The star of Apple’s most recent product launch wasn’t the Apple Watch—the wearable device is still inspiring a fair amount of doubt even among technology insiders—but a new version of the company’s MacBook. That the spotlight fell on the MacBook was something of a surprise. The new device wasn’t particularly hyped, nor is a laptop a particularly sexy prospect in the age of touchscreen tablets and expanding smartphones. But the fervor with which we approach the new laptop speaks to a certain technological fetish we’ve never gotten over: non-existence.
We love the computer because it heralds a new era of immateriality for technology that has remained stubbornly physical, despite our wishes to the contrary. The new MacBook is 13 millimeters thick—thinner than two pencils stacked on top of each other. The Microsoft Surface, a tablet with an attached keyboard that’s supposed to be taking on the hidebound laptop market, measures nine millimeters. The iPhone Six hovers around seven millimeters. The particular dimensions of these devices speak to two desires: We want our screens wide but as thin as they can possibly be. Technology is trending toward two dimensions.
We are living with the leftovers of the symbols that once defined computers even as the device itself rushes into immateriality.
Apple has done all it can to ensure the new MacBook is as thin as possible. Actual keyboards have become as redundant as Morse code. The squashed buttons now feel more like typing on a touchscreen, according to some reviews, than actually pushing something down to trigger a switch. Clicking is even gone. The click as we once knew it, the tactile reaction described by the onomatopoeic word, is replaced with force-feedback—when you tap the trackpad, it vibrates back at you the way a video game controller does when your character gets hurt.
This all amounts to a kind of technological dysphoria. We are living with the leftovers of the symbols that once defined computers even as the device itself rushes into immateriality. Apple Watch, Google Glass, Magic Leap—these tools are all predicated on the notion that computers should be as small and presence-less as possible, so convenient that you don’t even have to take them out or turn them on.
The MacBook itself is “so light I literally didn’t believe it when I picked it up,” Dieter Bohn writes at the Verge. This is an ideal condition for technology. As consumers, we want our devices to be infinitely thin, infinitely wide, infinitely light, and infinitely disposable. Unfortunately—as demonstrated by the curious persistence of the laptop—they are nowhere near any of these things.
It would be nice if technology were as frictionless as Apple’s products suggest. We would move seamlessly from upgrade to upgrade, smaller screen to larger screen, thinner to thinnest. In reality, most of us clutch our laptops and outdated phones, worrying about what might happen if they die out of warranty or before our plans pay for an upgrade. I dropped my first MacBook and it broke. My first MacBook Air—so thin, so light—was stolen. Now, I carry my laptop around in a Velcro bag and have a sixth sense for where it is at any given moment.
There’s a central irony at play here: Our technology runs our lives, but—as per the demands of fashion and innovation—we can’t bear to have devices that can actually stand up to the outside world. “Laptops are designed to travel, but they’re not as sturdy as they need to be suit most of our lifestyles,” says Adina Jacobs, the co-founder of STM, a bag and case manufacturer. Thus we take measures to protect our supposedly immaterial computers. “A case adds that extra layer of protection against bumps and scratches during the daily commute,” Jacobs says.
STM recently launched a new MacBook Air case called The Dux. It adds more than a few millimeters to the dimensions of the laptop, but the majority of it is made of clear plastic with a dark frame. The case “was designed to give protection where it’s needed while also allowing you to literally see the device,” Jacobs says. “It’s really important to us to that our cases celebrate the form factor of the laptop while offering the protection you need.” Not unlike, say, a condom, our cases must be present in the right ways and as unnoticeable as possible in all other ways.
The persistent materiality of technology keeps getting in the way. I’ve complained so often about my laptop and phone being dirty that the arrival of sanitary wipes designed specifically for these devices was like a message from on high: thou shalt be cleaned. I wiped down my keyboard and polished my iPhone screen. But a day later, they’re both back to their original oily, smudgy state.
These admittedly minor problems plus the constant threat of breakage and obsolescence nevertheless lend the lie to technology manufacturers’ eternal pursuit of thinness and lightness, the ideal frictionless universe made of microchips and polished steel. Perhaps rather than chasing a utopia, the only move left is to embrace friction.
That’s what John Herrman does in his journey into “an electronics shitworld” as he tests out an unremarkable third-party smartphone. What he discovers is that some friction, some thickness, some flaws, aren’t necessarily a bad thing when contrasted with the technological consumption avant-garde. “The highest-end branded version of a product offers a chance to taste the luxurious future of technology,” he writes. “The shitworld version lets you preview a more practical future — the future most of the global electronics-buying public will actually enjoy.”
There’s a tough paradox to navigate in consumer technology of flawed perfection versus imperfect practicality. And no matter how thin our laptops or how wide our screens get, even if the physicality of technology will eventually turn out to be an anachronism, we’re still stuck right in the middle of it.
Disruptions is Kyle Chayka’s weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.