Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in January, 2007, before an adoring congregation, in his signature “Sermon on the Mount” style. On June 29, it became available to the public. Ten years later, the phone has spread like Christianity. There are 1 billion iPhones in use, and the device represents “the pinnacle product of all capitalism,” as Brian Merchant argues in his new book, “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.” Merchant calls the adoption of the iPhone — and its adoption of us — a “rapid, civilization-scale transformation.”
Happy birthday, iPhone. Time for a return to its origins.
In the stage show that introduces the phone, Jobs has no doubt he’s making history. The Apple logo is rendered, tall as a man, in what looks like onyx ganache. Jobs stands on the dais, haloed in the logo’s glow. He explains the novelty of touch-screen scrolling. He flashes the album art from Green Day’s “American Idiot.” He plays a good-luck voicemail from Al Gore. He speaks of magic, of revolution.
And, then, at length, he talks smack about the horrible, warty Blackberry buttons, which he intends to make obsolete with the glabrous minimalism of the iPhone.
Hairless and oil-free, the iPhone holds human biology in contempt.
Yes, glabrous: “having a surface without hairs or projections.” Merchant doesn’t use the word in his book, which chronicles his search for what he calls “the soul of the iPhone.” But glabrous may be the perfect way to describe the pinnacle fetish of capitalism. I heard it first from Marina Warner, the British mythographer, in a lecture she gave that likened the iPhone to Venus de Milo and depilated porn actors. Those idealized female forms, she said, look and feel alien, the way the iPhone does, and all three suggest that terrestrial humans — in our stubborn hairiness — chronically fall short.
The iPhone is also “oleophobic”: It fears oil. Hairless and oil-free, the iPhone holds human biology in contempt. “We have designed something wonderful for your hand,” said Jobs on that first day. But the iPhone is to human hands like cold chrome is to warm, yielding fruit.
Sigh. We fell in love with hardware that was our opposite.
I watched the Jobs keynote introducing the iPhone, and — like many others — I was charmed by the device’s sleekness and aspirational price tag. But I put off buying one. For all the Green Day it could play, it also seemed aloof. Meanwhile, my beloved Blackberry worked better than ever. The keyboard worked so well that by 2007 I could write long emails on it in mixed cases and full paragraphs. I didn’t use SMS or its goofy shorthand in those days. Designed for lawyers seeking roving billable hours, the Blackberry made it possible to actually work and write while on the go.
But suddenly, when the iPhone appeared, every phone but Apple’s started to look like a fidget spinner for the dandruff club. I couldn’t shake the idea that there was something unsightly and uncool about a raised “non-dynamic” keyboard, so when my T-Mobile plan elapsed, I switched to iPhone-friendly AT&T, and took home my first iPhone.
For months I thought of it as the Greta Garbo of my personal effects. It wouldn’t mix with my warm leather wallet or battered Filofax. It seemed to leap from my hands as if it would be alone or get cracked trying. No more writing long emails on the vanishing keypad; with my new clumsiness I became less literate, and found text abbreviations and emoji easier. I started taking thousands of rolls of pointless photographs for which I evidently needed yottabytes of space in the iCloud. I blamed myself when its battery drained too fast.
Over these 10 years, two moments in Jobs’ iPhone baptism have stuck with me. The first is when he compares the iPhone to all other smartphones, saying, “It’s way smarter and super easy to use.” The primary Apple promise: We are smarter so you can be dumber. That’s been true for me. I used to regularly open my Blackberry and even had some sense of how it worked; now I have to trust Geniuses for my iPhone’s simplest repairs.
The other line I think of is a Jobs throwaway. He’s deep into rhapsodizing about the phone’s features, and mentions the sensor that keeps your phone from hanging up if you brush against it. “You don’t get spurious input from your face!” he fairly shouts. The word “spurious” — bogus — stood out. That stuff your face says, those “inputs,” are not true inputs, in Jobs’ world. What’s true are only the inputs the phone has been programmed to recognize. For the iPhone, everything else —human skin, faces, emotions, warmth, long paragraphs of real prose — cannot be said to exist. It’s all spurious.
And that’s how in a single decade nearly a billion of us came to own the iPhone, and the iPhone came to own us.