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Idolatrous Design: The iPhone as Gold Standard

There are other substances which are rarer than gold, like platinum for instance. And there are several which are worth more by weight, such as diamond, plutonium and even cocaine. But nothing quite captures the imagination like 24 carat gold.

Gold has been the subject of coveting and fascination since at least the fourth millennium BC. From Olympic medals to wedding rings and entire monetary value systems, gold has played many thousands of roles across human culture.

When Apple revealed three flavours of their new flagship mobile device, the iPhone 5S, it was the gold edition that immediately attracted attention. Reviewers, for example, have frequently commented that they were particularly beguiled by the gold version. Something about it just clicked.

It was easy to understand as a statement on Apple's part - they were simply reaffirming what they have always believed to be their role in the consumer electronics space. "It's the gold standard in phones," commented Phil Schiller at the launch. Apple sets that standard, everyone else follows suit.

"Apple sets that standard, everyone else follows suit"

Everyone, but perhaps especially Samsung. Samsung, although a worthy competitor to Apple in the mobile device space, is easy to accuse of mimicry (Apple did just that in 2011 with their famous patent suit against the South Korean firm, which they later won). Indeed, Samsung almost immediately announced they too would launch a phone with a 64-bit processor and a gold version of the Galaxy S4, even hinting that Apple had copied this idea.

Who came first is hardly the point. All eyes were on Apple and sales of the gold iPhone 5S went nuclear when the device went to market just over a week ago. In China, the second-highest consumer of gold jewellery in the world, people are buying gold stickers for their iPhones in an effort to approximate the classy new look.

One guy even bought a gold 5S on eBay for $10,000. "He knows it's not real gold, right?" went the comments on Twitter.

But the iPhone, though not indeed made of real metallic gold, functions in our culture as a kind of gold. iPhones are desirable accessories, their aesthetics are praised, they are sought-after and sometimes difficult to get hold off, with supply shortages frequently accompanying launches and places in Apple store queues selling for thousands of dollars on launch day. In monetary terms, iPhones are very valuable and as a business, the iPhone line is now worth more than the whole of Microsoft.

The iPhone didn't have to look gold for it to be, in Apple's mind, presented to the world as a gold standard. That was always the intention, right from the first iteration. Gold was implied. But that we have responded in such an overwhelmingly positive way to the notion of an iPhone that actually looks gold too serves as open confirmation that, as a culture, we are ready to embrace the idea of the iPhone as an object of prestige in and of itself.

It's an object which may, if it so desires, freely reference more traditional tropes of wealth and value. And the gradation of iPhone design from brushed aluminium and reinforced glass (relatively traditional materials for hardware) to holier-than-thou stylings marks the point at which technology becomes widely accepted as something not just potentially beautiful, but unequivocally sublime.

Which is very different from something like this. Companies like Gold Genie will take your mobile phone, even a hideously chunky BlackBerry, and gold-plate it. They might throw on some Swarovski crystals while they're at it, too. Bizarrely, you can get the new iPhone 5S treated this way so that it will, in fact, be made of real gold. The cost of the most expensive edition offered by Gold Genie is a cool £2,937.

But all that is a load of tacky nonsense. Of course, some ostentatious tycoon probably dreams of pimping out his handset by cladding it in precious metals, but that seems to miss the point of the iPhone entirely. As a culture we have accepted a new gold standard that is the iPhone itself. The phone doesn't need to be real gold. It's already our most coveted idol - a thing whose look and feel is universally acknowledged as "the best."

Gold has often been associated with places of worship.

For years I've been reading consumer electronics reviews which discuss devices' industrial design, materials, ergonomics and overall aesthetic. But we've never come as close as this to feeling that a single bit of hardware could be a standard-bearer not just for a multi-billion dollar global industry, but for our very idea of what technology should be.

And what's really extraordinary is that in many people's opinion, the iPhone is far from perfect. iOS 7 is littered with niggling design inconsistencies and runs poorly on some older devices. The iPhone line is also locked in to a restrictive four inch screen size at a time when the virtues of so-called phablets are becoming more and more widely accepted.

But none of that matters. The iPhone is sold more as a concept, not as a device. In the same way, America is marketed as a way of life, not a country. The phone appeals to our ultimate fantasies about technology - it is a symbol of connectivity, power and flexibility. And it is now being considered as an interface for everything, even electric scooters. The iPhone in particular is frequently presented as the ideal intersection for everything in the electronic world.

"The iPhone is sold more as a concept, not as a device"

That dominance and reach are totalising. For many people, who would list their phone as their most valuable material possession, this sense of the iPhone as the apex of all gadgetry is now second-nature.

And this all came from a bunch of geeks like me who got gooey-eyed at flashy new bits of hardware. A cabal of nerds obsessed with function and form whose interests were once completely alien to the mainstream of society. Somehow they changed that, and did so almost overnight. They sold us an irresistible dream of pleasure and productivity. Technology became alchemy. A new gold was born.


Photo: "268/365" by Chris Alcoran. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

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