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The Price of Perfection

Smoother, shinier, sexier: why we always want the new iPhone — no matter the cost

Jay Owens
Jay Owens
Aug 9, 2018 · 14 min read
Credit: ThamKC/iStock/Getty Images Plus

“I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks.”

Cupertino, California, 2007. Steve Jobs had been carrying a prototype of the first iPhone in his pocket and found his keys were scratching the plastic. “I won’t sell a product that gets scratched,” he insisted.

So, instead, Apple built one that shattered.

Ten years later, the iPhone X launched as a device so fragile it’s at the edge of usability. Tech review site Squaretrade called it the “most breakable phone ever.” Almost half of all iPhone owners have broken their screens, not just once but an average of two times each. The cost of repair is astronomical: Out of warranty, a new iPhone X screen will set you back $279. Repairing the glass back of the phone costs an extraordinary $549.

Almost half of all iPhone owners have broken their screens, not just once but an average of two times each.

The iPhone becomes an object of anxiety:

You shouldn’t touch it or hold it directly. It must be protected, swaddled, concealed. Without a protective case, it is “naked,” and the risk involved in carrying a naked phone is a sort of fetish.

In a 2016 Fast Company article, Mark Wilson argued that this vulnerability is a luxury. “Apple’s glass iPhone is impossibly beautiful because it connotes fragility — the preciousness of something you have to handle with silver polishing gloves,” he wrote. Yet put a case on it to keep it safe, and the stainless steel frame suffers abrasions as dust and grit make their way inside.

This is an essay about the impossibility of perfection — and the costs of trying to get there anyway.

It’s also an essay about surfaces.

The actual material surface of the iPhone is meant to disappear. The iPhone X marketing copy says as much:

Our vision has always been to create an iPhone that is entirely screen. One so immersive the device itself disappears into the experience. And so intelligent it can respond to a tap, your voice, and even a glance. With iPhone X, that vision is now a reality. Say hello to the future.

The goal is not only a screen you do not notice, but one you have to interact with less and less. Facial recognition to log in. Siri voice recognition to look up the weather. Wireless earbuds. Imminently: A.I. predictive services in place of conscious decision-making.

“In all sorts of ways consumer technologies seem to drift towards a condition in which their materiality becomes backgrounded in everyday experience,” says media and performance artist Dani Ploeger.

So the iPhone, as a “thing,” must strive not to get in the way. It must send as few tactile interruptions as possible; the user experience must feel like a seamless conduit of information from app to brain. The material must not only look transparent but feel transparent.

It’s not clear whether what is created at the endpoint of glass innovation will even be glass at all. In her 2016 book, media theorist Sarah Kember discusses the “metamorphosis of glass into skin via plastic.” Glass innovation focuses on haptics, bendability, and a responsive surface that can heal itself.

But glass was always the right place to start: it carries disappearance within it.

How do you make a device that feels like the future?

One part of the iPhone’s desirability is material — its tactility and weight in the hand. It’s about the moment where fingertip meets glass and case, where body meets machine. What if you could create something so smooth and frictionless that you couldn’t tell where the interface even began?

Apple’s marketing stresses the uniqueness and engineering innovation of the materials they use:

We start with 7000 Series aluminum — the same used in competition bicycles. We altered it to create a new alloy that’s just as light, yet even more durable — it’s 60 percent stronger than most aluminum, and one-third the density of stainless steel. It has a bright, lustrous colour and a uniform structure free of defects and impurities.

The iPhone strives to be as flawless as the digital renders that sell it — down to the atomic level.

Luxury is a matter of scarcity, and so with each handset release, Apple must create a new marvel you didn’t know you lacked.

For the iPhone 7, it was the “jet black” gloss finish on the most expensive handsets. “The new jet black finish is accomplished through an innovative nine-step process of anodization and polish for a uniform, glossy finish,” Apple said in a news release.

A perfect gloss has to start with a hyper-smooth surface underneath. The aluminum housing is put through a specialized powder made of microscopic zirconia beads — fake diamond dust — to make it mirror-like by buffing out imperfections. The case is then anodized (put into an electrified bath to generate a layer of aluminum oxide on the surface) which creates microscopic pores that help the case soak up dye for a maximally saturated black color. Last, another bath of magnetized “ultra-fine” iron particles gives an extra sheen.

Even smoother, even shinier, even sexier:

But the perfection of the rendered image proves impossible in real life. As soon as you pick up the jet black iPhone 7 and bring it near your sweaty, flaking, leaking, shedding body, it’s defiled. On a surface this shiny, every trace of dust — every fingerprint, every smear — is exposed. It is not made to survive contact with the vulgar physicality of the user or face the inevitability of decay over time. It is not made to function in reality, only in the digital perfection of promo videos and marketing copy.

As soon as you pick up the jet black iPhone 7 and bring it near your sweaty, flaking, leaking, shedding body, it’s defiled.

Users knew this, but they wanted it anyway. The risk is of damage is, as we have seen, confusingly erotic:

In the hands of media artist Dani Ploeger, that eroticism — that capitalist perversion — is brought front and center.

In his video installation FETISH (2014–16), he sought to transform the tablet computer from a Marxist commodity fetish object (that is, a store of alienated, under-compensated labor) into a Freudian fetish object. Reminiscent of a classic peep show, visitors were invited to enter a dark enclosure where the tablet was, disinfect the screen, and lick it. As it is continuously licked, the screen lights up. The piece ends when maximum screen luminosity has been reached or the user gives up. The video is brilliantly uneasy to watch.

Dani Ploeger, Fetish (2014–2016)

A subsequent piece, ASSAULT (2016), explores the moment of destruction. The artist fires an AK-47 assault rifle at an iPad, recording it in high definition, and turns the video into an iPad app so that the machine can repeat and represent “its own destruction and regeneration” in an endless loop. Ploeger writes that this piece was inspired by the terror attacks that year in Europe and the way that imagery of battlefield warfare was re-injected into our hyper-digital culture through endless imagery of armed security forces in military attire.

But that’s not necessarily the only way to read it. Watch the trailer video, and see how closely the camera pays attention to him lacing up a very nice pair of combat boots and the way he pulls on an exceptionally tight pair of leather gloves. It’s kinky as fuck, is what I’m saying, and — given that Ploeger is an artist who’s made a highly sexualized body of work — I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t deliberate, too.

The centrality of these devices in our lives — the absolute tactile intimacy we have with our iPhones and iPads (or as U.K. tech site The Register christened them, the “fondle slabs”) — well, it’s obscene. It’s a desire we as a culture are not sure we control as researchers investigate whether “social media addiction” is a legitimate medical disorder, and as headlines blare how much is too much time on social media and how smartphone usage is changing your brain.

This results in an existential resentment.

ressentiment, noun: “ A vengeful, petty-minded state of being that does not so much want what others have (although that is partly it) as want others to not have what they have.”

In plain English: People feel an urge to destroy these things.

In 2005, Smash Some Stuff, a group of Canadian men from internet forum Planet Boredom, went into an Apple Store and bought an iPod, and then smashed it right in front of the staff who had just painstakingly explained the warranty to them. They did this again and again with Apple products and gaming consoles in an array of videos available on YouTube.

They’re trolls, for sure. But there’s a kind of drive to it — a psychic energy, not just a physical one. They laugh. The music kicks up a gear. “Ladies and gentlemen — oh! We’ve pulverized the screen. Look at this mess. Look at it…”

Writer merritt k captures the nihilistic joy that drives these destructionists in a SSENSE article about consumerism, sex, and desire:

Wails of despair and anger could often be heard from the crowds, intermixed with pleas that they just give the expensive item to someone in line rather than trash it. Was this a kind of psychic revolt against consumerism? A voyeuristic spectacle? A cheap stunt for attention by bored young men with no underlying political content? The answer seems to be, “yes.” Plus, it was probably pretty fun.

The destruction and dismemberment of consumer electronics is not only an accident or an act of catharsis — it’s an actual job.

Over 1.5 billion smartphones were manufactured in 2017, and the average consumer holds on to a device for just under two years. Up to an estimated 3.5 million tons of waste from personal technology and an estimated 50 million tons of electronic waste will be generated this year, up 20 percent from 41.8 million tons in 2014. Between 10 and 40 percent of this is estimated to be recycled and disposed of properly. This means that the majority is handled through (largely illegal) informal trade, which is worth an estimated $12.5–$18.8 billion per year according to a 2015 United Nations Environment Programme report.

Powerful people get to pretend waste doesn’t exist, though, and they displace the labor of dealing with it onto those they consider less fortunate. So e-waste is a problem that the West exports to developing countries.

Though it’s harder than it seems to find out where our dead iPhones actually go.

The Agbogbloshie rubbish dump in Accra, Ghana, is repeatedly described as the “world’s biggest e-waste dump” by major press outlets (including this website), though people like Adam Minter and Jon Spaull have sought to debunk myths when it comes to its actual size.

It turns out most imports of used electronics into this market are actually repaired and re-used, not junked, and resold in Accra’s computer shops in a valuable business niche that Adam Minter argues helps people in places like Ghana bridge the gap with wealthy consumers in richer countries. Only a minority of the imports end up in the rubbish heaps photographers flock to: Agbogbloshie is not the world’s electronics junkyard.

For a decade, Guiyu in China’s Shantou was legitimately the “e-waste capital of the world,” processing 1.6 million tons of electronics waste a year, in at least 5,000 informal e-waste workshops and dismantling facilities employing 150,000 people. Six villages specialized in circuit board disassembly, seven in plastics and metals reprocessing, and two in stripping wires and cables. Yet the Guiyu industry disappeared almost overnight in late 2015 as the Chinese government’s “war on pollution” imposed greater regulation on electronic waste in order to deal with what was becoming not just an imported but also a domestic problem. The place is now reportedly a “ghost town.”

In the last six months, Thailand — with its more lax environmental laws — has become the latest place to be known as the world’s “rubbish dump.” Thai locals want their government to reject this trash, however, and the authorities are already raiding factories, turning back e-waste from Thai ports, and planning to pass legislation that bans foreign e-waste and plastics entirely.

The system of displacement is backing up. The Guardian reports that in Hong Kong and Singapore — where most of the world’s e-waste is sent before being transferred to less-developed countries — there’s already a backlog of e-waste in shipping containers. If southeast Asian countries do not take it, there will be nowhere else for the e-waste to go. Western countries will have to stop sweeping the problem south and start dealing with their own junk.

Ground view of Wai Mei Dat imported e-waste, Thailand. Photo: baselactionnetwork via flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

In a project called Bodies of Planned Obsolescence: Digital Performance and the Global Politics of Electronic Waste, Dani Ploeger and colleagues from the U.K., Hong Kong, and Nigeria have sought to face the material facts of the digital technologies used in their artworks and performances, and the social, economic, and political consequences of their “afterlives” as electronic waste.

In July 2015, they visited Britain’s biggest e-waste recycling facility, SWEEEP Kuusakoski in Sittingbourne (SWEEEP stands for “Sustainable World Energy, Engineering, Environment Project”). The plant claims to retrieve close to 100 percent of materials and has been feted by London’s Design Museum as the future of recycling.

Ploeger’s account notes how the plant’s commercial manager highlighted health and safety concerns throughout their tour, and measures taken for workers’ protection. These measures include blood samples taken to monitor heavy metal levels and air quality measuring devices worn on clothing. Despite these precautions and online promotional videos emphasizing the plant’s cleanliness, their visit was “overshadowed, at times literally, by clouds of dirt and dust.”

In an interview with We Make Money Not Art, Ploeger talked about how this project revealed “the ways in which ‘dead’ electronics act on the body.” Dust is not just an object, but an agent in this vast global assemblage of consumer capitalism, desire, and destruction.

Dust is also very often explosive. On May 13, 2011, an explosion at a Foxconn iPad factory in the western Chinese city of Chengdu killed three people and injured 15. Evacuees were warned that the smoke was toxic, and investigations confirmed it was a dust explosion: the fuel was aluminum dust from milling and polishing the iPad’s casing.

Dust explosions happen in the U.S. as well, more typically with grain or sugar. But what makes dust so deadly? A fire requires three fundamental things: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Dust’s high surface area maximizes its exposure to oxygen. Plus, it’s literally floating in the air. Dust is so reactive that the U.S. National Fire Protection Association says only 0.8mm (1/32 of an inch) of volatile dust covering 5 percent of the surface area in a room is a significant explosion hazard.

An explosion is just a chain reaction happening exceptionally fast — one dust particle ignites and this heat ignites the particles next to it, in an accelerating feedback loop. The force created by a primary explosion can even jolt additional dust into the air, increasing its exposure to oxygen and creating a secondary explosion. This may well have happened at the Foxconn factory, suggests expert Brian Edwards.

Aluminum dust — the byproduct of everything from MacBooks to iPads — is particularly vicious: its particle size can be very small, and it’s an element with a particularly high affinity for reacting with oxygen. NASA uses it as rocket fuel.

Most workers in dusty environments aren’t killed by explosions, however.

One week before the Chengdu disaster, an organization called Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) released a report on Foxconn working conditions throughout China. At the Chengdu facility, in particular, the report lingers over the “alarming” occupational health and safety issues caused by chemical exposure, overwork, “military” style management, and large amounts of airborne dust.

“I’m breathing in dust at Foxconn just like a vacuum cleaner. My nostrils are totally black every day,” said one man.

Industrial dust diseases are collectively known as pneumoconiosis, but they’re infinitely specialized: asbestosis, caused by exposure to asbestos fibres; berylliosis, caused by beryllium dust in everything from aerospace to dental ceramics; and silicosis or “potter’s rot,” caused by silica encountered in many mining and construction occupations, and recognized by Hippocrates in ancient Greece and Pliny in Rome. Byssinosis comes from dust from untreated cotton; chalicosis, or “flint disease,” is found primarily among stonecutters.

No reliable figures exist for the total incidence or prevalence of occupational lung diseases, but workplace exposure is estimated to contribute to 15 percent of all adult-onset asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Diseases related to occupational factors are estimated to cause 4 to 10 million deaths per year, with approximately 3 to 9 million of them happening in developing countries.

This late stage of consumer capitalism is the business of creating desire. Surplus value — the profit margin — is produced not only through alienating, monotonous labour in vast factory towns in China, but also the acts of design, advertising, and branding that create demand for the jet black iPhone 7 or the brand new iPhone X — with all their nakedness and dangerousness. We are hungry to the point of lust.

We touch our phones 2,617 times a day, a 2016 study by DScout suggests — nearly a million touches a year. Each tap, type, swipe and click produces a reaction of some sort — communicated tactilely, haptically, not just visually; we stroke our devices, and they purr and give us an illusion of agency back. We use our smartphones to watch porn, message distant friends and lovers — or swipe right to find new ones. It is an exceptionally intimate relationship, the glass of the smartphone screen not just a surface but a kind of cyborg, tactile skin through which we sense the world and try to touch others too.

It is too much to ask of an object.

We want these devices to give us things they cannot deliver — they cannot promise us connection or agency; they cannot make our lives smooth and sleek and sexy like them; they cannot make us perfect. That’s where the anger comes from, I think — the desire to smash these things and take revenge on the ways they’ve let us down. What Apple sells us — what modernity sells us — is a vision of shiny new perfection that is in fact impossible.

This late stage of consumer capitalism is the business of creating desire.

There will be dust. There is always dust. By that I mean there is always time, and materiality, and decay. There is always the body, with its smears and secretions and messy flakings off. There is always waste, and it always has to be dealt with, and shipping it out of sight will never change that fact.

The iPhone may eventually disappear as our relationships with technology change and become mediated through new interfaces: voice control, gesture, AR headsets, or even perhaps neurally.

But the problem of dust won’t. Come the goddamn Singularity, there will still be digital dust.

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