Patrick Vonderau on What Can Be Learned from an iPhone Bill

Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media

The following post is by Patrick Vonderau, co-editor of Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media. For more on the book, you can read the introduction.

In 2007, blogger Justine Ezarik uploaded a video on YouTube, titled 300-page iPhone bill. (see video at the end of this post)

Following the first month of service after the iPhone’s introduction in 2007, Justine shocked viewers with the story of her “first AT&T” bill, which was indeed 300 pages and delivered in a box. The video shows nothing but Justine leafing through all those pages, accompanied by relaxation music. “Use e-billing. Save a forest” her video encourages at the end. It shortly went viral and has so far been viewed by 3,236,083 people around the globe, gaining “iJustine” international attention and what appears to be quite a lucrative career in online media.

iJustine’s YouTube video is not only the first instance of someone making a lasting career out of an over-sized telephone bill,it also tellingly connects two corporations who often are seen as fierce competitors: Apple and Google (which had acquired YouTube in 2006). The competition between these two companies over the smartphone market and beyond might very well determine what future media entertainment will look like. Even more to the point, iJustine’s video has put a spotlight on an object no serious media scholar so far would have shown any interest in. What, if anything, could be learned by looking at a smartphone bill?

In our introduction to Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media, Pelle Snickars and I suggested that what unites the contributions collected in the book is an interest in studying the various “protocols” associated with the iPhone’s form: the diverse default conditions, normative rules, and control functionalities gathering around what defines the iPhone.

Alternatively, one also could speak of an interest in studying infrastructure: a fascination with the “boring backstage elements” (to quote Susan Leigh Star) which the iPhone so successfully tries to put into oblivion thanks to its intuitive interface design, smooth interoperability, etc. Lane De Nicola, in his eye-opening contribution to our book, calls this approach a “reflexive study of ‘dark culture'”, referring to the way we should precisely analyze how it is that the iPhone “just works”—as we tend to have little awareness and understanding of the infrastructures on which Apple’s phone—and other ubicomp gadgets—run. For me, the idea of this book was very much a narrative of such complex and immaterial standards, their various historical developments and political consequences, all hidden and often intentionally obscured “beneath the surface” of appealing media experiences.

And indeed, iJustine’s AT&T phone bill has a story to tell. It reminds us that many of the iPhone’s seamless services—such as clock time or location updates—require a continuous and indeed billable connection to the Internet. Mailing out bills that itemized phone usage in detail, AT&T hardly had anticipated how much iPhone owners would do with a phone that also was an iPod, Internet browser, geolocation service, world clock, online game, etc.—and how much they were going to pay for it. And many iPhone users still are not aware what they are actually paying for. Where does all the money go?

iJustine herself provides some, rather obvious answers. As is already clear from her name, she’s one of YouTube’s many branded personalities making money by providing branded content for major companies. Featuring the iPhone (www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdULhkh6yeA) and Apple giveaways in her clips (www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuedNtx0n9E), and hosting her own “ijustinesiphone” channel on YouTube, Ezarik appears indeed not exactly as a consumer advocate. In fact, she proudly acknowledges delivering her „13-17 mostly female“ demographic to Intel, Nikon, GE and other advertisers (www.beet.tv/2010/03/justine-ezarik-has-sponsored-web-video-work-with-ge-nikon-and-intel-.html). But hey, what’s so bad about that—isn’t she just a pioneer of our growing “like economy”?

Perhaps, but then again our book shows that fancy gadgets, online fame and the general “likeability” of our condition of “being digital” urgently deserve a critical second look, not least when it comes to billing cycles. Studying some of the iPhone’s standards and infrastructures, amongst others, gives us a sense of the deeper ecology of our media-saturated everyday. In this sense, Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media also is a follow-up to our previous edited collection, The YouTube Reader. (And no, we will definitely not do a book on Facebook. Check Daniel Miller’s illuminating Tales from Facebook instead!).

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