Shaking off Some of the Apple Fussiness

John Gruber has a running joke he used to tell on his podcasts, his Rules for Success on the Internet, meant to poke fun at himself and the folks in his circle. The rules were, paraphrased:

  1. Have a clicky keyboard
  2. Be fussy about coffee
  3. Own a Sodastream

It’s so amusing to me and his audience because it’s an acknowlegdement that he and his ilk have the luxury of having quirky predelictions about certain trivial things that, in their lives, seem so important. The coffee, for example, has to be made just so, with just such a convoluted method, with very particular beans, and never any sweeteners or cream of course.

Having now had more than a few trips outside of the Apple walled garden, the fussiness of the elite Apple consumer has become more and more apparent to me. In my own experience, based on my immersion in the various websites and podcasts and other media generated by various folks in and around the tech world, there seems to be a very strong correlation between the Apple user of at least moderate affluence and what I’ll carefully call a fetishization of fussiness, having all things just so.

This is actually a stock photo, but it's close enough to a fussy minimalist Apple person's workspace. That chair would never fly, though.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by that, and make clear that I don’t mean this pejoratively. Take a look at websites like Minimal Mac or Tools & Toys, or the kinds of things promoted by Gruber, Marco Arment, Craig Mod, Sean Blanc, and others (all of which I like very much!). To varying degrees they exhibit high levels of fussiness in things like design, tech products, office products, clothing, food, typesets, and so on. You’ll see images of nearly-empty desks, save for a single computer (a Mac), perhaps a keyboard, perhaps an iPad carefully propped up, an iPhone (not in a case) docked, and probably a moleskine notebook. There are likely wood tones surrounding the technology. Everything is just so. Each object has been embued with preciousness. Android phones are not to be spoken of.

I halfheartedly aspired to this kind of Cult of the Minimalist that many of these Apple fans seem to achieve and then relentlessly hone. For good reason: this demand for a level of quality and polish from the objects we use and the things we consume is, I think, a healthy thing. Fewer distractions, less noise, less disorder – these are all things worth pursuing. Toys can’t make happiness, but the things with which you surround yourself (and choose not to) can be steps on the way to peace. (Sometimes not, of course.)

But being a little more on the outside of the Apple universe (or, at least, travelling between it and other worlds), it becomes clear that the desire for this kind of peace-through-objects can itself be a source of stress. For one thing, one can’t possibly achieve the level of minimalist artisanal nirvana seen on many of these sites without a significant outlay of cash. Beautiful, well-made, precicely crafted objects, be they phones or desks or pens, are expensive. (So are good clacky keyboards and fuss-worthy coffee and its paraphernalia, though not really Sodastreams.) Living this life of pricy simplicity also takes time, effort, and discipline to achieve. Not everyone has the luxury, nor does everyone share those priorities.

Immersing myself in the Android world has been an awakening of sorts. As beautifully designed as many Android devices are these days, and as excellent an operating system Lollipop is (and it really is), the Android world is full of noise. Websites devoted to Android, or at least in that universe, are cacophonous, frequented not by minimalists, but by tinkerers and augmenters and reconstituters. Hardware is valued more for its potential for modification and raw power rather than its ability to place one in a zen state. It’s overwhelming to newcomers from Apple-land, but it’s also fun and daring and, frankly, a bit of a relief from all the fussiness.

After playing with a bunch of different Android devices, I had occasion to handle a few friends’ iPhones 6 and 6 Plus. They are gorgeous, no question; really solid, smooth, platonic ideals of future-looking objects. I was a little envious.

But not as much as I once would have been, because as much as I admire the iPhones 6, they now also seem a little too precious. I have a red Nexus 5, a phone that came out in the fall of 2013, and it’s all plastic with visible seams and sharp corners and an ugly micro-USB port, and I just adore it. And the wide variety of shapes and sizes and even design philosophies coming from different manufacturers is fun to explore and examine and experiment with. In comparison, the Apple/iOS world feels a little staid, stationary, and a touch stuffy.

And at the same time it seems smooth and peaceful and free of the need for superfluous futzing. Most of the decisions have been made for you, and that’s a nice thing a lot of the time.

But not all of the time!

My awful, terrible dock.

I like both worlds. I like the world of disorder and cobbling and staggering variety, the world that made it seem like a good idea for me to cobble this horrible-looking and probably very temporary phone dock out of an old broken iPhone dock, a USB cable, some wire tape, a small cardboard box, and some rocks (for weight). I also like the world of simplicity and focus and refinement, where only things made by Twelve South are allowed to touch your precious glass-and-aluminum talisman. I like the mess and the fuss. Neither is The Way it Ought to Be, they’re just both ways-to-be whenever it suits you. How great is that?

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