iPhone 4S: False prophets and a phone that wants to be your friend
"For you have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge; therefore, though you plant pleasant plants and sow the vine-branch of a stranger, though you make them grow on the day that you plant them, and make them blossom in the morning that you sow, yet the harvest will flee away in a day of grief and incurable pain." Isaiah 17:10-11
"For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths." 2 Tim 4:3-4
Last night (UK time), as CEO Tim Cook unveiled the latest instalment in Apple's iPhone series, the iPhone 4S, the internet shook with chatter, millions of tweets and liveblogs apparently unable to cope with floods of traffic. Months, indeed, almost an entire year, had been spent building up unreasonable heaps of anticipation and speculation over what would come of Apple's autumn harvest.
The process of generating this hype was a task assigned, in some way, large or small, to every Apple product-owner (I include myself in this assessment, in case you're wondering) and technology watcher. Blogs and tech sites were positively abuzz with rumours of increased screen sizes, completely new designs - even a 3D display. As is now all too clear, few of these 'predictions' came to fruition.
And fruition is exactly the right word to use, since, as I suggested above, "Apple" are always keen to present new product and software launches as bearing gifts of enjoyment and possibility to the world. "I am so incredibly proud of this company and all of the teams who work so hard to bring all of the innovations you've seen today," said Cook in his closing remarks. However, like the false prophets who take the promise of fruition into their own hands, attempting to predict and anticipate the precise nature of Apple's bestowal upon mankind, rumour-mongering mac fans have tended to pander to our desires, rather than reality, telling us only what we want to hear.
Referring to many product launches in biblical terms would seem outlandish, but not when it comes to an iDevice. iDevices, of all ilks, have come to epitomise our worship of Apple as more than a brand; and our devotion to the company's quintessential style and interface design. I have, you will recall, written before on the power of these objects to instil self-sacrificial admiration in aficionados - in an essay which is to date the most popular post ever on this blog.
The false prophecies of an iPhone 5, from which many disappointed fans now feel a distinct sting and despondency, are both a problem for Apple and a problem for consumers. Like the God whose true will is obscured by misleading divinations, Apple's authority in the market space, having not lived up to wildly exaggerated expectations, is inexplicably damaged. The benevolent Apple god has failed to reward us with the bounties we hungered after, and therefore now seems, paradoxically, to have spurned us. Equally, the faith of consumers needs, in some way, to be restored. Such a task leaves in its wake an opportunity for competitors (particularly Google) to balance their smartphone market share tally with Apple (who currently dominate, but whose share of the overall mobile phone market is, remember, still just 5%).
"the faith of consumers needs, in some way, to be restored. Such a task leaves in its wake an opportunity for competitors"
The precise predictions which failed to materialise are interesting now, in weary retrospect, to dissect. A few months ago, T3 magazine gave a comprehensive run-down of hoped-for features with a "likeliness" rating. In fairness, quite a few of these turned out to be true, including the dual core processor, 1080p full HD video recording and 64GB storage. The two major areas where Apple can be said to have disappointed are a) form factor ("design" to you and me) and b) the missing iPhone 5. "WHERE IS 5??" wailed dejected tweeters as Tim Cook walked off stage, having brought proceedings to a close. Many liveblogs had continued speculation throughout their broadcast, with comments such as, "Still no iPhone 5 - but Tim Cook hasn't returned to the stage yet!!" When he did, no more fruits did he joyfully bear.
From the moment Phil Schiller unveiled a new kind of iPhone 4 with significantly improved components, but not a new diminutive design, it was clear to many that there would be just one phone announced, not two. The "two phones" rumour must surely be the most outrageous and destructive false prophecy of them all. The Guardian newspaper made a bit of a fool of itself when tech editor Charles Arthur happily added fuel to the "two phones" fire by (intentionally?) misquoting Al Gore as saying, "new iPhones [are] coming out next month. That was a plug." One commenter rightfully pointed out that Gore's conversational English could equally have been taken to mean, "new iPhone's [i.e. iPhone, singular, IS] coming out next month." This has of course now been revealed as the case.
It was really rather absurd to believe that two phones would be on offer. Rumours to this effect came very late in the day, and were ignited by totally uninformed conjecture that such a move would, hypothetically, be in Apple's interests as producing a cheaper, "budget" version of the iPhone 4 would help the firm weigh in to middle and lower ends of the wide-ranging international mobile telephone market. That might make economic sense to some, but it would be a strategy completely out of character for a company which has succeeded in defining itself as a pristine, luxury brand. As for the design of the phone, interest in a revamped chassis was frequently stoked by tech sites, like dvice.com, which provided a summary of many various iPhone design concepts, all of which remain the stuff of fantasy. If one rewinds the rumour mill to a more sober date at the beginning of the year, leaked information about the new phone's design suggested then that changes would be minimal - and such information has now been neatly corroborated. To those who expected and yearned for a new case, to have a "new" phone which looks identical to the old phone, is something of a bad dream - a cruel reality in which outward progression has been inexplicably denied. What this highlights, of course, about our understanding of technological artefacts is that we perceive their inner capabilities often quite rigidly in terms of their outer appearance. Additionally, deviation from the norm and from physical context can help a design achieve an exotic, desirable aesthetic. That is why the shinier something looked in the 1960s and 1970s, the more futuristic it seemed - because everything else at that time was brightly pastel-coloured, brown or fuzzy.
Instead, the iPhone 4S, albeit a few months late by previous standards, fulfils Apple's traditional, steady incline of product updates. The original iPhone went through G and GS iterations before we got to 4 - it would have been very surprising indeed had Apple decide to make a quantum leap to 5 so soon. Of course, that extra delay in the wait for the announcement was all the prophets needed to suggest ever more exciting possibilities were in production. Had Apple delayed the announcement by another six months, it is hard to imagine what excessively powerful features we all would have been hoping for as Tim Cook belatedly took to that ominously lit stage in California. (Let's not forget that act of theatre, too, to which we have become so accustomed with Apple. The sense of a magical unveiling full of rhetorical power and import is naturally a highly staged, central aspect of the company's identity - which is why these events are so closely watched by investors. Apple's share price fluctuated with unusual volatility during last night's performance.)
In order for the bible to incorporate doctrine undermining the influence and disastrous profligacy of false prophets, those false prophets had to show themselves previously to be a liability. There were apparently individuals who eagerly sought to piggy-back on the authority of god by speaking, out of turn, for him. However, today we are blind to the media's role in the spinning of many false prophecies and unable to exact condemnation upon them (partly because, these days, we feel somehow that responsibility for unreasonable expectations lies within us - or worse still - Apple itself). Rather, the contemporary dogma is that Apple, creating as it has done such innovative designs and products, continues to exponentially satisfy our wildest desires. This is the Epicurean folly of mass consumerism in an age when businesses are confusingly perceived as spiritual and customers, by virtue of their faith, have a right to salvation.
This phenomenon has been superimposed upon what is otherwise a basic series of transactions between client and manufacturer. It is both fascinating and unsurprising that the hypermarket has developed towards this state of extreme customer loyalty in an effort to escape the increasingly uninspiring reality of modern day purchasing in which the Western world struggles to shake off recession and the spending power of supposedly affluent populations diminishes. The ennui, the inertia of capitalism is grinding and atrophying - companies like Apple constantly have to reinstate the perceived value of products, in diametrical opposition to increasing piles of tat and counterfeit goods. For their shining superiority alone, people believe in them. Those who do so may be referred to as consumers of faith.
"the inertia of capitalism is grinding and atrophying - companies like Apple constantly have to reinstate the perceived value of products"
But while there are some ways in which a listed company such as Apple Inc may fail to meet our expectations in this curious devotee/supreme being analogy, there are other ways in which the consumer of faith is more readily gratified than the man who goes to church. For example, the Apple god bestows upon us tangible gifts and of course eagerly encourages coveting. In addition, the relationship we have with our iDevice is encouraged and fostered by Apple who continue to invest heavily in services such as iTunes and now, crucially, iCloud (which I previously compared to a heaven-like, ethereal space where any given user's data can exist securely and for an indefinite or eternal period of time). Because we have what might as well be called a working relationship with our devices, the idea of a more human interface which greets us and responds to us with verbal phrases of dutiful acquiescence has long seemed like a natural outcome of developments in AI programming - particularly for the technology in sci-fi films and TV series. For the owner of an iPhone 4S, that possibility exists in the form of a new (or rather, updated) app called Siri.
Last night I tweeted that Siri could signal the beginning of sci-fi style conversations with computers, but in truth I am doubtful that that will happen. No-one will feel comfortable talking to their phone when they're out and about, either because environmental noise levels will be intrusive, or because adopting such a mode of address in a crowd might come across as distracted and awkward. And as for chatting to Siri when it's just the two of you, the problem there is that you won't just be chatting, of course, you'll be issuing commands. To do that verbally, in isolation, would feel very odd indeed. Since Siri won't respond to you in fully human terms imbued with conversational tropes and personality, but more like a well-spoken slave or butler, the propensity to strike up that audible verbal interaction will be difficult to stimulate. In a video produced in 1987 by which Apple imagined how computers would populate our lives in the future, an academic is observed talking casually to a character within his touchscreen desktop device, who behaves like a helpful secretary and crucially has a human face on screen.
Since language and computing have notably taken conversational patterns, structures, slang and other aspects of verbal expression and consistently transformed these into written equivalents (e.g. the orally dynamic platform that is Twitter), it would seem odd at this stage to try and reverse our method of interaction towards the medium of the spoken word. The word of Apple, like the word of God, is probably best kept written down. Plenty of research has shown in the past that to dictate formal documents using one's voice is both inaccurate and undesirable, and without a truly anthropomorphised and humane character with which to interact on a daily basis, it's unlikely that Siri will exemplify the kind of relationship seen, for example, between Michael Knight and K.I.T.T. in the classic television series, Nightrider.
What we witnessed in the valley (rather than on top of the mountain) last night was the periodic appearance of an Apple CEO, figured as true prophet, to the masses. There is no individual god in the church of Apple (except perhaps the now absent Steve Jobs), though there is a symbol (or logo), rather like the Christian Holy Trinity which is represented by a trio of crosses or three-pointed Celtic trinity knots. Like the Christian God, the Apple god is somewhat amorphous, and is represented in the form of devices, objects, apps and platforms which are our direct and tangible link to the spirituality we ascribe to being "an Apple person" - perhaps, an "Appelite"?
The mix of religious and human iconography and signs which collide in the various iterations of Apple's vision, be that in iPhone, iPod or iPad, capture our imagination and give a strange rationale (in a place where there is no logic) to our devotion. Together these devices and their associated Apple-provided services (upon which their usage is strictly contingent, remember) may be thought of as the iGod, or at least his outer face. If Siri proves to be a weak messiah, we will only continue to yearn for the next, true incarnation of the iGod in the hope that he, she or it (however we choose to refer to the device or software) will free us of the captivity of modern life; of the rigidity of consumerism and its cycles.
One prophecy which opposes the iFaith, but which is therefore all the more reliable, says that such devotees will only continue to be disappointed. The iGod's grace is tied to the financial fortunes of a US-based computer business and, therefore, is somewhat limited. That Apple is perceived as a pagan god, knowingly or unknowingly, is highly beneficial for the company at present times, but because of the unbearable weight of expectation and the distorting effect on consumerist ideals that this brings, those who follow this faith have inscribed within it its own destruction. Written by hedonists, inflected with our desires without attention to any kind of reward-based benevolence, but rather a salvation which can be bought and acquired, Apple is seen as the religion of humanity, for humanity. It allows us to escape laws of spiritual and moral responsibility while supposedly gratifying us at every turn. Such a model is doomed to failure - our expectations will eventually, and forever, exceed the model's capabilities. That failure is figured in the iPhone 4S not because it is not advanced enough, but simply because it is not as advanced as believers expected it to be. Those believers, like many religious people, are left wondering, "Why??" Appropriately, that is the one question word to which Siri will probably have no answer.
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