CUP Web site

RSS Feed

New Books

Author Interviews

Author Events

Keep track of new CUP book releases:

For media inquiries, please contact our
publicity department

CUP Authors Blogs and Sites

American Society of Magazine Editors

Roy Harris / Pulitzer's Gold

Natalie Berkowitz / Winealicious

Leonard Cassuto

Mike Chasar / Poetry and Popular Culture

Erica Chenoweth / "Rational Insurgent"

Juan Cole

Jenny Davidson / "Light Reading"

Faisal Devji

William Duggan

James Fleming / Atmosphere: Air, Weather, and Climate History Blog

David Harvey

Paul Harvey / "Religion in American History"

Bruce Hoffman

Alexander Huang

David K. Hurst / The New Ecology of Leadership

Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh

Geoffrey Kabat / "Hyping Health Risks"

Grzegorz W. Kolodko / "Truth, Errors, and Lies"

Jerelle Kraus

Julia Kristeva

Michael LaSala / Gay and Lesbian Well-Being (Psychology Today)

David Leibow / The College Shrink

Marc Lynch / "Abu Aardvark"

S. J. Marshall

Michael Mauboussin

Noelle McAfee

The Measure of America

Philip Napoli / Audience Evolution

Paul Offit

Frederick Douglass Opie / Food as a Lens

Jeffrey Perry

Mari Ruti / The Juicy Bits

Marian Ronan

Michael Sledge

Jacqueline Stevens / States without Nations

Ted Striphas / The Late Age of Print

Charles Strozier / 9/11 after Ten Years

Hervé This

Alan Wallace

James Igoe Walsh / Back Channels

Xiaoming Wang

Santiago Zabala

Press Blogs


University of Akron

University of Alberta

American Management Association

Baylor University

Beacon Broadside

University of California

Cambridge University Press

University of Chicago

Cork University

Duke University

University of Florida

Fordham University Press

Georgetown University

University of Georgia

Harvard University

Harvard Educational Publishing Group

University of Hawaii

Hyperbole Books

University of Illinois

Island Press

Indiana University

Johns Hopkins University

University of Kentucky

Louisiana State University

McGill-Queens University Press

Mercer University

University of Michigan

University of Minnesota

Minnesota Historical Society

University of Mississippi

University of Missouri


University of Nebraska

University Press of New England

University of North Carolina

University Press of North Georgia

NYU / From the Square

University of Oklahoma

Oregon State University

University of Ottawa

Oxford University

Penn State University

University of Pennsylvania

Princeton University

Stanford University

University of Sydney

University of Syracuse

Temple University

University of Texas

Texas A&M University

University of Toronto

University of Virginia

Wilfrid Laurier University

Yale University

June 30th, 2017 at 10:32 am

Capitalism and the History of the iPhone

Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media, Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau

For the iPhone’s 10th birthday, take a look back at the iPhone’s history with an excerpt from Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media, by Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau. In this section, Snickars and Vonderau explore what makes the iPhone distinct as both a device and an object of study. They also consider how the device grew out of other technologies and take a look at its historical precedents.

A History of Possibilities
Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau

In order to come to terms with Apple’s iPhone, it is important to consider the dynamic intersection among these marketing, technological, and cultural forces. Despite the iPhone’s economic success, elegance, and “revolutionary” newness, the question still remains how and why to engage in studying the iPhone as a media object in the first place. In their seminal book, Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing, Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Whiteford, and Greig de Peuter suggest investigating this interdependent dynamic of technology, culture, and marketing efforts as propelling the “circuit of capital” and growth in information capitalism. The political economy of media provides a critical but fairly general perspective on the iPhone as an “ideal-type commodity form,” one that reflects the social organization of capitalism at its present moment. Recent ventures into the field of media-industry analysis have testified to the productivity of this critical tradition. Focusing solely on the iPhone “moment” in the media history of consumer capitalism, however, also introduces a number of fallacies that obscure—rather than clarify—what seems to be at stake. To favor the emergent and the immediate at the expense of the old and the contingent, or of failures and devaluation, often leads to a skewed picture of innovation processes and of media history generally, and potentially even to a fetishization of branded consumer products, which the iPhone epitomizes.

Archeological sensitivity is thus needed to unearth the wider network of technologies, discourses, and cultural practices within which the iPhone appeared, and also the detours, dead ends, and abandoned and discarded models that accompanied or preceded its rise to fame. Consider, for instance, how the American journalist Robert Thompson Sloss (1872–1920) in 1908 envisioned the future of mobile media in his contribution to the German book Die Welt in hundert Jahren. One century before the iPhone was launched, Sloss rightly predicted the advent of a “wireless century” marked by the availability of “pocket phones” that would allow instant and worldwide connections between individuals or even groups, for personal conversations from the North Pole as much as for conference calls to New York City; for transmitting sounds and music, moving images, and written documents; and even for making bank payments. Although Sloss erred in stating that the mobile phone would drastically diminish criminality, he correctly identified its role as a medium of surveillance and news reporting in situations of crisis and political change.

Somewhat unique in their precision, his observations still have to be seen as part of a much broader discourse of the imaginary, as one example of a sense of anticipation informing the history of ideas and technological try-outs on which our present understanding of “new media” is founded. Following the development of photography (1810s), telegraphy (1830s), the telephone (1876), the phonograph (1877), moving pictures (1880s), and wireless telegraphy (1895), the “liveness” of simultaneity had become an experience and an object of experimentation by the late nineteenth century. Crystallizing around ideas of mobile televisuality, as exemplified in Sloss’s 1908 vision of a pocket wireless, this cultural imagination took form in endless patents and variants before “smartphoning” developed as its current cultural practice. For evidence of the arbitrariness of the trajectories that led to the present, one might point to early plans for videophone systems such as the (never realized) telectroscope in 1877, for instance, or to the close interrelation of transportation, music listening, and wireless (radio) communication since the 1920s or to the attempts to develop portable electronic devices to increase workplace efficiency in the 1990s. To stick to this last point, it was with the “Palm-Pilot,” the first generation of handheld digital assistants, that the notion of “palms” entered the vernacular as a synonym for such devices. Research in Motion released its iPhone variant, the Blackberry, in 2002, and as one of the first convergent mobile gadgets it instantly became popular within the marketplace by concentrating on e-mail functionality for the business sector. As with other smartphones, the BlackBerry surfed the Web, yet its small screen size and lack of a multitouch display made it a weak competitor after the introduction of the iPhone. Today, RIM and its BlackBerry still hold a 15 percent share of worldwide smartphone sales, yet even with a constant line of new models, the company has not come close to matching the cultural impact of the iPhone. One key reason is that Apple has been aiming its smartphone toward the individual user rather than enterprise sales—though this is not to say that Apple is all about “communicative capitalism,” to invoke Jodi Dean’s suggestive term.

Situating the iPhone within this wider history of possibilities allows distance from the spectacle of innovation and the “mise-en-scène of advertising” that characterize the current view on transient media. Today, one may easily tap into the truism of convergence by declaring the iPhone to be the “universal remote” for all sorts of available media content, thus reducing media change to techno-teleologies and downplaying the wildly divergent meanings that the iPhone or any other medium might take on, depending on the contexts of its use. But even if one is sensitive to the political dimension of the iPhone’s uses and to the ways “its presence activates and embodies a variety of heterogeneous forces within and around a space,” the question remains how to address or, rather, how to nail down this particular device analytically, given its slippery, hybrid, ever-changing nature. Is this about mobile communication, smartphones, or the impact of a global brand on the entertainment sector? Or rather about innovative forms and formats and the platforms by which they are disseminated and made part of everyday practices? Or, again, about a medium and the way it regulates access to apps, music, games, videos, people, and media practices? And then, of course, there is not one single iPhone but rather four consecutive models so far, with a constantly modified operating system. So, what, indeed, are we talking about?

Post a comment