The next phase in Apple's iOS evolution is finally here—but it arrives with a surprising truth.
One of the stranger parts of modern life is discovering how thoroughly a thing can be redefined depending on the code running inside it. When Apple releases new phones every year, there is always excitement about what the newest version will make possible, something that would have been technically impossible before. It's easy to overlook the fact that the iPhone already in your pocket is not fixed in place and function. Anything with a microprocessor is only potential energy awaiting an instruction set to give it identity, and those identities can be rewritten almost endlessly.
This week's release of iOS 7 is the most comprehensive visual change to Apple's mobile operating system since its launch in 2007. Installing it on an old machinery can seem miraculously transformative. Though the operating system is loaded with bullet point upgrades, most of which amount to marginal conveniences—turning on wi-fi with two thumb strokes instead of four—its most striking features are non-productive.
Running iOS 7 makes my phone feel as if it's meant to seem alive. Even at the most basic level, turning the screen on to check the time, iOS 7 directs the phone to gradually bloom toward full brightness. Pressing buttons on the security code screen leaves a gradual flush of fullness inside each activated circle, like the number is blushing at the point where you've touched it.
The irony at the heart of Apple's humanism is the gradual realization that the work a person intended to make through their tools is probably less meaningful than the experience of just having the tool.
"I think, very often, you can't call out by attribute or name areas of value," Apple’s Jony Ive said in an interview with Businessweek. "But I do think that we sense when somebody has cared. And the one thing that is incontrovertible is how much we've cared."
This ethos has been central to Apple products, throughout the company's history, something that's defined it as less a technology company than a humanist pseudo-religion, which insists that relations between computers and humans should be supple and organic.
This week award-winning author Jonathan Franzen described his own unease within the serene cocoon of Apple's software, "like walking down the street in Paris," something that doesn't need to lead to anything lasting but is its own reward. Using Apple devices make interaction a pleasure comparable to, or better than, work itself. The irony at the heart of Apple's humanism is the gradual realization that the work a person intended to make through their tools is probably less meaningful than the experience of just having the tool.
During Apple's skeuomorphic decade, its systems retained superficial vestiges of more complicated processes that were no longer necessary. With iOS 7, Apple hasn't eliminated its skeuomorphism but re-centered it around human nature. Your iPhone no longer pretends to be a mid-century dayplanner but another human being.
I first noticed this when sending a text to a friend and felt guilty for not capitalizing and punctuating properly. In the previous version of iOS, with its rounded buttons and hard borders, writing in SMS shorthand and indulging in slovenly grammar had its own charm. It was a pleasure to use the old and overly formal structures in the most informal ways. iOS 7's embrace of abstraction, eliminating buttons and replacing them with words and unbordered icons, puts pressure on users to provide a form the software no longer does.
The notification center, now an expansion of the Siri-persona, amplifies this sense that the user has some obligation for clarity. In place of the old list of various bulletpoints about temperature, appointments, and incoming messages, the notification center amplifies the system's humanism with fully formed sentences. "Party, Saturday, 9PM" becomes "There is one event scheduled from tomorrow at 9PM." The weather has changed from "New York. 75/61" to "Mostly sunny currently. The high will be 75. Clear tonight with a low of 61." With iOS 7 Apple is trying to make a machine address its user as a human and not a machine, so it clears away the symbolic bric-a-brac and leaves behind antiquated inefficiencies of fully formed sentences describing the weather.
In an interview with The Good Life Project, design icon Milton Glaser described the computer as dangerous because "it shapes your capacity to understand what's possible. The computer is like an apparently submissive servant that turns out to be a subversive that ultimately gains control of your mind...it defines, after a while, what is possible for you, and what is possible within the computer's capacity." Apple's shifts in iOS 7 reorient what is possible by pinning it to the medium of organic human communication, from the swells of light and color to the shifts toward human grammar.
I'm using an iPhone 4 from 2010 that has been overwritten with new life. It is coming to seem as if the distance between the untapped potential in the newest processors and the software meant to animate them is where a new kind of life is forming. It is untrue to say that my three-year old smartphone is alive, but in charting the evolution of the software running on it, it seems undeniable that someone wants it to be.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.