The Human Condition:

Beauty Beneath the Beast – August 4, 2013

iPhone 4

I own an iPhone 4. I admit unashamedly that I love it for its pure physical beauty. The elegant, brushed-steel band wraps two panes of black-black, hardened glass and supports a few slightly raised and rounded buttons bearing minimal markings. The object’s proportions are perfect, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, except that where the monolith had pointed corners and sharp edges, this phone has rounded curves reminiscent of the serifs on the calligraphy Steven Jobs once studied. Aside from the tiny amount of travel in the steel buttons, the phone as a machine has no moving parts. It looks, feels, and functions like something a visitor from the 23rd century just happened to leave behind.1

For years I carried around a notebook and pen, because a writer needs those capture to random thoughts—the flood tide of any work in progress—and a pocket calculator, because I just can’t do fast and accurate math standing up. About fifteen years ago I added a cell phone to the carry-all collection, and it was the approximate size and shape of hotdog bun. Ever since, I’ve been progressing through the technological solutions, first moving to a Japanese “personal data assistant,” or PDA, with an awkward and sometimes incomprehensible operating system. I carried that with a notebook as backup plus the phone. I later moved through a series of Palms devices, with their angular and often-wrong writing system. All of these were bulky units with strangely stylized angles, bevels, and bezels on their cases. I didn’t know it then, but I was groping my way toward the elegance and multifunctionality of the iPhone.2

Which brings me to the curiosity. Brushed steel and hardened glass are fairly durable. Reviewers whom I read before buying the phone said they just dropped it in a briefcase and walked off; it still looked pristine after a couple of weeks of rattling around under such casual handling. But at the point of purchase I bought a protective case for it. I did this with my previous iPhones, which had somewhat more delicate plastic cases and unhardened glass. I’ve now gone through a couple of these case protectors for the iPhone 4.3 Some have looked like those bulky clear-plastic boxes into which stores lock CDs and software, to make them harder to shoplift. The most recent case is an Otterbox, which covers the phone with rubber fenders, exposed latches, and clunky bezels. Supposedly you can drive a car over an Otterbox and it will protect the phone within from damage. However, I don’t expect to drop my phone in the driveway and leave it long enough for a car to find it.

Recently I was talking with a friend and extolling the elegance of Apple’s design concepts in a conversation about motorcycle design. He pointed to his own iPhone on the desk to prove the point—except that it was covered with an Otterbox. I pulled out mine, and we laughed about it. We both had bought a Jaguar for is sleekness and design elegance, then covered it with the body of a Humvee to protect it from everyday life. If we want to actually enjoy the Jaguar’s elegance, we have to spend some finite number of minutes disassembling the Humvee—and then we’ll put it right back on.

If I had a patron god, it would be Vishnu, the Preserver. I love beautiful technology, but I hate wear and tear, nicks and scratches. With my motorcycles, I am obsessive about cleaning and waxing to protect the clearcoat that protects the paint underneath.4 I have put bulky film lens protectors and polycarbonate guards bound with sticky dots over elegantly shaped headlight modules to protect them from flying stones. If I actually drove a Jaguar, I would probably be one of those people who cover the front end with a black Naugahyde vinyl “bra” to avoid stone chips, although I would always worry about dust collecting under the cover and abrading the clearcoat. I draw the line at sealing a new couch inside those cold and sticky vinyl slipcovers, but I am liberal with the Scotchgard.®

Why do we do this? Wouldn’t it be better to simply enjoy the object in use? By the time it got old and scuffed, it would probably be time to upgrade to a newer model with more functionality anyway. Why this obsession with protecting beauty by hiding it beneath a beast?

Perhaps the obsession is because our appreciation of the thing’s beauty is purely a private matter. We don’t actually acquire a sleek smartphone or a curvaceous motorcycle to impress the other people in our lives. If that were the case, we would display the object proudly. Instead, we hide it away because we love it for itself. We hold the memory of its beauty in our minds while living with the hideous case. Perhaps we even see the beauty through the layers of protective plastic and film and trick ourselves into believing that we continue to live in the presence of a gorgeous objet d’art.

If we do not actually have to see the beauty to appreciate it, then do we necessarily need to own it? Why not appreciate the elegant design of the phone or curve of the gas tank and fenders in the store, cherish that memory, then buy a clunky old plastic phone or a dented second-hand motorcycle to use in everyday life? I would like to believe this is what others might do, but I lack the power of self-hypnosis to make this a satisfying approach. And I fear that the people who buy the clunky phone and dented motorcycle never loved the beauty of form in the first place.

My love for the form and function engenders my need to possess it physically and use it, although with ephemeral protection. Sometimes I will buy the beautiful object, admire it, but not use it—continuing to use the older model that already has a few scratches—until some weeks or months have passed, putting a psychological barrier of time between my impulse for acquisition and my surrender to daily use.

This is all sheer consumerism, of course. And my dilemma over nicks and scratches smacks of wanting to eat my cake and have it too. I wonder if our Paleolithic ancestors felt the same way about the tools of everyday life. Certainly not at the level of sharpening a stick and using it to kill game. But by the time people started etching patterns and applying colored glazes to the surface of their pots, they entered the realm of owning things too good for everyday use. And from that eventually came the middle class obsession with having “good” china and silverware versus the stainless steel flatware used in the kitchen, and “good” furniture in the drawing room versus the ramshackle stuff the kids can play on in the family room.

From there it’s just a short step to having a booming consumer market in car wax, clear vinyl, and iPhone covers.

1. It’s just as elegant on the inside, too. Turn it on—wake it up—and bright icons light the dark glass. The operating system is all touch-tap-swipe. And true to the promise, you don’t need an operating manual. Play with it for 15 minutes, and you just know how it works. As a product of conscientious development that adheres strictly to an underlying design ethos, the iPhone has no equal.

2. What can it do? See In the Palm of Your Hand from October 21, 2012, for my song of praises for multifunctionality. And if you ask why I’m still using the iPhone 4 and haven’t yet graduated to the 4S or 5, it’s because my current phone is still working perfectly and the new ones haven’t yet given me a compelling reason to move ahead—an odd position for me, a gadget freak who has bought into every new wave that came along. But there it is.

3. The one defect of the iPhone 4—corrected in subsequent models—was the susceptibility of the steel band, which functions as the antenna, to interference when contact with human skin creates a circuit across its insulating gaps. Cases cover the antenna and prevent this interference.

4. The same friend who puts his iPhone in an Otterbox once referred to the tiny scratches and wear marks on a used motorcycle as “character.” I instantly replied, “No, they’re damage.” We Thomas boys take care of our toys.