Time and the iPhone

I am a child of the smartphone generation. This is not to say that I was unfamiliar with prior iterations of the cell phone—I can make jokes about indestructible Nokias, reminisce about T9, and recall the envy I felt toward my classmates who upgraded to the LG Keybo before I ever got my first phone. So I was familiar with the cell phone before the smartphone, which is much like saying I was familiar with social networking before Facebook. But it was with Facebook and with the smartphone that both of these domains entered a new phase of existence, and it was Facebook and the smartphone that would serve as the technological background for my transition from high school to adulthood. I cannot ignore their influence.

I didn’t get a cell phone until grade twelve, and being a technology nerd like my father, I knew I wanted the iPhone 3GS. It was the third version of the iPhone, the latest at the time, and the first time Apple had appended the “S” to the model name. When I took it out of the box I was – if you’ll pardon the hyperbole of my memory – awestruck. It was everything that the cultural consciousness has come to associate with Apple branding: sleek, stylish, desirable. Little did I know how my new iPhone would open a whole world to me, a whole new way of being in the world. But only recently have I become aware of how the iPhone not only structures the world, but time.

We have come to expect a new iPhone annually, and Apple has delivered, bringing to market a new model (or models) every year since 2007. We go through the same cycle: leaks and hype and speculation, the event itself with its polish and livestreams and live-tweeting, and finally the aftermath of think pieces and outrage and elation. The days to come see our growing dissatisfaction with our phones that are now old, or the tactile pleasure of the new in our hands. Friends want to see, to touch, to play and experiment, or vice versa – regardless, we are drawn to this thing as if by a lure. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, beneath the stage, economic and political and social pathways are diverted and reshaped and conditioned by the demands of this device, the demands of its users. A whole infrastructure supports the weight of this tiny object, even lending its name to the first ever upgrade: the iPhone “3G.” And the years pass and the cycle repeats and the musculature in our bodies becomes attuned to this robotic companion, tingling and buzzing even when it lies charging on the other side of the room. Billions of silicon singularities, absorbing information, warping life, altering time.

And then, a hiccup. The iPhone X. I won’t go into the technical details – what’s new, what’s special, what’s different. I’m only interested in the name: roman numeral ten, not the letter. It’s okay to be confused. What about 9? Didn’t you just unveil the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, minutes ago? What has happened to our continuity?

The X designation is in commemoration of the ten-year anniversary of the iPhone, reminding us that there was a time before the iPhone, that we live in the time of the iPhone, that time is the iPhone. But what about the 9? In two years’ time, after the 8S and 8S Plus, will we have a 9 and a 9 Plus, a 9S and 9S Plus? And what then? The 10 and 10 Plus? Perhaps the X-pronounced-ten will be reduced to the excision its name signifies, and the cycle will be allowed to continue. Or perhaps it will mark the inauguration of a new nomenclature, a rupture, drawing its vitality and significance from the fact that the cycle and its units have never been natural, that time is not natural.

Time is the iPhone. In 1967, the philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote that the process of temporalization, what gives us time, is possible because of the structure of the trace – the haunting of the other in the same. Time is this other, our originary lack of presence to ourselves, the impossibility of intuitive and immediate self-presence. But time, the trace, the invisible movement of this splitting, this lag, hiatus, or gap, is what opens up the spacing requisite for sight, for experience, and for memory. It is neither loss nor fall, but the space of possibility. And in this, the trace is the space of the technical, which is to say, the space of our involved and interwoven being in the world. It designates the porous structure of our frontiers, our always already being there, entangled, infected, compromised. It is the possibility of language and recollection and relation. It is the technology of time. So when I say that time is the iPhone, I am not merely exaggerating; I am trying to make clear that we are always technical beings, that time is our technology, and that technology shapes our time.

None of this is to throw up my hands in defeat, to accept the onslaught of new devices, to authorize Apple’s appellative slights-of-hand. No, this is rather to acknowledge the radical responsibility with which we are presented by this space of possibility, the responsibility to choose our technologies, to know their systems and channels and structures, and so also to know and choose our time. We have always been technical, but our technologies have never been neutral. The iPhone X highlights this condition of our existence more than ever.

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