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Society Has Turned the Shattered iPhone Screen Into a Mark of Shame

Why should we adapt to fragile technology, instead of demanding unbreakable screens?

by Ashwin Rodrigues
Jul 7 2017, 2:53pm

Image: Jason Koebler

Going to work on Monday with a freshly cracked phone screen is like walking into the office with a black eye. Inquisitive coworkers will ask how it happened. Others may notice, but they'll refrain from making comments. But unlike black eyes, your cracked screen won't heal on its own, and costs more than a bag of frozen peas to fix.

The spiderwebbed phone screen is also a conspicuous detail in social situations. Not everyone will vocally call it out, but some will wonder: Did you break your phone when you drunkenly fell out of a cab? Potential suitors may jump to conclusions: Did a jealous ex smash it in a fit of rage? Why haven't you fixed it? If this is how you treat your phone, can you provide for another person?

The state of your iPhone screen and model are indicators of status. Noted Apple affiliate and rapper Drake says his "side girl got a 5S with the screen cracked" at the beginning of "Portland." An outdated model with a cracked screen? Drake doesn't care about you. Drake is an Apple Genius warning us, "Don't come around thinkin' you gettin' saved," when you bring in that broken phone. In this way, we are all the side girl.

Chance the Rapper, who's also released exclusive music through Apple, mentions in the first verse of "Blessings" he "walked into Apple with cracked screens and told prophetic stories of freedom." Chance is flexing his wealth here: He can afford to repair his phone multiple times, or even more flexingly, that he has multiple Apple devices.

Louis the Child, a band of two adults named Robby and Freddy, highlight the broken iPhone screen as proof of recklessness. Their song "Weekend" starts with "Last night / too turnt / No water, ripped shirt / iPhone screen cracked / Did I pay the bar tab?" Even the owner of a cracked iPhone judges thyself—when you see a cracked screen, you wonder: What else have I possibly done?

Since the iPhone first fell into (and out of) of our hands in 2007, Apple has been conditioning us to think its screens are inherently fragile. It's become part of the zeitgeist, reflected in hit songs spanning multiple genres.

The iPhone isn't alone—the Samsung Galaxy S8 is by all accounts the most fragile smartphone on the market—but until our devices become more durable, manufacturers are exposing customers to a deluge of prying questions, judgement, and embarrassment. We're all walking around, our screens bearing proof of weekend stumbles, impromptu karate matches, and other business that would otherwise go undiscovered.

This hyper focus on aesthetic creates a phone that looks beautiful until you drop it. And then you can't even lick it.

The broken screen is a conversation starter, whether you'd like to have that conversation or not. Consumers do not deserve to wear a sign that says "Ask me about a very expensive mistake I made recently, even though I just told this story five minutes ago."

Sure, you could get a case. But case selection exposes you to another unique set of criticisms. Do you want to be the doofus with a bulky Otterbox? Unless you're doing something that involves a helmet-mounted GoPro, it looks wildly unnecessary. You don't wear football pads to commute to work—why does your iPhone? Also, why don't they make the whole plane out of the black box?

Cases have become such an essential part of the iPhone, using an uncovered device is described as an intense, dangerous, and deeply sexual experience.

How did it get this way?

The lip on the case of my vintage 5S, required to protect the screen. Image: Ashwin Rodrigues


In 2000, Steve Jobs famously bragged about the Mac OS X operating system's icons looking "so good you want to lick them." This hyper focus on aesthetic creates a phone that looks beautiful until you drop it. And then you can't even lick it.

The power balance between Apple and consumer is so skewed, there's a fight for the right to simply fix the iPhone. "Right to Repair" bills put pressure on Apple and other phone manufacturers to sell replacement parts and provide instructions on how to complete repairs.

Without donning a stylish tinfoil hat (Apple doesn't make one yet) it's clear the iPhone's fragility may be connected to Apple's motive for profit. Materials stronger than Gorilla Glass exist, but make the phone too expensive per unit (in the case of "unbreakable" sapphire glass) or not sexy enough (in the case of plastic.) And if you're willing to have your entire view of phone manufacturers shattered, or at least cracked, consider the unfounded but compelling theory that our phones are getting bigger as humans remain the same size on purpose, so we're more likely to drop them.

In my experience, the common response to my concerns about our overly fragile phones is victim-blaming: Just don't drop your phone. That's not the point. Everyone drops their phone: drunk, sober, clumsy, responsible, toddler, and senior. Technology is supposed to work for us. Why should we adapt to a faulty technology, instead of demanding it gets better?

A mobile repair kiosk in San Francisco. Image: Ashwin Rodrigues

When The Shattering occurs, we no longer ask, "Why did that happen?" Instead, we instinctively ask ourselves a number of hard questions that are second nature by now: Will the phone still work? Should I pay to get the screen fixed? Should I just wait for the next iPhone to come out?

Based on the number of shattered iPhones I see in the wild, we're a hopeful bunch. In the meantime, we're left trying to figure out a reasonable alibi for our cracked screens—one that doesn't require us to reveal our weekly Thursday rollerblading lessons.

On the upside, Apple is making noticeable concessions in response to the right to repair movement. It's a great step, but consumers are still far behind. The iPhone's fragility is so entrenched in our minds, we've forgotten its root cause. We shouldn't be asking for help getting tools to fix our screens, we should be asking for a more durable device.

For these reasons, I switched from iPhone to Android last year. I got an LG Nexus 5x, a plastic phone as design-forward and dependable as a Toyota Corolla.

I've dropped my phone least 71 times in the 15 months I've owned it. In our iOS-centric world, I'm sometimes ridiculed for my texts showing up green instead of blue (another Apple psyop, in my opinion). But I get to keep my privacy and rollerskating spills to myself, thanks to its durable screen. Hopefully the iPhone catches up soon.

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along .