the aegis of which it was originally shrugged off.
Granted, of course, the best way to maintain the positive “mood” is to make the surrender to technology appear cool, fashionable, and desirable.
It may be claimed by some that the differences between the 8 and the X don’t warrant the significantly higher price tag on the X. But to make such a claim is to miss the point entirely. One of the X’s selling points is precisely that it is more expensive. The X is a luxury item. That the X looks different from the other iPhone models means that when a person pulls out their X, those around them will know “that person has an X.” The iPhone 8 is for the standard set of Apple fans, the iPhone SE (now only $349) is for the hoi polloi, but the X? That’s for special people. It is an accoutrement for celebrities and trendsetters, an item to be hashtagged in Instagram posts (“taken with an iPhone X” or “here’s me with my iPhone X”). That the stories surrounding the Apple event were garnished with comments predicting a shortage of Xs is clearly meant to create even more of an exclusivity around the gadget. It doesn’t matter if the X is superior to the 8 in terms of actual specs – what matters is that the X is meant as something that marks its bearer as socially (and economically) superior to those with different (read: lesser) phones. And thus to be seen in public unlocking your phone with Face ID becomes a statement of social status and conspicuous consumption: “why yes, I do have an iPhone X.”
It’s worth noting again: the X looks different, because it has to look different, it must be obvious to all who behold it that it (and by association the person who holds it) is special. The iPhone X is a luxury automobile, the iPhone X is a designer handbag, the iPhone X is the right phone with which to take pictures on your expensive vacation, the iPhone X isn’t a phone…it’s a lifestyle.
It isn’t meant to be the lifestyle that you have. It’s the lifestyle you are supposed to want.
Since the iPod, Apple has been a marketer of upscale technology products that are meant to give off an aura of hipness. But with the iPhone X, Apple is now fully drawing a line between products for the hip (who always seem to have disposable income) and products for the rich. Unveiling the basic iPhone 8 at the same time as the impressive iPhone X is Apple’s way of saying: here is the cool phone, and here is the basic phone. And ostensibly that “basic” phone is for “basic” people. Which of those are people in an image and status obsessed culture really expected to prefer? Isn’t it worth doling out the extra $300 to ensure that you have the “right” gadget?
Where in all of this, one may ask, is the iPhone 9? And that too is part of the story. For what the X inaugurates is an era wherein the new basic (or to be charitable, “main”) model is always a generation removed from the one that is actually desirable. One of these phones is an X (a ten) the other is just an 8, it doesn’t require much critical thinking to see what is going on there. And it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to predict that when the iPhone 9 is finally unveiled, it will be outshone by the iPhone XI. There’s something truly amazing about Apple pouring resources into a new model, the 8, just for the purposes of making the X look even better.
The current moment is one of increasing consolidation in the tech world. Amazon is reaching its tentacles into retail, prompting Google and WalMart to eye a partnership, Facebook is safely ensconced as the social network, while Apple is securing its status as the maker of trendy tech gadgets and staking its claim to the title of maker of high-end tech gadgets. And amidst all of this – especially against the backdrop of climate change exacerbated disasters – it’s hard not to wonder what the point of all of this is? Massive corporate monopolies were supposed to be a feature of the past, not the shape of the future. So, sure, the iPhone X is shiny and incrementally better than the phone you currently have…but so what?
Though Erich Fromm wrote the following words in 1947, they have lost little of their force some seventy years later:
“We have become enmeshed in a net of means and have lost sight of ends…we have the most wonderful instruments and means man has ever had but we do not stop and ask what they are for.” (Fromm, 194-195 – italics in original text)
Though Apple knows how to throw a good event, one that dazzles spectators with a march of impressive new “means” – the matter of the “ends” remains ignored. Is it just more money in Apple’s coffers? More feel-good techno blather to distract people from realizing how dependent they’ve become on these gadgets? Certainly, it’s nice to hear that Apple’s new headquarters run on sustainable energy – but how sustainable can a company claim to be when it embraces the ethos of planned obsolescence that sends mountains of “obsolete” devices to leech toxins into soil in unseen dumps on the other side of the world? Apple is a maker of truly impressive devices, they may genuinely be “wonderful instruments,” but as Fromm pushed his readers to ask, do we know “what they are for?” Are we using these gadgets, or are these gadgets using us? The iPhone X answers these questions in a nakedly honest way: it’s for turning tech gadgets (ever more) into status symbols and inuring people to a worrisome technological development by making it seem fashionable and convenient.
With the unveiling of the iPhone X we are able to bear witness to the true coup d’état of planned obsolescence, for Apple has finally figured out a way to release a phone (the 8) that is out of style even before it hits the streets!
According to Apple the time has come to let your phone have a good look at you, but as this latest Apple event has made clear its long past time for us to really look at our phones.
Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Bluff. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.
Fromm, Erich. Man for Himself: an Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. New York: Holt, 1947.
Note, the line “In short, we have seen the future! It looks expensive” is a play on a phrase that appears in the song “The Faster You Go the Better You Think” by the World/Inferno Friendship Society on their album This Packed Funeral.