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Psychology of Technology: iPhone: The Dark Side of an Icon

Disclaimer: Please don’t take any of this post too seriously.

In just a few short years, the iPhone has become a true American icon. Since its release in June, 2007, Apple has sold more than 25 million units. In the last few days alone, it has sold over one million of the new 3G S iPhones. It has created the kind of 24/7 buzz usually associated with the likes of flesh-and-blood celebrities. The iPhone has become a source of wonder, both a status symbol and a source of derision (they usually go hand-in-hand), and is held in almost universal esteem as not only a technological marvel, but also as a simple, elegant and now indispensible accessory in a world of must-have technology. And, lest we forget that the iPhone is really just a high-tech gizmo, it has been a shot across the bow (or perhaps a direct hit) in the growing mobile-technology wars that has caused an arms race to create a better iPhone.

The iPhone seems to represent so much of what makes our country great: ingenuity, creativity, innovation, savvy, style, capitalism, marketing, and popular culture. Add underdog status (to that behemoth named Microsoft), a charismatic leader in Steve Jobs (unlike the decidedly dull, though brilliant, Bill Gates), and an inspiring comeback story, and you have all the makings of the great American success story.

Yet there is another side to the iPhone story that hasn’t received much attention, a darker side that hides behind the curtain of the carefully cultivated feel-good image of the iPhone that dominates our cultural landscape. Lets draw back the curtain of the iPhone and see what we find.

An almost-unheard-of level of control permeates all aspects of the iPhone. The development and release of the iPhone was veiled in a degree of secrecy usually saved for presidents and weapons systems. The Apple corporate machine is incredibly disciplined, as demonstrated by its tight control—some might say manipulation—of the media, using it to carefully disseminate information in precise amounts and through leaks it orchestrated.

This control extends to the selling of the iPhone which has certainly been one of the great triumphs of marketing. Apple used a “shock-and-awe” approach in which it bombarded America with funny and clever TV, print, and Internet ads to create a buzz about the iPhone that began its ascent into the iconic stratosphere.

Apple’s exclusive U.S. contract with AT&T has resulted in fewer choices and less freedom for iPhone buyers. This relationship has forced iPhone users to use the AT&T network and gives AT&T a virtual monopoly that allows it to dictate services and fees. Up until recently, the iPhone could only be purchased through authorized Apple and AT&T stores and it required in-store activation. Apple has only recently offered the iPhone to be shipped to purchasers and several big-box retailers will begin to sell the iPhone soon. The controlled, but metastatic spread of the iPhone across retail venues and throughout new mobile networks and countries suggests some grand plan of world technology domination.

The iPhone’s technology was designed to be tightly controlled as well. The battery can’t be removed, Apple didn’t allow its software to be modified, and it required that only Apple-approved software could be run on its operating system. According to Wikipedia, Apple went so far as to lobby the U.S. Copyright Office to prevent “jailbreaking,” in which the iPhone’s software is hacked and modified to allow it broader access. The iPhone’s SIM card is also locked, preventing users from changing networks. Because the iPhone was offered with few options, it created a level of forced conformity not unlike that found in authoritarian systems. Interestingly, the American people were only too happy to embrace this conformity because it was cloaked in the guise of simplicity, elegance, and social status.

As with other totalitarian tools, the iPhone has spawned an underground movement of hackers who cracked the iPhone’s code and created tens of thousands of applications and allowed functionality that hadn’t been offered by Apple. Despite initial push-back, Apple has now embraced this resistance turning them into unwitting allies by licensing hackers and developers to sell their application on the online App Store of which, not surprisingly, Apple makes millions of dollars in profits.

Finally, what would a despotic system be without its charismatic and messianic leader? And Steve Jobs fits this bill to a T. Rising like a phoenix in his return to Apple in 1996 after being ousted in 1985, Jobs has taken on almost mythic status with the equally dramatic rise of Apple as an communication- and entertainment-technology company. His presentations at the annual Macworld conference on the outsized stage feel strangely cultish. His absences from the conference garner equal attention and, to Apple devotees, portend doom. Rumors of his health and future involvement with Apple are eerily reminiscent of Kim Jong-Il.

So what does all this mean? That we should boycott Apple and the iPhone? Of course not. Apple makes great technology that is fun and functional to use. But please don’t drink the Apple-flavored Kool-Aid. After all, they’re just mobile phones. And let’s be careful because who knows what Apple will set its sights on next.

Note: Dr. Jim Taylor must confess that he does not own an iPhone, but his mother-in-law and many of his friends do.