Le Téléphone de M. Jobs

In one of my lives I sometimes review short stories. Something I’ve become aware that I do is this: when I think something’s no good, or just okay, I’ll squeeze out as much positive as I can, so long as it’s honest; when something’s good — especially if it’s written by someone I know has lots of talent, I’ll tend to focus on what I don’t like about it, and ignore most of the good stuff. The outcome is that a review of something wonderful might appear to be way more down than a review on something barely okay. It’s as if the former tries to pull from above, whilst the latter tries to push from below.

There’s some factoring in of the author’s feelings, of course — I tend to assume (probably wrongly) the better a writer is, the more able they are to deal with criticism. But I think it’s something else too, and I have a feeling it might be a more general tendency of the brain, as it reaches for a sort of parsimony. By identifying what’s good about something, we locate it relative to a nothingness; we measure the distance it rises above that. On the other hand, by identifying what’s not good about something, we locate it relative to what we perceive, in context, to be perfection; we measure the distance it falls below that. Quite apart from personal feelings we might have about whatever the thing is, and whatever emotional reaction we might have to it and its creator, I think we might, as a quite unconscious strategy, navigate our reviews — whether they end up being written, or remain our own musings — according to whichever is nearest: nothingness or perfection. I reckon it’s as instinctive as the manner in which we search for appropriate physical reference points when we’re giving driving directions, say. Of course, the difference here is that physical reference points don’t come with the impression of a value judgement, but I think that’s probably irrelevant to the process. We’re just locating something relative to something else that happens to be a convenient reference.

Anyway, I was reminded of this while reading David Pogue’s perceptive piece summarising the post-euphoric griping following the Jobs iPhone keynote:

(My favorite sarcastic comment, which was a response to these responses, which were in response to my last blog entry: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but can you use it underwater? And can you recharge it using solar power? And does it have an optical scanner that detects your eyeball movements so that you merely have to look at a name in your contacts list and blink in order to choose and call him? Apple, you have a long way to go…”)

It seems to me that the most salient feature of the reporting of the iPhone keynote, and the object itself, was the extent to which the reference point relative to which responses and reactions were being plotted, was very clearly perfection. More than any of the specific praise or criticism, that fact speaks to the quality of the work Apple has done. (It was also hard not to see in the post-euphoric grumblings a sort of post-orgasmic downer; the wistful regret of the morning after a lustful one night stand. Un petit mort.)

But the thing’s a phone, all the same, which tempers my own lust. No matter how swoony the object, it’s still something which I’ve little or no use for. Or, at least, it’s being marketed as a phone, which, on reflection, strikes me as understandable but unusually timid for Apple. On its release, the iPod was essentially a single use machine: it played music — even podcasting (by definition) came later. And yet the name says nothing of music. It speaks of its purpose to contain, to seed, but doesn’t reveal what. That quite naturally prefigured and encompassed the device’s use for dozens of other tasks.

Perhaps it’s my own lack of interest in the phoniness of the phone, but it seems to me that the iPhone does quite enough other than that to merit a name that’s just as enigmatic and malleable. With some ontological strangeness, ‘iPod’ is just one of the four major categories of function within ‘iPhone’. Another is ‘Phone’. It’s a little like the old techie gag: ‘Q: What do you get when you cross IBM with [insert subject de jour]? A: IBM’, the new version being something like:

Q: What do you get when you cross a phone, a music player, a photo viewer, a web browser, an e-mail client, a camera, a calendar, and an address book?
A: A phone.

Such is the dominance of the phone functionality in our societies. ‘iPod’ begat ‘podcasting’, both the term and the concept. What, despite its revolutionary squishing of just as many new ideas and techniques into its sleek box, could ‘iPhone’ beget? Not much. Aside from avoiding the pointless squabbling with Cisco, a more distinctive and forward-looking name could have carved out new territory for the thing — or at least shone a bit more brightly in the direction the thing is going. Because it’s not going to be too long before the phone functionality is far less distinct from all the other digital communications around it.

One more thing. The post-orgasmic downer gave rise to the usual somewhat snide references to the Apple/Jobs ‘reality distortion field’ — as if the distortion from reality wasn’t perfectly consensual the night before. But there’s a moment in the keynote which is so unguarded it’s positively gauche. Jobs welcomes the Google CEO to the (vast) Moscone stage, turns, then bounces across to him on the balls of his feet, pitched over like a forward-slash. Put a pipe in his mouth and shorten his jeans by a few inches and it could be Le Téléphone de Monsieur Hulot.

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