Why are we letting these ‘courageous’ tech overlords dictate how we live our lives?

smartphoneWHEN you think about courage, who comes to mind? A soldier in a warzone, risking his life to save a comrade? A disabled child smiling through painful surgery? A teenager standing up to a school bully?

Phil Schiller, senior vice-president of marketing for Apple, probably isn’t high on your list. This chap was sent to the front line this week to defend the tech giant’s decision to scrap the traditional headphone jack when designing its new iPhone 7. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.

“It really comes down to one word: courage,” he said. “The courage to move on to do something that betters all of us.”

That’s quite a claim. It’s not entirely clear who is meant by “us”, though I fear the insinuation is that humanity as a whole will be better off once Apple devotees splash out on pricey wireless earphones. Perhaps the company is on to something here, and this inconvenience will set in motion a world-enhancing butterfly effect. Maybe hard-up hipster scientists will be prompted to spend a few extra hours in the lab working on that cancer cure, or an EarPod going astray during crunch talks will somehow bring about the end of the war in Syria. We can dream.

Increasingly it feels as though the customer is always wrong, and must bend to the will of his or her corporate overlords

Of course, no-one is forced to buy an iPhone, or to stick with the brand once they’ve got one. The beauty of the free market is that consumers can put their money where their moaning mouths are, and desert any manufacturer who neglects their needs. But theses days it’s not quite that simple, is it? Increasingly it feels as though the customer is always wrong, and must bend to the will of his or her corporate overlords. I’d love to own a laptop that didn’t shut itself down without warning to install updates, but can I do without Windows? I’d like to convert my CD collection to MP3, but copyright protection makes doing so such a headache that my hand-me-down iPod Shuffle hasn’t been updated since 2014. I’d like a phone that won’t shatter if it falls from my pocket to the floor, but apparently we’re all supposed to just accept that these devices aren’t fit for purpose, and splash out on armour for them.

Is it too much to expect porn addicts to (god forbid) just wait until they get home?

When I went for my latest upgrade I noticed smartphones had grown bigger – a bit too big for my butter fingers to comfortably grasp and certainly too big to fit into those little pockets sewn into handbags. I asked why, and was informed of a bar chart doing the rounds in geek circles showing smartphones shrinking over time and then enlarging again. The landmark event bisecting the x axis? People discovering they could watch porn on their phones. Now, it’s not for me to judge what people like to squint at on what remains a modest-sized screen, but surely this demographic is having undue influence? I know it’s regarded as horribly common to own a television these days, but is it too much to expect porn addicts to pack a tablet, or (god forbid) just wait until they get home? I don’t wish to cart around an expensive and fragile entertainment system on a daily basis just so I can make calls, send texts and check emails.

How long before Apple develops an iBrain that transmits our innermost thoughts to all and sundry?

Of course there will always be those who grumble about change even when it’s clearly for the better, and without risk-taking there would be no innovation and no progress, but Apple’s latest move feels particularly cynical. Were iPhone users crying out to be rid of their earphone cables? Did Mr Schiller’s market research indicate the trusty universal socket was becoming obsolete? Distinctive white wires were what tricked so many fashion victims into adopting iPods in the first place, despite the horribly clunky software needed to stock them with tunes. The most common complaint I hear about iPhones is that they simply go kaput, taking with them the owner’s music collection, family albums and address book. Cloud storage is presented as the answer to this headache, but you don’t have to be a member of the tinfoil hat brigade to feel queasy about releasing your most prized pictures and playlists into the wild. How long before Apple develops an iBrain that transmits our innermost thoughts to all and sundry?

Apple is judging that its customers are such slavish devotees that they’ll simply roll over, accept the hassle and spend more money

Is it really so backward-looking (cowardly, even) to suggest that plugging in and physically backing up is a desirable option, or that earphones might be best managed when they’re anchored to a device and joined together, given that enclosed spaces are awash with wifi connections and human beings generally have two ears? Apple’s decision is only courageous in the sense that it’s a gamble – the company is judging that its customers are such slavish devotees that they’ll simply roll over, accept the hassle and spend more money.

Let’s face it – they probably will. And every other phone manufacturer will doubtless follow suit eventually. The demise of the faithful headphone socket will not be the end of the world, but it represents another slip down a slope of manipulation that has potentially serious implications for the way we interact with the world and each other. That said, if the absence of visible earphones encourages more norm-violating conversations between strangers, perhaps in the long run we really will be better off.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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