Another Apple launch, another innovation – this time the loss of the headphone jack. But is built-in obsolescence and minimalism depriving us of the sheer joy of ‘things’, asks Aleks Krotoski
Anyone who’s ever watched toddlers playing in a sandpit knows that the concept of the death of the physical is vastly over-rated. These tiny tots – the very manifestations of Freud’s self-obsessed, filterless id – will fixate on any worthless piece of plastic within their grasp, and will cut anyone who tries to come near it. “Mine!” is the war cry of this generation (at least in their current, unsocialised guises). Physical objects are the simulacra of their mini selves, and ownership is their way of asserting control over their burgeoning sense of who they are. Like heck anyone’s going to take that away from them.
And yet there are predictions and bestsellers and trend look books that suggest that the future is not physical, but a clutter-free space in which we are surrounded by nothing but a handful of beautiful things.
There are product makers who are trying with all their might to promote their versions of this streamlined, non-physical future by shaving off unnecessary extras. For example, earlier this month, Apple revealed its next generation phone. It does this literally every year. And literally every year, it crams more into something that fits into the palm of your hand. The current version has pixels on the screen that could have powered the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, at least part way. So that’s a win for the end of stuff: iPhone has made a roomful of 50-year-old computers redundant.
Apple is a kind of poster child for shearing off the unnecessary, shocking the status quo by making modifications to its products that seem genuinely to challenge the received wisdom about what a “computer” or a “mobile phone” actually is. With each groundbreaking release, its designers have successfully changed the public’s perception by removing hard drives, memory towers and, now, the headphone jack. From now on, if you want to listen to music on your iPhone 7, you either use the same port as the charger, you use the enclosed adapter, or you do it wirelessly. Or you buy another adapter that lets you charge the device and listen at the same time.
The public will have to jump in with both feet here. The company seems to know what it’s doing; it predicted the USB revolution, the death of the CD-Rom, and has managed to get the power of a machine that took men to the moon into people’s hands.
On the surface, it seems that Apple is creating more, rather than less, physical stuff. Rather than lighten the load, the traveller’s bag has become several wires heavier. But throw forward to a world where we connect to devices without wires at all – wireless charging stations, wireless headphones – and there is less, rather than more, to tote around. Apple has thrown the gauntlet down; now the rest of us must catch up.
The classic 1984 Apple ad epitomises exactly this: the old, dark Orwellian army of worker drones is literally smashed to pieces by a revolutionary with high cheekbones wearing red hot pants and swinging a sledgehammer. Out with the old! Here is the new! To own an Apple product is to project a way of life that continually smashes the status quo.
The Apple Way can never stop iterating or, in a recursive loop, it will have to smash itself. This is a lot to ask a device to do. And, in fact, the objects Apple sells have no inherent value. The company ensures that by inflating obsolescence with every year that passes – and every tantalising upgrade. And that is an invitation to discard.
So much has been written about the minimalism promoted by Marie Kondo in her bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that it would spill out of the doors and windows of a Tokyo flat. Her way of being rides the wave of anti-physical zeitgeist: get rid of things in your life that don’t “spark joy” and live a more peaceful life in an empty house. It, and the cultures that are excited by it, are natural reactions to the overindulgences of the 20th century: insane accumulation and, ultimately, reality TV shows about hoarders.
On the one hand, the fashion towards Kondo-style purging is the epitome of 21st-century capitalist privilege. Mercilessly discarding our physical surroundings in favour of inner peace will work for your joy factor, until you need to furnish a kids’ party with paper plates and plastic cups. A cash-and-carry may not be the most personally fulfilling or joyful place to shop, but it is economical. And that one thrifty decision has filled your cupboards with 250-count napkins.
On the other, the move to non-physical is a reaction to the modern economic condition. Young people can’t afford their own homes and, if they can, they’re scarcely larger than a shoebox. The fewer objects the digital nomad has, the less that has to be lugged around. But the post-physical generation who eat up the KonMarie Method, and the millennials for whom “home” equals a laptop and an internet connection, are faced with the death of the baby-boomer generation, the greatest demographic in history. And when that happens, they’re going to have to hold every object that once meant something to someone whom they valued, and decide if it sparks joy or not.
There is – or rather, there was – a pair of rose-coloured plastic vintage sunglasses on the shelf at the Oxfam branch on Nicolson Street in Edinburgh. There was nothing that set these specs apart from the rest on the shelf except that they were the only ones that had a white tag hanging from the temple on a piece of string. On one side, “Oxfam” was stamped in a shade of lime green that, strangely, naturally matched the decade of the item it was attached to. On the other was a QR code, a boxy black and white icon. When it was read using an app on a phone, this physical manifestation of a hyperlink took the viewer through a wormhole that made the sunglasses infinitely more valuable than the rest.
These sunglasses had been owned by a woman in her late 50s who had held on to them through various culls because she remembered wearing them around town in her 20s – specifically, on a seaside first date with a long-discarded boyfriend. They had had fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, and had walked along the waterfront before catching the bus back to town.
All of this was precisely captured for the Shelflife project, a material cultures research study co-sponsored by the charity and the University of Edinburgh’s art department. People who donated items to charity shops were asked to write down what it was, and examples of when they used it.
Each physical object is part of a “value constellation,” reflected the project’s lead, Chris Speed. In addition to observing how stories affected their price, Speed and his team were interested in unlocking what was in a person’s mind’s eye when they described the thing they were discarding. “There is extraordinary in the mundane,” he said.
A physical object becomes more valuable when the shared experiences are somehow expressed, and this is what the Shelflife project tried to do. And there are other examples of objects that even more explicitly represent collective meaning. After all, what is a society other than a collective agreement of the meaning of objects? The personal story attached to the tagged sunglasses make their value much greater in Marie Kondo’s world. They probably have a greater meaning than the car iPhone charger you picked up at a service station because your battery was almost dead.
But, in fact, an old, used iPhone wouldn’t fly off the shelf in Oxfam any faster if it had one of Chris Speed’s QR codes attached to it. The irony is that the mobile phone’s social and intentional use is as an object of communication, but it’s the sim card inside that may have more actual value than the phone itself. And even that only has value to the person using it. The device only represents potential, but that can’t be realised without the other things that actually make it work.
In fact, as our technological urges progress towards well-designed, physical objects that consolidate multiple solutions within single beautiful boxes, each device will be infinitely more precise, more connected and more smart. But this will render them infinitely more disposable – because they will be concepts, rather than objects.
We will continue to absorb objects at the same rate as they’re produced, quite possibly in greater quantities as the wheels of consumption are greased by compulsive clicks and same-day deliveries. But these objects will be transitory consumables, without inherent value – or “joy sparks”, for those indoctrinated into the magic of tidying up – and won’t last long enough to become as meaningful to us as the plastic personal identifiers that the children in the playground defend as if their little lives depended on them. As soon as our present is clear of clutter, our future will accidentally fill it.
Read this article online at The Guardian