Commentary

IPhones Are for Lovers

"What am I going to do with an iPhone?" You don't usually get that reaction these days when someone opens a Christmas present with the Apple logo on it. But my adorably Luddite fiancée is infamously cell-phone averse. Several years ago, I lent her a rudimentary flip phone to take on a trip and stay in contact. I called her, but when she opened the phone she didn't know what to do or that simply opening the phone would activate her end. All I heard was a distant voice yelling at the handset, "I don't know what to press. Steve, are you in there?" She has tried my Android loaner on a trip or two, but we had to carve out for her a narrow usage path just to the calling function. Getting her to search for something or follow map directions on my iPhone while I drive just makes her anxious. "It went away. How do I get the map back? Oh, crap, what did I do? IPhones suck!"

So I took a bit of a chance in getting her an iPhone for Christmas. But I actually consider it a money-saving investment. She is in heavy wedding planning mode right now, and so every day (nay, every hour) can bring a wince-inducing expense. She has no excuse to keep me out of the loop in any of her visits to bridal shops and reception venues. Keeping a bride tightly tethered is a good idea.  

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My fiancée somehow found apps that embodied her creative spirit. First, she got her favorite brand in the world, The Weather Channel. TWC serves as her TV background throughout the day while she works, so she has developed a gentle addiction to knowing the temperature at any given moment. "Girls don't want to be cold," she advises. "You live in a refrigerator. You don't get that." She also found a touch drawing app and a tool that will tell her mood (internal weather?) from the touch of her finger. Actually, I can do that for her without an app.  

And to Apple's credit, once she started playing with the phone in earnest, she needed little instruction. The interface explained itself to her quickly. The Android interface always proved more daunting for her.   

But one of the unanticipated upsides of a two iPhone 4 family is Facetime. I didn't see that coming.  As a media historian, I bring to video calling a scholar's skepticism. The video phone, famously introduced at the 1964 World's Fair, has struggled through so many false starts and longstanding consumer indifference that the idea became for historians a case study in technological failure. Apparently, phone calling had become a distinctly non-visual ritual in American life. People actually counted on being invisible to the other person on the line. They could iron, watch TV, cook and even peruse magazines in order to pay only fleeting attention to the caller. Growing up in my Italian family of world-class talkers, our kitchen wall phone had a handset cord of legendary length. It literally reached through the dining room and into the living room so my mother could pretty much do a day of housework with a phone cradled in her neck. Visiting children who were unacquainted with the art of dodging this ever-present tether could easily get trapped in its reach. I lost more friends that way.  

No doubt Web-based video chat has softened the ground for mobile video calling. But Apple really has made it drop-dead simple to go to Facetime when two iPhones are talking with one another. And the effect on normal phone rituals is immediate and palpable. Our nightly phone "good-nights" are now face-to-face and wholly different. On my end, I can't get away with iPad browsing or Netflix queue-ing in background while we exchange details of our day. I also don't get caught in the act of losing focus. "Hey, are you listening?" she has been known to say. "Okay, so what did I just say?" Doh! Busted. With Facetime, this fellow has to focus on his betrothed and the conversation.  

On the other hand, there is an unusual emotional intensity to video calling. The callers are "on" in a way they ordinarily aren't. And so in this early experiment with ritualized video calling I notice that the nightly exchanges are shorter than audio-only calls. Weaving video calling into the media mix also raises an unanticipated quandary. How do you decide when to go video and when to go audio, and how do you explain the decision to the other person? A whole new layer of implications can be read into the medium a caller uses.  

On her end, the early complaint is that she has to make sure "she looks presentable" now. "I never had to worry about that when you called." Of course the unexpected upside is that the low-res forward-facing camera on the iPhone has a positive effect on one's complexion. "We look good on this thing," I said. "The iPhone seems to Photoshop us."

"Yeah it seems to even out the skin tone," she agrees. "Maybe we should just use iPhones to communicate from now on. It makes us look younger."  

Now there is something even Steve Jobs didn't anticipate. IPhones are for lovers.

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