Commentary

I, Phone: A Romance Of Garage Sale Technology

The object of his affection.

The object of my affection can lead to a downright inequitable relationship. Claire O'Neill/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Claire O'Neill/NPR

There is a fine line between ubiquity and obsolescence, and it can be argued that no piece of technology can be truly ubiquitous until it shows up at garage sales.

But far more often garage sales are the Hades where outmoded technological items end up after their owners have decided to upgrade to something newer.  Over the years, I've seen the tail end of the technological curve expressed by the things I find on sale: VHS tapes have given way to DVDs, old black and white TVs are now rarities in favor of larger color TVs (both of the analog variety, needless to say), and cinderblock-sized cellular phones are now as uncommon as 8-track tapes.

So, when I saw it sitting on the table at the flea market for the benefit of a local swim club, I had to look twice.

Black and silver, it was the definition of Bauhaus-style, minimalistic, industrial design.  The yellow price sticker ($65) stood out against the black face of the thing.

"That can't be," I thought to myself, and leaned in to get a closer look.

There was no mistaking that recessed button with the white rectangle, and though I picked it up to look at the back, I knew exactly what would be on it: the embossed outline of an apple with a semicircular bite taken out of the side and a word that will one day ascend from the ghetto of copyrighted terms into the Elysium of generic terminology:

iPhone.

My brain still couldn't get a handle on it: here was one of the most advanced pieces of personal technology on the market today sitting on a folding table, among old Playstation 2 games and last year's hottest hipster t-shirts.

A closer inspection showed why: It was a first generation model with only four gigs of memory, capable of anaemic 2G data speeds (outmoded even when it was introduced), and a roughly star-shaped spiderweb of cracks in the screen.  I put it down and moved on to the next table of goods.

But the thought of it nagged me.

Sure, I had made merciless fun of all my friends and coworkers clamoring for one for being drones and dupes, spending all that money on the latest over-hyped toy.

"Its an APPLE PRODUCT," they would invariably say in reply to any query about just why they wanted one, in the same manner a devoted Catholic will say "It's THE POPE" or a Trekkie says "Its WILLIAM SHATNER," as if the simple statement of the existence of a particular thing will silence all questions, provide all answers and rebut all arguments against a proposition.

But, for all the derision and recognition of its many limitations, in the digital heart of my heart I wanted one.

"Sure, its only 4gig," I said to myself as I moved farther and farther from this shining gem, "But you have a 2gig MP3 player that isn't even a quarter full.  You don't have to activate it as a phone and pay all that money every month for a data link, its got a wifi adapter.  And that screen isn't that badly cracked."

I looked in my wallet. A $20 bill and a couple of singles.  I looked up at the sky, at the black clouds that were rolling threateningly overhead.  I looked around and saw my wife browsing a few tables away for craft goods.

"Gimme twenty bucks," I asked as I came up behind her.

"Why?"

"There's an iPhone over there," I jerked my head toward the table, "He wants $65 for it, but I think I can get it for $40."

I don't normally haggle at garage sales, but I wanted this. With money in hand, I came back to the table and looked at it a moment.  I picked it up and turned to the people running the table, making sure they could see I had cash in hand.

"Will you take $40?"

He tilted his head.

"I've seen them go for $100 or more on eBay."

"It is only 4gig," I said in reply, looking up at the darkening sky and feeling a feather of rain on my cheek (or at least, I thought it drizzle). I resisted pointing out the spiderwebbed screen. That would have been too obvious.

He considered for moment, and with resignation said, "OK."

He also had a cover for the iPhone for $3, and I bought that without quibble or haggle. As I walked away and slipped on the case I felt giddy. I hit the power button and the screen came on, with a graphic that indicated I needed to hook it up to iTunes.  I hoped it was normal for an uninitialized iPhone.

The rest of the day seemed telescoped as I went about my previously planned itinerary. All the time I held my new find close to me in a way I hadn't done since I'd had my 'woobie' as a child; my security blanket that tattered to a ball of strings by the time my mother surreptitiously relieved me of it.

When I got home, I went through the set up and copying music to it and setting up the wifi and downloading apps and doing all the things that one does with a new computer (though this was much more a 'communicator', even if I wasn't going to be activating it as a telephone), and I was having FUN.  So much that I had to step back mentally and look at myself in my mental mirror.

"This is why they want one," I said, seeing that for a moment my mental reflection was wearing a black turtleneck sweater and round granny glasses.

Here was a little thing with no moving parts that could do almost everything my laptop could, but at 1/10th the size and weight.  You didn't need to know anything about computers to use it. It was all tapping and reading and no manual was necessary to tell you to swipe and spread and zoom.  I contemplated how maybe the $15 for the limited data connection from AT&T might not be a bad idea. Even though it was 2G, I said to myself, it would be no worse than the performance on my home wifi network (which is a slow DSL line), and that was pretty darn quick.

And yet as with any romance, learning the quirks and foibles of the object of your desire are all part of the process.

I quickly found that the iPhone only works correctly with iPhone headphones or an iPhone headphone adapter, which cost me $9.99.

It was a wake up call, for sure.  Apple's success has been due in large part to having full control of not only the software on its products, but on the hardware as well.  I had always heard that said, but this was the first time I had experienced it myself.

Now that I've have had my iPhone for a week, I can understand why everyone believes they absolutely need one.  It is a breeze to use, and is so well designed from every perspective that it doesn't just seduce you into wanting to use it, it slams you against the kitchen table, rips off your clothes and has its way with you while you have a smile on your face so wide that you'd think you were auditioning to play The Joker in a road company of The Dark Knight Returns.

But, lest you think that you are in control of this romance, you are sadly mistaken.  Every facet of this relationship is squarely controlled by the iPhone.  Oh, there is quite a lot that it will do for you:  Apple has excelled their usual high standard for user interface design, and the wide variety of apps created by third parties is a testament to how easy they have made it for people to write those apps.  But step out of the boundries that Apple has designed into their gadget and you will find that it will no longer returns your calls and starts to begrudge your petty things.

If there is one thing that dooms any romance, though, it is issues of power imbalance.

Any prospective iPhone users should do well to realize that while it has the first truly effective user interface for any information device to make it to the mass market, it is in no way a computer.  Though it can stand alone in a way that prior devices never could, it is not a replacement for having access to an actual computer (if for no other reason that you can't actually set it up without having access to a computer running iTunes).  Taken on its own terms, though, I can see why people's critical reasoning functions take leave of them when they start using one, and though I'd categorize it as more appliance than computer, there are people who passionately argue the merits of Cuisinart over Oster, aren't there?

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