Commentary

iPhone 5 Fetish Officially Off the Hook

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You may have missed this. Apple is holding a keynote presentation tomorrow to unveil its next model (or models) of iPhone. Just in case you hadn't heard.

For those who managed to avoid the flood of speculation, it is still unclear whether we will be seeing one or two models from Apple. Whether voice control will be part of the new iPhone. Whether we get a new shape and size and display dimensions. What the new camera capabilities will be. If enhanced network speeds are in the mix. How much memory the thing will have.

In other words, after months of unprecedented rumor-milling, we don't really know a damn thing about an iPhone 5 ("or iPhone 4S") until Tim Cook walks on stage tomorrow and tells us. But man, we really, really, really wanted to know something.

The rumor-fueled run-up to this year's iPhone refresh has moved into a bizarre area of gadget and brand fetishization that surely will be studied in MBA programs for decades to come. Whatever hand, visible or invisible, Apple actually has in stoking the rumor mill, is on a new level of promotional mastery.

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In the past three or four months we have seen the tech blogosphere light up on stray images of internal digi-cam pieces purportedly from the iPhone 5. We have seen fuzzy distant images of a guy on a train supposedly holding a prototype unit. Case design specs are treated like Britney Spears upskirt photos.

Much like sci-fi fan fiction or speculative illustration of Martians, we now have a sub-genre of online art that imagines what the next iPhone will look like. And like hormone-fueled teen pop star fans we have taken to teasing ourselves with heartbreaking tales of disappointment. Maybe there will be no iPhone 5 at all, some muse.

I don't exclude myself, by the way. I click on all of these stories, too. And when I am staring at some barely identifiable image from an Asian supplier that is supposed to be an odd plastic part from deep in the bowels of the future iPhone, I feel embarrassed. It is a bit like being a rock star fan who finds himself diving into a gutter to retrieve the discarded gum wrapper touched by his idol. What did I just do? For what?

Over the weekend, a stray sighting in the beta build of the next iTunes suggested to some that we actually won't even get an iPhone 5 tomorrow but instead an upgraded iPhone 4. Hearts sank. It was as if the nerdocracy was gearing itself up emotionally for disappointment, hoping quietly it was really setting itself up to be pleasantly surprised and ultimately dazzled by a revamped iPhone 5. It has gotten to the point where the rumors have taken on a kind of narrative ebb and flow, and the participants titillate and tease one another. Things are getting really strange in here.

My guess (or hope) is that there is some substance beneath the iPhone fetish. I suspect there is in this rumor nuttiness an earnest respect for the kind of clarity and leadership Apple has provided to the consumer in a cluttered and confusing culture of gadgetry. Almost all modern electronics suffer from feature creep, the relentless piling on of new capabilities (3D, HD, etc.) that struggle oh so obviously to spark our interest. The range of smartphone, TV, laptop, GPS and camera choices and feature sets is stultifying. No doubt we are attracted to the sheer simplicity of the Apple design-centered vision. But even more importantly, the Apple fetish suggests a desire for leadership in our march towards gadget nirvana.

We invest very few corporate entities with genuine authority anymore. Only a very few companies, Nintendo and Apple among them, really intrigue us anymore and are capable of leading consumers into new areas of experience. Their misstep into 3D notwithstanding, Nintendo did lead us into gesture-based and touch gaming when there never seemed to be a crying need for it. Apple's FaceTime and AirPlay features seemed slight misfires to me at first, and now I use both all the time.

All of the dogged speculation about Apple's next move often seems to be a paparazzi-like feeding frenzy of nit-pickers and nerdocrats who love gadgets for gadgets' sake. The truth may be that in an age of techno-clutter we crave the simple, if sometimes dictatorial, leadership of the Apple brand. They are one of the few companies that seem to have been successful in giving us things we didn't even know we wanted. In a consumer culture where material goods too often are markers for who we are and what we value, the power to anticipate desire is what passes for magic.

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