I rocked my first iPhone like an egg after I bought it. The year was 2011; the season was winter. The ground was muddy, but I was too nervous to take the thing on the subway. It was an absolute luxury, by far the fanciest and, in my opinion, the most fragile thing I owned – more Fabergé than peasant class.
The exact model was the iPhone 4, which looked like an ice cream sandwich from the side and felt about as sturdy. Not only was I afraid of slipping and dropping the thing: It was dark, I was in a crusty part of New York, and I looked like I was getting scared at Death Cab for Cutie shows—would anyone put me in slap the face and jerk it? The iPhone was relatively uncommon back then; BlackBerry – the traditionalists’ choice – was still more popular, but both were outnumbered by Android. Nokia beat them all. Most Americans did not own a smartphone and many did not have a cell phone at all.
In a market generally defined by dull pieces of plastic, Apple gained an edge with impeccable design that was actually less functional than most of its competitors. Many reviewers rightly pointed out that the touchscreen was worse to type on than a physical keyboard, and complained about the iPhone’s vulnerability. In these early years, it was the fashionable choice to buy one, not the pragmatic one. It was cool.
How things have changed. As of this summer, for the first time ever, more Americans are using an iPhone than an Android phone. Toddlers handle them while sitting in strollers. Parents handle them while pushing strollers. For a while during the pandemic, the Kardashians ripped through them on a weekly basis to film their show without risking exposure to a film crew. There is no mystique, no scarcity, and not much in terms of novelty. The iPhone is like a carrying case with a pair of cameras: a utilitarian stand.
Of course, that’s not to say people won’t buy new ones. On the contrary. This week, Apple unveiled its latest iPhone models: the iPhone 14, the iPhone 14 Plus, the iPhone 14 Pro, and the iPhone 14 Pro Max. They are a lot like last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and indeed the year before that. The routine is now known; each year, Apple ships a few hundred million phones to buy from perhaps millions of people who participate in the company’s annual upgrade program, and many others who aren’t. These phones are expensive – $800 and up – and certainly not everyone can afford them. But Apple gets around this hurdle with its upgrade program, which converts the initial cost into a monthly loan payment.
That, in a nutshell, is a big part of the problem: The system built around annual upgrades means that many, many people buy the iPhone and then literally owe their lives to Apple, which is better than its competitors in confining people in a “walled garden” – or, as the writer Cory Doctorow has called it, a “pasture”. What was once a bold consumer choice is now more of a sad dip in the trough.
I couldn’t have predicted any of this on that cold walk home, and not just because I couldn’t imagine ever being in a position to upgrade from my beautiful new device. A few months before my big purchase, in 2010, Gizmodo paid $5,000 to get my hands on a lost iPhone 4 prototype — the same one I’d end up keeping so cautiously — and published all of its secrets before Apple could announce them. This iPhone felt extremely new and exciting even after Apple made it all official: the first with a selfie camera! FaceTime! A Retina display! And… a gyroscope? Excellent. Apple ended up calling it the iPhone that changed everything again, and it was true. Marketing matched delivery and people went ballistic, lining up by the thousands, and digital storefronts struggled to keep up.
With a series of incremental and downright boring improvements, the iPhone 14 is the iPhone that won’t change anything. This isn’t exactly a knock on Apple. It’s an honor for the company that, in terms of iPhone quality, moves the scale from “very good” to “very, very good”. But the iPhone’s predictability is a sign of the changing cultural landscape surrounding the device — and the changes in attitudes driven in part by Apple’s own innovations. Where the iPhone once symbolized verve, it now evokes crushing inevitability. The company will produce, the people will consume and the waste will pile up (and more and more). Don’t be fooled by the branding: With the introduction of the latest devices, Apple has forged 38 different iPhone models since 2007, once all Pluses, Maxes, Minis, and SEs have been incorporated.
We are inundated with phones, and the slump many people feel about technology comes from their screens. Too many Americans have been forced to rely on smartphones during the pandemic for lack of better internet options. Polls show that most of us see major problems in the services they are a gateway to: social media toxicity, misinformation, data collection, abuse. The iPhone’s pixels illuminate the Instagram post that gives you FOMO, the YouTube video that makes your uncle question the vaccine, the NFTs that sell for millions, and the tweet that tells you to log out forever . Bo Burnham was right when he described the internet as “always a little bit of everything” – digital life has become a bit monotonous and numbing. It makes sense that the iPhone would follow suit; everything is formatted to fit the screen.
To some extent, these problems are out of the hands of Apple. And sure, many iPhone owners don’t worry about it. Still, Apple’s products can’t exist in a vacuum: Just as the company proved it was able to destroy Facebook’s advertising business with a change to its privacy features, it needs to know that its new hardware will change the world it was born in. Shaping. That world is dark, and where a new iPhone once seemed to brighten it up, it feels like the 14 Series is leaning all the way in. The iPhone 14 Pro screens are now “Always On”, as a concession to our terminal condition. And – this is real – there’s a new “Emergency SOS” feature, which allows an iPhone 14 to connect to a satellite and call for help if you’re lost, trapped, a victim of a crime, or threatened by fire. Apple promoted this with a video of a woman calling rescue helicopters from a forested mountaintop. It felt futuristic and a bit horrific, which is a nice representation of where we are. (As Buzzfeed newsKatie Notopoulos said it eloquently: “I’m pretty sure Apple knows we’re all going to die soon.”)
It is logical. After extracting so much value from the earth with so many new gadgets being created every year – did you know that humanity produces more than 59 million tons of electronic waste every year? – Big Tech looks to the stars for its new ideas. You may not have anywhere else to go. Meanwhile, we’re all shuffling through the rubble here. Occasionally lift your head and wave to your neighbor: they probably have an iPhone.