Expression Through Our Phones

What a lack of choice means for identity

What happens when the power of the free market allows phones like the iPhone and Galaxy to consume majority stake of the mobile device landscape? Has our culture spoken, unanimously agreeing that we’re satisfied with ubiquity at the cost of expression?

Apple recently celebrated its 1,000,000,000 iPhone, all one billion devices nearly indistinguishable when it comes to function and appearance. Cultures such as the Japanese have not gone this far down the path of universality, still providing consumers with exhaustive choice for their mobile device. However, if substantial variety is not our forte in the US, it has been quite the journey and there is much to question here.

In the early 2000’s, phones were known for their motley shapes, sizes, colors and functional specialties. There was nearly an endless choice of makes and models, and the phone one had said a lot about them. Some devices were developed with listening to music in mind, others for watching television. During this time, prioritizing camera quality over a QWERTY keyboard said just as much as whether one shelled out for the newest model or remained satisfied with last year’s brick. Whether it’s a Bentley or a Prius, or a Motorola Razr or a LG enV, product ownership and exhibition (or conspicuous consumption) has had its roots in identity formation and expression for as long as psychologists have been studying the field. Displaying what we prefer in function says who we are as individuals.

However today, such perceivable distinctions in mobile devices have become extinct in the present day of the monolithic iPhone. Apple has meekly offered few choices in color, but how deep do those shades genuinely go? Is there truly a difference between Black and Jet Black? While cases may also act as a proxy, they do not speak to the device selection itself. Where this leads us is down the path of arguing that it is now the media and functions used within the device that denote our identity, whether it’s our personal texts, photos or apps. However, these cues are not on public display and in the flesh, which is the antithesis of what expression and identity stand for.

Andy Warhol once stated, “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.” The same can be said about the iPhone today. With all the iPhones in use throughout the world, not one is significantly better than the other. So what happens when the products we’ve once used to denote identity become universal and such cues are internalized within the device? Does identity and status subsequently become universal?

The horse, crocodile or swoosh on one’s chest is implicitly used to manifest who that person is at a given time. Such external cues are invaluable. To this point, there are hundreds of cars, which all complete the task of getting you from Point A to Point B, but by selecting one over the other, we are physically building out who we are through priorities (price, speed, safety, flashiness, etc.). These priorities externalize ourselves. This goes for all consumer products.

So when time, money and resources are growing in the mobile device’s favor as the sole product to embody, catalogue and document who we are, what happens when these artifacts become externally indistinguishable? Science-fiction has notably always imagined cultures where everyone dresses the same. While we are nearly there with our phones, we’ve yet to determine if uniform clothing, products and services are facets of a utopian or dystopian future.

This past summer it was announced that Google will be suspending its Project ARA, an experiment in the re-introduction of the personalized mobile device, and more specifically the inauguration of the modular device with interchangeable pieces. The development of such a project acknowledged the potential desire, but the lack of follow-through reveals the true scarcity of motivation and envisioned outcomes. It would be such modular devices that would put us back on track when it comes to displaying who we are through our mobile devices.

Note, like the phones in the early 2000’s and the potential modular phones of tomorrow, the aesthetics of the phone are neither dictating choice nor acting as the sole means for expression. Rather it’s the functionality of specific differentiators, whether that’s a QWERTY keyboard or soon to be extra battery pack. Here, it’s the specific selections that one makes and ultimately put on display that denotes identity. By prioritizing a QWERTY keyboard or an extra battery pack, one is physically expressing their character through their device. The function one values and decides to add, will physically express the type of person he or she is. It is the iPhone’s inability to physically express such characteristics that is so concerning in this case.

All shirts serve the same fundamental purpose. All cars serve the same fundamental purpose. And all toasters serve the same fundamental purpose. However, every mentioned product has available choice and those differences lay in their ability to express contrastive characteristics from each other. In layman’s terms, modular devices will help individuals to better optimize their experiences while simultaneously expressing priorities and characteristics. Now, various functions exist within the device, just not on display. This lack of display is what makes phones today so divergent from any other consumer product on the market from shirts to cars to toasters. iPhones do not allow us to publicly display how and why we use them, inhibiting our ability to project an identity.

And as we know that the mobile device is no longer an extension, but rather an embodiment of our actual lives and identity today, wouldn’t it then make sense for these devices to physically and visually reflect our very own differences?

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