Geeks, Chihuahuas, and Our Obsessions With iPhones
The Geek's Chihuahua makes clear that Apple and iPhones are changing us in ways we might not realize. Here's how.
The Bible attributes an apple as being the source of both human wisdom and original sin. The tech version may not be much different, suggests a new book by media studies and interactive computing professor Ian Bogost. The Geek’s Chihuahua: Living with Apple reveals some of the consequences that our complicated relationship with Apple is having on us as individuals and, perhaps, as societies as well. He’s not opposed to technological development, but he is opposed to denying its effects: “The future isn’t even here yet, and it’s already exhausted us in advance.”
Indeed, ‘future shock’ has been replaced by ‘future ennui’. In a series of ten short, witty, and erudite essays that address the social impact of Apple technology (several of which appeared previously in The Atlantic) he provokes us to admit the honest truth of our relationship with Apple, and sometimes that truth ain’t pretty. Here are a few of the lessons he offers.
1. iPhones are not, first and foremost, either computers, tools, or usable technology. They’re more like pets. We like to have them around us, even though they don’t do a whole lot compared to an actual desktop computer. But it’s important to have them near at hand; to touch them, to look at them, to talk about them with others. If we treat them well, they’ll perform tricks in response to our commands: let us check email, even use apps. At least, some of the time.
Much of the time they don’t do what we want them to at all: they ignore our commands, respond quizzically to them, develop strange foibles of their own and operate according to their own whim and logic. Still, much like our reticent cat or our idiosyncratic dog, we kindly tolerate their foibles, we forgive them, we continue to pet and adore them and place them lovingly on the car seat beside us.
iPhones have become the geek’s chihuahua.
2. Apps, observes Bogost, quoting game developer Steven An, “are doing to software what they did to music: they broke it up into little pieces and then gave consumers a nice place to shop for the pieces.” Once upon a time, we fetishized powerful computers with office suites of interacting software that allowed us to multitask (remember that word?) and do everything at once (or at least enjoy the illusion). What apps have accomplished is the reverse: broken down tasks into discrete units, required us to do one thing at a time, “and there’s a risk that deep meaning slowly seeps out of every unit as each does less and less… apps are lithe and delicate and charming, but with that frivolous delight comes temporariness.”
If apps seem simple and fun, it’s because they are: “the lightness and simplicity of apps are akin to the carefree buoyancy of radio pop… An app is software that’s here, for a moment, and then gone.”
3. Apple used to stand for innovation: now it acts like fashion. The constant roll-out of new devices, repackaged on an annual basis resembles not so much technology as seasonal fashion shows, and it’s about as superficial. The suggestion that we would, or should, get the newest latest device makes about as much sense as obsessing over that slightly new cut of jacket presenting itself on the catwalk. “Even the wealthy don’t buy a new car every year,” writes Bogost. “We can’t handle seasonal revolutions, even if it were possible to produce meaningful upheaval that rapidly.”
Apple once symbolized innovation and lasting power, but it ought to learn from its increasingly fashion-conscious hubris. “The most impactful and lasting revolutions don’t fetishize revolution itself but establish a new regime that lasts over time… Apple now deals in haute couture, not in high tech.”
4. Cellphones are the new cigarettes. No, really. Just a couple decades ago -- and for decades before that -- cigarettes were everywhere, smoked by everyone. You smoked them at dinner, while lying in bed, first thing in the morning, while driving to work, and of course at every possible opportunity while you were at work. Today, out of aversion to cancer, we’ve been socially engineered to abhor cigarettes, with the exception of the handful of smokers who still huddle, exiled, in their courtyards and alleyways of shame.
A reverse process has occurred with cellphones. In the ‘90s cellphone users surreptitiously crept away to check their phones, or received the rarest of calls on them for the direst of emergencies at work. But today, everyone carries one, and checks it at every moment: at dinner, in bed, first thing in the morning. Where cigarettes used to be the social tic that bound us all together in companionable solitary pleasure, today our cellphones serve the same function, allowing us to politely bow in or out of social engagement at will. Bogost points out that we have BlackBerry to thank for this, and those who lament Blackberry’s commercial demise fail to acknowledge its lasting legacy: a new social tic to replace the cigarette, with potentially greater enduring power (at least we tried to keep cigarettes out of the hands of children).
5. Apple has disassembled the assembly line; reversed the Fordist revolution. It has rendered us all 'hyperemployed'. Once upon a time a job was expected to perform a specialized task, because that was the efficient way to do things. Today, we crowdsource the corporation. Instead of one person scheduling meetings, we all contribute our availability to online scheduling apps. Instead of editors and sub-editors and coordinators, we share documents online and are expected to contribute to their assembly in real time.
We are expected to print our own reports (and airline tickets, and concert tickets, and health plan cards), and consult online help documents on our own if we have trouble understanding how. If we write, we’re expected to self-publish our own books; if we make art, we’re expected to exhibit and auction it off ourselves in online galleries. If we’re activists, we have to Tweet and Tumble for our cause more loudly than our opponents; if we volunteer with a seniors’ charity we’re expected to maintain its Facebook presence and crowdsourced fundraising campaigns on our own time.
We spend hours filling out online surveys about our consumer behaviour in return for the chance to win discounts or prizes from the grocery store that is studying us. Meanwhile, email enables and requires us to be part of everything going on in the workplace. Specialization is disappearing (along with leisure time) and we are expected to do a little bit of everything. Henry Ford, witnessing what email has done to the fine art of the assembly line and task specialization, might well dispute whether technology still leads to efficiency.
“Increasingly, online life in general overwhelms,” writes Bogost. Every time we go online we expect to find some request or demand awaiting us, and we don’t dare stay offline too long precisely because we know those requests and demands might be waiting. And even when we think we’re working for ourselves – tweeting for our political cause, posting photos of the church garden party – we’re actually doing unpaid work for the corporations that own the platforms we’re building, increasing their value with the diminishing value of our own time.
“Often, we cast these new obligations either as compulsions (the addictive, possibly dangerous draw of online life) or as necessities (the importance of digital contact and an “online brand” in the information economy). But what if we’re mistaken, and both tendencies are really just symptoms of hyperemployment? We are now competing with ourselves for our own attention.”
These aren’t the only ways Apple is altering and shaping our world, and ourselves along with it. But for the rest – how apps are like art, how Steve Jobs was a fascist, how iPhones integrate their own obsolescence, and more -- you’ll have to read the book.