Sometimes, when Apple launches a new device (or even an upgrade of an existing one), it’s tempting to think that the accompanying blurb is a satirical spoof. On Tuesday, the day the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus were launched in California, for example, it burbled that both phones featured “industry-first colour-infused back glass with a stunning, textured matt finish and a new contoured edge on the aluminium enclosure. Both models feature the dynamic island [which displays outputs and alerts] and an advanced camera system designed to help users take fantastic photos of everyday moments in their lives. A powerful 48MP [megapixel] main camera enables super-high-resolution photos and a new 2x telephoto option to give users a total of three optical zoom levels – like having a third camera. The iPhone 15 lineup also introduces the next generation of portraits, making it easier to capture portraits with great detail and low-light performance.”
Oh, and by the way, it also has a USB-C charging port. This information, which comes towards the end of the blurb, is both interesting and symbolic: interesting because it signals that Apple is finally bowing to the EU’s requirement that all electronic devices should use the USB-C standard by 2024; and symbolic because it demonstrates that regulators can clip the wings of even the most powerful companies if they are resolute and clear about the consequences of noncompliance.
This makes an intriguing comparison with what recently happened in the UK, when the government, faced with the resolute opposition of tech companies to the provisions in the online safety bill that would compel them to scan encrypted messaging apps (WhatsApp, Signal, Messenger, etc) for harmful content, backed off. The companies had threatened to withdraw UK users’ access to such services if the bill went through with those provisions intact.
The government, naturally, declines to describe this volte-face as a defeat. It would only require companies to scan their networks “when a technology was developed that was capable of doing so” – which if one believes the consensus of most security experts, could be never. So what it really comes down to is that, when push came to shove, the government blinked. Secretly, many Tory MPs probably breathed a sign of relief. Constituents might not be amused if their online messaging tools suddenly disappeared. And of course there was also the consideration that most Westminister politics is nowadays conducted in WhatsApp groups.
Every big consumer device follows a sigmoid curve – S-shaped, sometimes sloping to the right – and as demand for the product surges, there’s rapid technical development: faster processors, better interfaces, higher-resolution imagery, more features, faster connectivity and so on. But as the market matures and the device reaches the end of its evolution, the curve flattens out and product changes become increasingly incremental.
This is what has happened to the smartphone and it explains why the blurb that Apple composes for new versions sounds increasingly desperate. Sure, it’s great to know that the iPhone 15’s “48MP main camera shoots sharp photos and videos while capturing fine details, with a quad-pixel sensor and 100% focus pixels for fast autofocus”, but actually the camera on my 2019 iPhone 11 Pro is good enough for most of the photography I want to do with a device I can fit in my back pocket. So nothing in the new iPhone provides me with a compelling argument for updating.
The statistics suggest I’m not atypical: it seems that a majority of Apple users are holding on to their iPhones for three years or longer. This is good news for the planet, given the colossal amount of electronic waste generated by the tech industry. But it’s not necessarily good news if you’re the marketing director of a smartphone company. So how does the industry square that circle?
Apple now does it by brandishing its concerns for the environment. The iPhone 15 is, apparently, “designed with the environment in mind”. The cobalt in the battery is 100% recycled, as is the copper in the main logic board, the taptic (a combination of “tap” and “haptic feedback”) engine and the inductive charger. The aluminium in the phone case is 75% recycled and the rare-earth elements in all magnets, not to mention the gold in the USB‑C connector, are likewise 100% recycled. And there’s not a trace of mercury, PVC or beryllium in the device.
All of which is good news. But it can’t disguise the fact that the iPhone 15 – like all its fancy competitors from Samsung et al – is really just an example of planned obsolescence in the service of an economic system that requires constant growth and punishes corporations that fail to deliver it. In his next conversation with Wall Street on this quarter’s results, Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, may well extol the lower environmental footprint of his new phones. But the analysts on the call will only be interested in how many he’s sold.
What I’ve been reading
The Political Economy of Technology is a terrific review essay by William Janeway on the Project Syndicate website of Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson’s book Power and Progress.
War crime and punishment
Robert Reich on his Substack platform remembers another 9/11 in 50 Years Ago: Henry Kissinger and the Death of Democracy in Chile.
How Big Tech Got So Damn Big is a characteristically vivid essay in Wired by Cory Doctorow.