A Cold Read

What follows is an analysis created in the style of Jules David Prown, a material culture studies expert who focuses on the reading of objects, starting with a close reading of the artifact, gradually widening the focus of the study to encompass broad strokes of culture, theory and critique. References to Prown and Kenneth Haltman appear as notes to the insider, but know that this work stands on its own—one need not possess an understanding of Prown or Haltman, or any of the critical theory given as reference to digest the concept of reading this everyday object in a wider, more conscious context.

The artifact appears as a soft rectangular solid of black, silver, and grey- cast in aluminum, glass, and hard plastic.  The body of the object is covered in a shell of light blue rubber and hard, medium-blue plastic, measuring 2.31 inches wide, and weighing 4.9 ounces.  Its depth measures 0.37 inches, and the object is 4.5 inches tall.

On the front mirror black surface of the object, near the bottom, there appears a slightly recessed circle, perhaps a button, with a white square inscribed on the center, measuring no more than a half-centimeter or so on each side.  Near the top of the façade there is a rectangular shaped recession, with grey mesh at its base.  Adjacent to the grey mesh, sits a tiny circular lens.  On the east vertical side of the artifact, there are what appear to be two buttons, labeled “+” and “-”, and a switch which can be shifted upward or downward.  When shifted downward, the switch reveals an orange rectangle of color above it.

The west vertical side of the object remains flush, lacking any modifying attributes.  The south vertical side features two small grey mesh ovals, two tiny screws, and an opening shaped like a rectangle, which appears to be an electronic female plug.  The north vertical side features one oval shaped button and one circular opening which also appears to be a female electrical port of some variety.

Removing the plastic and rubber coverings and directing attention to the back of the object, one discovers what appears to be a tiny camera embedded into the top left corner with an accompanying flash, an image of a silver apple with a bite missing, and the following inscription on the back of the object:

“iPhone…Designed by Apple in California…Assembled in China…Model A1387…EMC 2430…FCC ID: BCG-E2430A… IC: 579C-E2430A.


The following photoset is from a 3-D modeling experiment:


Engaging with the object yields the discovery that this rectangular solid is in fact an interactive electronic device, likely to be used for communication, given the inscription on the rear, “iPhone.”  Pressing the oval button on the north vertical side activates the front black-mirrored glass to reveal the date and time, a directive at the bottom, “slide to unlock,” two small digital oval buttons at center top and center bottom, and a camera icon in the bottom-right corner of the space.

The device “awakens” by touching the fingers upon the face to manipulate the device.  Sliding down the top oval digital button reveals a brief weather report and the date:

“Saturday November 8th… Partly cloudy currently.  The high will be 61 degrees.  Partly cloudy tonight with a low of 43 degrees… Calendar.”

Sliding up the bottom oval digital button reveals a menu of buttons:

An airplane, a WiFi symbol, a Bluetooth symbol, a moon symbol, and a symbol with a lock circumscribed by a curved arrow.

Below these buttons is a sliding scale brightness control, with a sun emitting small rays on the left side and a sun emitting larger rays to its right.  Beneath that bar lies a sliding scale controlling volume: a spectrum bookended by a speaker symbol on the left, and a speaker symbol on the right, emitting sound waves.  At the bottom of the screen, 4 more buttons appear, revealing the tools they represent: a flashlight, a clock, a calculator, and a clock.

At the top of the screen, a status bar sits, indicating the level of connectivity, the service provider’s name, Virgin, and the form of service connectivity, 3G.  To the right of this information, a tiny alarm clock, a faded Bluetooth symbol, the figure 75%, and a battery-shaped icon (the battery being ¾ full) appear queued.

With the face of the iPhone unlocked, the screen features several squares that, when pressed, reveal applications which the device can operate:

Contacts, Notes, Weather, Wells Fargo, Calculator, Maps, Podcasts, Spotify, Music, Clock, Settings, and Safari.

At the bottom of the screen, a secondary row of applications is anchored at the base:

Phone, Messages, Calendar, and Gmail.

Two circles, one white and one grey, appear above the bottom row. Swiping the finger to the right on the first screen reveals a second screen with similar applications to the first screen.

Apple, Inc.


Having focused on the physical attributes and the functions of the object, we can move from description and speculation to deduce that this object is indeed a version the Apple iPhone, a smartphone manufactured sometime after October 2011, making the device an expression of, more or less, present day CONSUMER CULTURE.


Here’s Apple’s Trailer for the iPhone 4s.

Kenneth Haltman’s essay on material culture writer Jules David Prown’s method of analysis includes lists of polarities and object metaphors that “find expression in a language of oppositions.” These object polarities deal in the issues of life:

“life/death (morality)
privacy (seeing and being seen)/communication
power/lack of control”

Prown writes about objects to study the culture that produces these objects. In his essay, “The Truth of Material Culture: History or Fiction?” Prown talks about how people relate to, in describing, a teapot:

“When respondents have been asked to express their feeling about this object following extended analysis, they have used such words as ‘solid,’ ‘substantial,’ ‘cheerful,’ ‘comfortable,’ ‘grandmotherly,’ and ‘reliable.’


For Prown,

“[these words] reflect more subjective life experiences that also can be located with some precision by asking questions based on previously deduced evidence. Under what circumstances do we drink warm liquids? When we are cold, warm liquid warms us inside; when we are hot, it causes perspiration that evaporates, cooling the body surface. When drink hot liquids when we are ill—soup or tea— again because they make us feel better…[d]rinking coffee and tea is marked by a sense of well-being that derives from the stimulation of the drink itself, by the physical act of giving or pouring and receiving, and frequently by conversation.”

This kind of analysis gives a backbone to the seemingly disembodied polarities and object metaphors that Haltman introduces as part of Prown’s analytic style.

Taking Prown’s object metaphors into consideration, the attributive description of the iPhone is smooth, shiny, hard, opaque, light, thin, and clean.  Apple’s design seeks to draw out creativity and style, affirming life, enhancing productivity, and creating an atmosphere of “cool.”  “Cool ” as a concept implies exclusivity; Dr. Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, a philosophy professor in Kuwait writing for Philosophy Now says, in his article about cool, “the aesthetics and ethics of cool fractures and alienates in order to bring forward unusual constellations of ideas and actions. In a phrase: the cool person lives in a constant state of alienation.”

The minimalistic design resists a loud projection of metaphor like Prown’s teapot: almost no one could call an iPhone “grandmotherly” or “comforting.”  I have noticed in my own work, the analogy of the smartphone as a parasite.  As a bartender, I’ve observed friends and couples out to lunch or dinner together.  At some point, the conversations diminish, and I see the people drift away into the illumined faces of their devices.  The objects that were designed to foster creativity and ease of communication seem to have created a precipitate and inverse reaction in the user: a sense of distraction and alienation.  I may be making a generalization based on my cursory observations in the workplace, but I believe this example to be an object lesson, illustrative of a trend in culture towards a compulsive relationship to mobile devices and the Internet.  As pendulums are wont to do, they swing between polarities, and I believe we’ve seen the extremity of over involvement with our gadgets, that over involvement being the causal event for the age of loneliness.

The muted features of the iPhone- the rounded sides, the relatively light and thin body, suggest that the object should seamlessly assimilate into a person’s life.  Furthermore, the sleekness and lack of moving parts indicates that the object would basically be invisible.  One could leave it in a pocket or bag and forget about it, thus allowing the iPhone to almost become part of the body.