I have an old chisel, which I bought at a second-hand store in Vancouver, that had been sharpened and buffed a few times and developed a wonderful patina. I still have it, and although Seattle’s damp air has dulled it a bit, when the light hits it right you can still see the patches of wild colors, bright and elusive, like nothing else I’ve seen except perhaps trout in a river or the mystical gradient of a clear sky when the sun is just below the horizon. A bargain at fifty cents.
I have an old wristwatch, given to me by my friend, the brass bezel of which has tarnished, the dome of which is scratched, and which loses about thirty seconds a day. For reasons I don’t fully understand, it’s the only item I own without which I feel naked.
I have a copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that looks like it was used as a doorstop for a generation and then brined. Other copies don’t feel authentic to me.
I have a waxed canvas jacket that is like a coat of mail now but in a year will be as pliant as tissue. (“Old coats are like old friends,” says Hugo)
And I have an iPad. It’s a lot like your iPad.
It’s a puzzling and complicated relationship we have with technology, as it is personified (for lack of a better term) in our iPhones, laptops, and other gadgets. We hold them and touch them every day, look at them for hours on end, sleep next to them. But how little we care for them!
I know that much of this is because what interests us in our devices is not the device itself, but that to which it is a conduit. Our friends, a map of the world, the whole of human knowledge (if not wisdom) at our fingertips. I don’t value my laptop the way I value my jacket because if I lose the laptop, my friends and Google and Wikipedia will still be there, waiting for me to find another way to get at them. It’s not so surprising, then, that we don’t value this middle-man object much.
And although we share so much of our lives with these devices, they don’t last very long. We’re like serial monogamists, committed until something better comes along, usually after a year or two. Can you really be fond of something you know you plan to replace?
Yet however reasonable it appears, still it disturbs me. It strikes me as wrong that our most powerful and expensive and familiar objects should be the ones we love the least. I know that there is nothing for it; the pace of technology and our increasing reliance on it is such that failing to upgrade leaves one hopelessly disconnected. And it’s silly to say people should just be happy with what they’ve got. When have they ever?
Here is the problem: we cannot love an object which knows nothing, which learns nothing, and which says nothing.
When its screen is off, a phone or a laptop is nothing; its design, in fact, is based around the idea of disappearing while in use and focusing all attention on the screen — a tablet, off, is literally a tabula rasa. The object itself is cold and anonymous. Whether it is designed well or poorly, its value lies elsewhere, and elsewhere, rightly, lies our esteem.
Furthermore, it is built to be perfect, and anything that affects it only makes it worse. An iPhone does not get seasoned with use; it only collects damage. It does not conform to your hand; if anything, the opposite occurs. It can never learn to be a better phone, although of course the software can learn to be better software. Why should this sterility produce in us anything but indifference?
Lastly, the device has no voice of its own.. Unlike a room, or a car, or a pair of jeans, or, of course, a person, your phone does not collect stories and tell them to you when you see it. That is to say, you have memories with your phone, but not of it. Because it doesn’t stay with you for long, and because its job is to be a facilitator, never its own end, it will never be anything but an accessory to memory, never the memory itself.
A slab of glass; flawless, because featureless. Who could love such a thing?
Naturally there are some exceptions to all this, because it’s a strong tendency, not a rule. I myself have memories of a phone or two, and of how one gadget was better than the others for some reason. Some, like the original iPhone, even acquired a patina! There are some choices we can make that produce a modicum of expression: color, brand, and so on. But generally speaking there is not much reason to like these things in and of themselves — only for what they bring.
It’s not going to be like this forever, though. Where we are in the long story of personal technology is at a point where devices simply aren’t personal. That will change. Will there ever be a laptop that needs to be broken in, and improves as you use it? Devices radically tailored to your needs, your lifestyle, your body? A phone that, when you forget it at home, makes you go back not because you’re afraid you’ll miss an email, but because you like the way it feels and the times you’ve gone through as a pair? Why not?
I think people want to have objects that they can love. That’s not something that will happen until the object reaches a maturity of design to which some things don’t arrive for centuries. Luckily, the pace of innovation in our devices is faster than that of, say, the wheel, so that day may come soon. Sometimes a watch is more than a watch, a book more than a book, a chisel more than a chisel. I look forward to the day when my computer is more than a computer.