The Laws of Physics, the Limits of Desire

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who’s relied on me off and on for thirty years for tech advice, came to me with a complaint that his iPhone 6 — then barely two years old, out of warranty, but a month or so short of being off contract — was shutting down at random, even though it still seemed to have plenty of charge left in the battery. We rounded up all the usual suspects to no avail, then hauled ourselves off to the nearest Apple store, where the genius at the genius bar, assisted by Apple’s own diagnostic tools, rounded up all of her usual suspects, and concluded that there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with his phone — except, of course, that the random shutdowns made it at best unreliable, and at worst, unusable. At my suggestion, my friend paid off his old contract, and replaced his suddenly unfaithful companion with the then current model, an iPhone 7. Two months later, I read that Apple was replacing batteries for free in out-of-warranty iPhone 6’s exhibiting random shutdowns, with no questions asked, and, as usual for Apple, no explanations given. A year later, again with no explanations given, Apple began throttling iPhones with aging batteries which could no longer supply the necessary voltages under peak load conditions.

It’s been painful to watch Apple get Twittered, Facebooked, and ultimately sued over this whole affair. The fact is that those of us who were aware of the limitations of lithium-ion battery technology, Apple engineering executives above all, should have seen this coming. The very things that make the iPhone magical — its pocketable size, its ever-increasing computing power, and appliance-like simplicity and ease of use — are also, to a greater degree than Apple marketers would have us believe, based on an illusion.

The sad truth is that Apple had painted itself into a corner bounded on the one side by an understandable, if misplaced confidence in its own hardware and software innovations, and on the other by a misguided attempt to protect the technological innocence of its customers from the consequences of their own addictions.

Marketing has its own imperatives, and as any marketing expert worthy of the name would probably concede, a certain blindness to the long-term consequences of its own cleverness has never been much of an impediment to its operating budget, or to its status in the corporate hierarchy. Until, of course, the shit hits the fan. Then the public dance of recriminations is performed, and everyone concerned goes back to business as usual. Except for the hapless consumer, who’s inevitably forced to grumble, sigh, roll his or her eyes, then pay whatever the going rate is to get back on the road.

Apple could have done a lot better a lot quicker. Its customers love what it promises, even those of us among them who know to what extent the promise exceeds the current limits of technology. Progress requires us to dream forward, and to accept that sometimes along the way our reach will exceed our grasp. That said, a little more transparency from those at the pointy end would be welcome. Infantilizing the consumer as a path to marketing success has all sorts of support from the countless schools of social science pilot fish who’ve attached themselves to corporate C-suites in the postwar decades. God forbid that I should deny what their statistics are telling them about our human vulnerabilities. I would ask them, though, to consider how they feel when their own strings are pulled.