The Electors’ Moral Duty

I am entirely opposed to the Electoral College as a means of choosing the President of the United States. I proudly worked for an organization that had repeal of the Electoral College, replacing it with a national popular vote, as one of its three or four prime reasons for existing.

But that’s what we’ve got right now. While I’m horrified that it has allowed Donald Trump to become the president-elect, I don’t believe that his election is “unfair” just because Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won the popular vote. Both campaigns ran to win the Electoral College vote, not the popular vote, and Trump succeeded. That’s the game both of them were playing. If it had been a popular vote contest, they absolutely would have run entirely different campaigns, and it’s impossible to say for sure what that outcome would have been (though we can guess). Hillary knows it. Al Gore knew it. Them’s the breaks.

As the electors themselves are about to vote, there is a lot of noise about whether some of them will “defect,” as it were, and that some of those who are pledged to Donald Trump will vote for someone else, or not at all. There are talks of secret discussions, compromise candidates, legal challenges, intelligence briefings, and postponements.

I don’t think anything is actually going to happen. Sure, one or two electors may ultimately vote in contradiction to their pledge, but I do not believe we’re going to see anything that changes the result of the election.

But I do support the efforts to do so, and I hope I am wrong that nothing will change.

It’s not a simple matter. Changing the result of the election will have enormous consequences, the likes of which we can’t yet predict. Put aside the legal and constitutional questions, put aside the totally unprecedented confusion over transitions and appointments that will transpire.

Merely imagine for a moment a scenario in which, by one mechanism or another, Trump is denied the presidency in favor of another candidate, be it Clinton or a GOP compromise candidate. I cannot believe that such a reversal would not spark chaos among the populace. I’m talking actual riots and violence from angry Trump supporters, supporters who are not exactly peaceful and friendly in victory, let alone defeat. People will be hurt, some may be killed, the economy will take a rollercoaster ride, and whatever regime does wind up taking power will be debilitated in myriad ways: choked by a thick cloud of illegitimacy, pilloried by hails of lunatic conspiracy theories and vicious opposition from the far right, and who knows what else. It will be awful.

But it will pass, eventually, and even in the worst imaginings, it will be better than a Donald Trump presidency.

I know I am on record months ago as believing that Trump was preferable to, say, a Cruz or Rubio presidency, but I of course have been thoroughly disabused of this, and I would gladly welcome a President Ted Cruz over what we’re about to endure. More likely, if there was some kind of alteration of the election, we’d be looking at a President Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, or John Kasich. Fine. Great. Welcome to the Oval Office. Nice to have you.

Why is this better than just coping with the status quo and dealing with whatever comes of a Trump administration? Here are some things a Trump presidency will, with near certainty, mean. They require almost no speculation, just common sense:

  • Climate change will accelerate beyond the point that humans could do anything to mitigate
  • The Supreme Court will lurch far to the right, perhaps for generations
  • Putin’s Russia will become far more powerful and audacious
  • Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other badly needed social programs will be gutted or destroyed entirely
  • The Affordable Care Act will be mutilated or repealed, and millions of Americans will lose their insurance
  • American police will become even more militarized, and incarcerations will go way up
  • Public education will lose funding in favor of private and religious schools
  • The EPA and the FDA will be neutered, if not abolished altogether, or else turned into marketing tools for the industries they are supposed to regulate, putting millions of lives in danger
  • The poorest Americans will become poorer
  • Minority groups will have their voting rights strangled to the point of de facto disenfranchisement
  • The press will be stifled and under constant threat of retaliation from the government
  • Nazis, white supremacists, men’s rights advocates, and other blights on humanity will complete their exit from the shadows and become normal parts of American public life and politics

I could go on.

The members of the Electoral College, I feel, have a moral duty to stop this.

I think it’s worth the short-term risk of chaos and the loss of confidence in the Electoral College system. It’s worth these citizens violating their vows to vote as directed by their states. The electors are human beings, Americans who have to live in this country, and on this planet, too. But they are also Americans who by dint of circumstance have the power to save us, and one chance to do it.

They won’t. I’m nearly sure of it. But I really hope they do.

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P.S.; Here’s an interview Lawrence Lessig just did with the Washington Post, discussing his initiative to confidentially assist any electors who are considering taking action like this.

 

What We Told Our Kids Today

Our two children, our 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, were very enthusiastic about this election. From the beginning, they’ve shown an enormous amount of genuine curiosity about it, and became quite emotionally invested. Of course, that’s because their parents were too.

We certainly knew that a Hillary Clinton presidency was not a foregone conclusion, and that it would not take some sort of upheaval or miracle for Donald Trump to defy expectations, but like most of the human species, it appeared so unlikely as not to warrant too much worry. So that’s what we shared with our kids. Optimism about the outcome, always grounded in the very real possibility that we were wrong.

They were excited that a woman might be president. We read them biographical children’s books to them about Hillary Clinton, and they truly admire her, as my wife and I do. They were comically hostile to Trump, with my son devising elaborate offensive machines that would batter Trump with multiple frying pans should he ever come to the door seeking our votes. My daughter was more concise, promising to “smack him in da FACE.” I discouraged the more overtly violent fantasies, but it was all in fun. (When I informed my son that Clinton had “kicked Trump’s butt” in the debates, he paused and clarified, “Metaphorically.” Yes, son, metaphorically.)

Among our many agonies on election night, my wife Jessica and I were sick over how to tell the kids what had happened in the morning. Jess was very worried, afraid that our son, who is at a very emotional phase, would panic. If the grownups were in tears, our sensitive kids would be too.

This morning, I snuggled up to my son in his bed, cuddled him close. Thumb in mouth, he rested his half-sleeping head on my chest. I rubbed the close-cut hair on his head, and wished I could lay there with him for hours.

Jessica came into the room, and as our son became more awake, she calmly broke the news in a gentle, measured, loving voice. “Donald Trump won the election.”

Over the course of the morning, here’s the gist of what we told our daughter and son.

We’re all okay.

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump is bad news. We absolutely don’t think he should be president. Maybe more importantly, we know that Hillary Clinton would have been an amazing president. We’re pretty sad, and a lot of people are going to be feeling very bad about this for a while.

Donald Trump is a man we disagree with on almost everything, but we in this family are going to be just fine. We won’t at all like a lot of what he does or tries to do, but he’s not going to “come and get us.”

Here’s what we can do now. For all the things we don’t like about the man who will soon be president, we can choose to be better. We can be kinder to the people in our lives, and help the people who need it. We can love each other and always be looking for ways to make our home and our community a better, happier place. It’s actually the most powerful thing we can do.

Remember that not everyone agrees with us. [Note: My son’s first grade class voted unanimously for Clinton in their mock election, but Trump eked out a victory in my daughter’s pre-K class.] When you go to school and when you’re around other people, remember that some of them are happy about this election, and others are very upset. Don’t be mean to the people who voted for Trump, and be gentle with those who didn’t. The idea is to put more love and kindness into the world, not less.

There are many people out there in the country and in the rest of the world who will have a much harder time with Trump as president than we will. We are very lucky in that we will be okay, and our lives will be just about the same. Others will have new troubles, and we need to help them however we can.

That’s more or less what we told them.

For our daughter, we were very clear and optimistic and passionate on one particular point: You can be anything you want to be. You can be president. You can accomplish whatever you set out to do. I think we told her this for our own sake as much as hers. I had brought her into the voting booth with me on Election Day, so she could be there when I voted for who we thought would be the first women President of the United States. Though she didn’t feel this way, I felt that more than anyone else we had let my daughter down.

After we first told our son what happened, as I held him to me in his bed and could not see the first reaction on his face, I worried how the news was hitting him. He lifted his head up, got to a sitting position, and my 6-year-old boy spoke.

“Can I write a letter to Hillary Clinton?”

He wants to write to her to tell her how sorry he is that she lost, that he knows she worked so very hard, and that he doesn’t want her to be upset.

That was his first reaction to the news.

If Jessica and I have succeeded in anything in our lives, it is in that we have brought into the world two human beings with good, loving hearts. They are kind, they are compassionate, they are empathetic. I am so deeply proud of them.

We proceeded through our usual Wednesday morning routine, and though heavy with the weight of what has happened and what is to come, we still had silliness and hugs and jokes as well as the mundane frustrations of getting out the door in the morning. My kids made me laugh, they got on my nerves, my son forgot his backpack so that we had to go back home to get it, and my daughter agreed to become president one day, before going to pet the preschool class’s bunny.

This is not a trivial thing. My family and I, along with tens of millions of human beings, have been let down by a huge portion of our fellow citizens. We were betrayed by legions of cynical opportunists, self-righteous purists, the blamelessly uninformed, the willfully ignorant, and the overtly malicious. Not only has a fascistic clown been elected president, but we’ve been denied the leadership of perhaps the most qualified, competent, and skilled president our country could have ever had. There is darkness coming.

But there is also light. My sensitive, curious, imaginative boy and my brilliant, brave, creative girl. They are luminous.

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The Long Climb Up to Zero

I’m on my way back from CSICon, the skeptics’ conference put on by my organization, which took place in Las Vegas this year. One of the presentations was by Anthony Pratkanis, who introduced us to the phenomenon of “altercasting,” wherein a person can elicit desired behavior from others by adopting, and implicitly assigning, particular social roles. So for example, if he effectively assumes the social role of a teacher, we become students, and will find ourselves carrying out the behaviors that are expected of that role (dutifully taking notes if he suggests it, for example). And the power of this altercasting is such that once we have put ourselves into these social roles, we live up to them. We almost can’t help it. It’s a tool of con artists, as well as a skill that can be used for good.

On my way in to Vegas, I got a message from my wife asking if I knew what day it was. Uh oh, was my first thought. But then she reminded me: the sixth anniversary of the night I was ambushed late at night by two thugs on the street in DC, beaten to a bloody pulp, and sent into a years-long spiral of PTSD and myriad other associated problems. The anniversary date used to have a lot of power over me, almost as though the recurrence of the date would somehow “make it happen again,” which is of course nonsense. In the past couple of years, though, I’ve more or less let the day pass without realizing it, which is a small victory.

The years of therapy that followed this event, which I’m still working through, subsequently unearthed the vast array of phobias, self-loathing, weird hangups, anxieties, traumas, and other psychological baggage I’d been lugging around more or less since childhood. The PTSD diagnosis, it turned out, spanned far more than just one attack. I had been trained to experience existential terror, fight-or-flight amygdala activation, through years of bullying and abuse in my youth. In other words, I was early on placed in the social role of a subhuman target for derision. And with constant reenforcement, I lived up to it. I memorized it.

All this time, readers will know, I had been living with Asperger’s syndrome, and had no idea. I only found this out very recently, at age 38. This means I had been born predisposed to feel like an alien, unable to comprehend the behavior of the beings around me, stunted in my attempts to reach out or communicate, and often punished for it. The Asperger’s also contributed to a litany of other ways in which I experienced the world differently from neurotypical folks, so a great deal of my fears and limitations (social, intellectual, physical) were textbook aspects of the autism.

I felt like an alien for a reason, because I really was different. The misfortune of growing up in a bullying environment led me down the path of believing myself to be a bad alien, a bum unit out of the factory, a lemon, sent into this breathing world scarce half made up. To use Pratkanis’s concept, I likely altercast my social role as an unworthy to others as much or more than it was altercast upon me by others.

When one is of this mind, I’ve learned, one sort of expects to be called out, to periodically pay some kind of penance for one’s difference, for pretending to be a normal member of the species. Not so fast! We see you. In adulthood, you can go for longer stretches of time without being overtly chastised for trying to pass as human, but the dread of being revealed is ever-present. For me, it was a constant exercise of over-analysis of my behavior, my physical comportment, my speech, the direction of my gaze, my gestures, as well as kind of running apology for my quirks, oddities, and deficiencies. It’s as if to display a running advertisement to the rest of the world that says, “I know I’m not like you, I get it, and I’m sorry.”

The attack six years ago felt like one of those moments of being caught, unmasked. Ostensibly those assailants were beating me up to get my wallet and phone, but to me, they were punishing me for existing. Not so fast. We see you. In the moment of the beatings, it felt like I was finally going to be killed for it, and that didn’t seem too strange to me. I had it coming.

I now am meant to unlearn all of this. I am supposed to be working to memorize a different story about myself, to assign myself different, affirming social roles.

The Asperger’s diagnosis should be making this task easier. Before the diagnosis, this was an exercise in convincing myself I was fine the way I was, and that there was nothing about me that inherently made me unworthy of membership in homo sapiens, which is quite an uphill climb, psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. My mind had been trained to believe the opposite, and now I had to learn that I was as worthy of respect and agency as anyone else – not in spite of my various quirks, hangups, and differences, but regardless of them. Knowing now that I had been working with an autistic brain all this time should have eased this path, because it explained the majority of my differences and my feelings of alienation, giving them a name and a cause. Rather than working to accept a bubbling, undulating mass of traits, something that seemed scattered and very abstract, I now had a concrete, definitive First Cause. Whereas I had once felt that I had a torrent of faults of my own making with which I had to come to terms, now I knew I had a condition. I was born with an atypical brain, and there was and is nothing to be done about that, so I might as well just be okay with it.

But three months or so into my life as a diagnosed Aspie (which is a short time, I know), this hasn’t happened. What I hoped would be a huge relief and a license to finally accept myself as I am has proved to be much more complicated and fraught. At conferences, for example, like the one I’m leaving right now, I still default to the social role of the barely-tolerated freak, the alien who needs to at least imply apology for just being there. Awareness of my own Asperger’s hasn’t erased the limitations of that condition, so I still flail and sweat and panic my way through even the most banal interactions (especially those). Rather than accept the fact that I simply can’t perceive what others naturally perceive, I go into a kind of processing overdrive, likely coming off even weirder than I might otherwise, and certainly exhausting myself. The cascade of self-doubt, self-loathing, and shame for existing continues as it ever has. If anything, now I add to my longtime mountain of struggle the knowledge that I am being “a bad Aspie,” failing to accept and live out that reality.

So even after all this self-realization, after all this really hard work, there remains a social role I seem immune to, over which altercasting has no effect: Respected peer. It’s not as though I get no validation from friends and colleagues. Good-hearted people in my life expend great effort trying to imbue me with some sense of self-worth. But their words, their sentiments, their compassion, sincere as I assume it to be, just bounces off. It simply doesn’t penetrate. Words of encouragement and affirmation sound as absurd to me as being told I have three heads or telekinetic powers. I know it’s not so, no matter how passionately you try to convince me.

I know, I know. The point is not what others tell me, how they validate me. The goal is to start within myself, to memorize a new narrative of my own making. It’s just proving a lot harder than I thought. Understanding the core source of my alienation hasn’t erased the alienation, not yet anyway. And all I aspire to, really, is to stop at knowing I’m different. To take no further steps, either into self-loathing or even affirmation.

A mere feeling of neutrality about “the way I am” would be a goddamned paradise. But man, it’s still a long, long way up just to get to zero.

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Unavoidable Ambience

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Ed Yourdon via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I admit it. When I walk through an airport (which I’ve done quite a lot of in the past couple of weeks), and see almost every pair of eyes staring at a phone or tablet screen, I get the feeling that something is wrong. It bothers me.

This is of course absurd if you know anything about me.

I adore smartphones and tablets and computers. I also hate being around groups of people, particularly strangers. In large part due to my Asperger’s syndrome, I’m deeply averse to casual human interaction, small talk, and establishing connections with people in meatspace. The smartphone and its ancillary technologies are a gift to someone like me; yes, as a way to escape and feed my mind and sate my need for dopamine squirts, but also as a means for me to communicate and build relationships on my terms, in my own time, and at a safe distance. I am serious when I say that I am so very grateful for these devices.

And yet. As my eyes survey a public space stuffed with humans, just about literally all transfixed on their phones, I can’t help but feel like something has gone wrong. I mean, they’re not all autistics and introverts, right?

If anything, I should be relieved. The more people who are engaged with their devices, the fewer there are to creep into my space and demand my attention and energy. As it is, I blend right in, which has been perhaps the chief aim of my existence in physical space since I was 10 years old.

Am I being weirdly territorial? Do I resent the normals of the world encroaching on my virtual space and leaning on my crutch? I mean after all, I’m in that space to get away from everyone, not meet up with them through a different venue.

Nah. These people may be online, but they’re still nowhere near me.

And anyway, I’ve argued before that there’s no reason to be judgmental about someone using a phone. Yes, it appears to the observer that all phone-gawkers are the same, passively consuming some digital confection of little to no value. But for all anyone knows, this person might be reading a scientific paper, that one might be engrossed in a rich novel, and that one might be reviewing important job-related correspondences. There’s no way to know.

But, you know, probably not. We still have no room to judge, though. I know that sometimes the best thing a person can do to heal psychological exhaustion is to vegetate for a bit, and rest one’s higher processes.

I suppose some of this has a lot to do with my own conditioning. I grew up to expect people to be interacting with each other when they’re in proximity. Lord knows I was never good at this, or ever liked it — indeed, it’s usually painful. But I knew that I was different for feeling this way, wrong, and well before I was ever diagnosed as autistic or sought therapy for my difficulties. I was the odd duck, while everyone else was doing it right. I learned, correctly or incorrectly, that this socially connective norm was right. To step back out into the world now, and in such a short space of time see things change so drastically, is jarring. I think, what happened to all of you?

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Ed Yourdon via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

For a few weeks now I’ve been chewing over in my mind the recent New York Magazine essay by Andrew Sullivan, where he cops to becoming consumed by the digital space, recounts his efforts to center himself and his priorities, and worries aloud about what the new smartphone era is doing to society as a whole.

I deeply respect Sullivan — he is a major influence on my work, even when I disagree with him. And here, I do feel like his own, very real feelings of loss and panic have caused him to project too much on the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, let’s consider some of his observations.

As I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in [Sherry] Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

That feels worrying, to be sure. There’s something rather disquieting about the idea that we’re slowly atrophying our fundamental humanity. I don’t know that we actually are, but he’s at least succeeded in scaring me a little.

But look at one of the examples he uses here. “If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend…” In a hypothetical scenario in which a person is lost in digital distraction, he chooses another form of distraction as the venue: watching a football game. He doesn’t say whether he means watching one on television or in person, but it almost doesn’t matter. He’s talking about two people in the same place being distracted by the passive viewing of the same meaningless thing. A game! I absolutely grant that the parent and child here are missing out on the chance to connect over a shared experience as a result of the parent’s texting, but it remains that the original activity was one of passive consumption in the first place. (To be clear, I think the parent in this scenario should definitely put the phone away and be with their kid — I’m just pointing out the weirdness and the irony of the scenario Sullivan has chosen.)

Now put aside for a moment the parent-child aspect of this. Sullivan presumes that the connections being established over a digital medium while watching a football game are less valuable or less meaningful because they don’t occur in meatspace. I’m not refuting that per se, but I’m also not prepared to grant it axiomatically. I have what I consider to be very meaningful relationships and connections with people I have never met in person, and exist to me primarily as Twitter avatars or what have you, and I truly appreciate them during shared experiences like presidential debates. But again, I’m also autistic. And I also know that my in-person connections to people like my wife and children are more valuable and meaningful to me than all the smartphones in South Korea.

So like Sullivan I strongly suspect, if not from my own inner life then from my observation of other humans, that people need these social skills that have been “honed through the aeons.” But there are countless tiny signals and nuances in the digital realm as well, so there is the possibility that we are just honing new skills that will adapt us to a changing world.

It’s kind of the story of human civilization anyway, isn’t it? A wandering species of animal that somehow stumbles along building megacities and spacecraft and internets as its neocortices and amygdalae do-si-do throughout the millennia, hoping we don’t murder too many of each other and open too big of a hole in the food chain for some other species to become the boss. (I’m looking at you, octopuses.)

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Sullivan also says that spirituality itself is being replaced by the unavoidable ambience of consumable content, because spirituality requires silence.

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

That’s a bit of a reach. The claims about the nature of reality made by faith traditions have indeed been disproven bit by bit over the ages, and we do now live at a time when they have been so utterly demolished by science — and even lived experience — that the outright rejection of faith in general becomes an increasingly tenable and normal condition. Has the noise of media contributed to this? Almost certainly, but I think it’s as much the content of that noise as it is the quantity.

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clasesdeperiodismo via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

However, I think there can be little doubt that our current state of affairs is one in which there is precious little space for silence. And too many of us aren’t wise enough to seek it out of our own volition. Sullivan got wise, but only after driving himself to the brink. I am also very new to the notion that silence, space, and meditation (in the broadest sense) are not just sometimes pleasant or preferable, but necessary, physiologically and psychically. Silence is medicine I must remember to take.

And I must remember it on my own. Apart from the encouragement of my wife and therapist, there is no mechanism built into the digital age’s social infrastructure that either imposes or easily facilitates this (unless the power grid goes down). Our world is built on an increasingly complex lattice, made up of strands of distraction. For now, the choice is entirely our own to close our eyes and refuse to follow each strand as it passes our awareness. And it’s a choice that becomes more and more difficult to make all the time.

Those hundreds of people I see in one glance around the airport, each to a person gazing into an imperceptibly dense mosaic of pixels; if they’re not interacting with each other as I have grown to expect them to, I wonder if they ever find silence. I wonder if they ever seek it.

As an Aspie, I am highly sensitive to noise, crowds, and torrents of stimuli. So maybe that’s what concerns me when I see them, that I unconsciously perceive that even if I can’t literally hear it, there exists among this sea of glowing rectangles an ever-increasing amount of noise, forming into a tidal wave of clamor that will eventually sweep me out to sea.

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Japanexperterna.se via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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The Alpha, the Omega, and the Google

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Photo by Daniel Cukier CC BY-ND 2.0

Rumor has it that Google is set to recast itself as a full-fledged smartphone maker, with the expected introduction of its new “Pixel” phones on October 4. I think I understand what they’re up to.

To quickly catch you up, Google has for years offered up phones under the Nexus brand, but these were devices built by other manufacturers in partnership with Google, mainly intended as a “reference” for other manufacturers like Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony, and to serve the Android die-hard fanbase. Nexus phones offered the “pure” Android experience, as opposed to the phones made by other manufacturers which usually layer manufacturer-specific alterations to “stock” Android. Nexus phones get software updates as soon as they’re available, and they are usually very well received and affordable relative to Samsung and Apple flagships.

Now it’s being reported that “Nexus” is gone, and the new name is “Pixel.” Pixel is not new, of course, being the brand under which they’ve been producing high-end Chromebooks and one (so far) Android tablet. Google reportedly intends the Pixel line of phones to not just serve as showcases for stock Android, but to assert a new level of control over the entire Android experience. The devices themselves, which will be built by HTC, will not carry any HTC branding. Not Nexus, not HTC’s Nexus, but a Pixel phone. A Google phone.

David Ruddock at Android Police has a piece today in which he ponders what the grander strategy is, and this part grabbed me:

This “Pixel versus Nexus” distinction matters a great deal. By framing the Pixel and Pixel XL as Google products and not as Android ones, and by removing all discussion of “partners,” Google will finally be able to assert that, if only implicitly, it is offering a counterpoint to Apple’s iPhones.

It’s more than a name change, and more than Google simply throwing more weight around. This is part of Google’s overall effort to instill in consumers the idea that it is “Google” that they can trust to make their lives better.

Let’s back up. This past summer, Google unveiled its own take on the digital-assistant-in-your-house thing with Google Home, more or less a googly Amazon Echo. This same digital-assistant tech will also live in its upcoming messenger platform Allo, and already more or less exists in a less-personified form in Google Now on Android phones.

But what’s different about what Google does here than what Amazon or Apple does? I mean apart from whatever back-end, A.I., deep-learning, jiggery-pokery is going on in server farms. When you want to talk to the digital assistant on an iPhone, you talk to Siri. When you want to talk to the Echo, you ask Alexa. When you want something from Google, you just ask Google.

Google doesn’t want to separate itself from its interactions with you. It doesn’t want you to imagine some “character” answering your questions. Google wants you to ask Google. Google is the company and the character.

Google is also the search engine. You don’t look up information at the “Nexus Search,” you google, as in the neologistic verb. Your photos live in Google Photos, your stuff is synced on Google Drive. Google is the agent, the entity, that you look to.

But not with phones. Not now, anyway. Following digital thinking, I’m going to guess that “Pixel” is the name of the phone model. There’s the Apple iPhone, the Samsung Galaxies, the Amazon Kindle, and now the Google Pixel. Not “Google and HTC’s Pixel,” but the Google Pixel.

That means it’s an honest to goodness Google phone, just like the Pixel C is a Google tablet and the Chromebook Pixel is a Google laptop.

And perhaps most importantly, again leaning on digital piece, is that the new phones aren’t “Android phones,” any more than Apple is known for “iOS phones” or Samsung for “TouchWiz (gag) phones.” For years, the tech press discussion has been about iPhone vs. Android, but Android means a million different things in a million different contexts in a million different iterations.

Android is just the operating system, and it’s not the brand that regular consumers seek out. Almost no one other than enthusiasts go into carrier stores and ask for the latest Android phones. They might ask for the latest Samsung or Galaxy phone, but not Android. Again, no more than they ask about the latest “iOS phone.”

I frankly think Android as a brand is more or less alienating to most folks, evoking the image of something geeky and complicated. Notice that the Android device manufacturers almost never mention the word Android in their PR. They know that no one other than techies care about that. Brands like Apple, iPhone, and Galaxy give feelings of bedazzlement over cool, useful things. “Android,” I suspect, sounds like homework.

But you know what people do feel comfortable with? Google. You know what’s a nice, cute, safe word that feels both phone-related and still friendly? Pixel. Androids are semi-humanoid robots who have no feelings and might want to take over the world. Pixels are colorful things that make screens glow!

(Imagine how confused folks will get when their Google phone breaks and and they then google “how to fix dead pixel.”)

Google Home, Pixel, and all these other initiatives are of a piece. They’ve decided, I think, to stop making disparate products under disparate banners. Phones, operating systems, tablets, laptops, browsers, search engines, IOT/home devices, digital assistants – we’re meant to stop thinking of these things as separate brands in various arenas. They’re all just part of one thing, and to integrate them into your life, you just think, “OK, Google.”

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Apple is Both Tone Deaf and in Tune

Settle in as I express my deep disappointment at Apple, and then turn around and vigorously defend them on a totally separate point. On one issue, I find them being arbitrarily and arrogantly dismissive of an enormous proportion of their users, and on another, I find them  with what users need and want from a smartphone. They are simultaneously in tune and tone deaf. I know, it’s dizzying! Join me, won’t you?

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via Foter.com / CC BY

As you are no doubt aware, the newly-announced iPhone 7 and 7 Plus do not have standard headphone jacks. No reason they’ve offered up for this decision holds water to me, and the fact that Phil Schiller characterized the decision as an example of “courage” is simply laughable. There’s no feature or innovation of the iPhones 7 that, as far as I can tell, required nixing the headphone jack. And its presence wouldn’t have prevented them emphasizing Lightning port-connected or wireless headphones. They could still have included Lightning headphones in the box, if they really think they’re so much better than analogue headphones.

I know the term is becoming cliché, but ditching the headphone jack is user-hostile. iPhones, to be sure, are high-end luxury devices, and on paper you might presume that anyone who can afford one can certainly make a change to all-wireless or all-Lightning headphones without much pain. But we all know that freaking everyone has iPhones. With carrier subsidies and installment plans, iPhone owners span economic strata. People of all means, ages, and technical acumen own iPhones, and want to have the latest iPhones.

Headphones, meanwhile, are a real democratizing technology. Yes, there are high-end headphones that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and even “mid-range” headphones are out of reach for many consumers. But anyone can afford cheap earbuds and enjoy the audio on their phones. Companies like Panasonic make incredibly inexpensive and well-regarded headphones that anyone can buy and afford to replace if they get lost or break. Headphones can be had by anyone, and enable anyone to hear what their phone can produce.

Apple doesn’t care about that anymore. I know they included a Lightning-to-analogue adapter, but people will lose it. They included Lightning EarPods in the box, but those will also get lost or break. And millions and millions of people already own headphones they already like, and Apple’s decided that it doesn’t really matter. Headphones were the great equalizer for these astoundingly-great, expensive, high-end electronics. Not anymore, as far as Apple’s concerned, and I think that kind of sucks.

This is part of why this is not analogous to Apple’s rejection of previous computing standards, like their nixing of floppy drives from the iMac and the end of optical drives in latter-day MacBooks: the user-base of floppy and optical drives does not begin to approach the universality of analogue headphones. Excluding floppy and optical drives in computers effected a certain subset of consumers who 1) used computers, 2) used Macs, and 3) made regular use of those drives. That’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. On the other hand, we have the set if people who use iPhones (approximately 79 bazillion), and the subset of those who rely on the headphones jack (approximately all). It’s a failed analogy.

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Photo credit: Luis Marina via Foter.com / CC BY

Now, they have every right to change their product any way they choose, and the market can decide whether or not such a change is a deal-breaker. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s wise or in keeping with the ethos I feel like they purport to be guided by.

Okay, now, take a breath, I am now going to defend Apple. Here’s the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo on the iPhone 7, who says “Apple’s aesthetics have grown stale.”

As competitors have borrowed and even begun to surpass Apple’s best designs, what was iconic about the company’s phones, computers, tablets and other products has come to seem generic. …

… The bigger problem is an absence of delight. I recently checked in with several tech-pundit friends for their assessment of Apple’s aesthetic choices. “What was the last Apple design that really dazzled you?” I asked.

There was a small chorus of support for the MacBook, the beautifully tiny (if functionally flawed) laptop that Apple released last year. But most respondents were split between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 — two daring smartphone designs that were instantly recognized as surpassing anything else on the market.

Readers of this blog know that I have not been an iPhone user since the 5S, and have happily been in the land of Android…almost too happy. So I have no brand-identity motivation to defend Apple’s choices. (I mean, I just got finished crapping all over them, so.)

I’ve heard a lot of this kind of hand-wringing over the fact that the iPhone hasn’t changed in its broader design over three product generations. I shared some of this feeling for a while, wondering why Apple hadn’t been going out of its way to blow us all away with some delightful new novelty in phone design. But now I think I get it.

What’s a smartphone, really? It’s a computer with a touch display, meant to be held in the hand. There are theoretically any number of ways one could approach coming up with a form factor for such a device, but particularly when you’re talking about something so utterly ubiquitous as an iPhone, there’s not a lot of wiggle room left after you get down to “thin rounded rectangle.”

Now, I adore some of the more novel smartphone designs of many Android phones. I thought the LG G4 was surprisingly wonderful with its leather back and ever-so-slightly curved screen; Motorola’s 2014/2015 aesthetic with sloping backs, rear “dimples,” and metallic edges I thought was delightfully striking; the Nextbit Robin is beautifully quirky and industrial; and of course Samsung’s current line of Galaxy S and Note devices are almost jewel-like. They’re all great.

But the current iPhone design is great, too. I’ll admit, I at first was a little underwhelmed by the look of the 6-era iPhones when they were introduced. But hold a 6/6S Plus in your hand (without a case) and the cold, smooth feel of it is startling. You almost feel like you shouldn’t be trusted with something like it. Before we switched carriers, my wife had the black iPhone 6-regular, and I was jealous of it. Not for its software experience, but just for that shape and that color.

But even if I hadn’t personally found the iPhone design so evocative and attractive, the market has spoken, and it has said loud and clear with the chorus of tens of millions of voices, “This design is great.” People like the shape and feel of iPhones as they are now.

And that design also just works. People find it sufficiently ergonomic, and the basic form factor allows Apple to put into the phone what it feels like it has to (at least up until its rebuff of the 1/8″ aux port). You know what that also sounds like? Computers. Which the iPhone is, by the way.

Look at Apple’s MacBooks. They fiddle around the edges of the design, but all in all, their laptops have looked more or less the same since 2001. The biggest shift in design was the MacBook Air which morphed to the current-day suffix-less MacBook, and that’s been consistent since 2011. This is because those forms work really, really well and also happen to look really good. And really, the entire laptop industry is essentially made up of products that are variations on screen-that-folds-down-on-keyboard. I mean, tablets haven’t been able to meaningfully hurt laptops because it turns out that the platonic laptop form is just about right.

Here’s more from the Manjoo piece:

The company says it does not change its designs just for the sake of change; the current iPhone design, which debuted in 2014, has sold hundreds of millions of units, so why mess with success? In a video accompanying the iPhone 7 unveiling on Wednesday, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, called the device the “most deliberate evolution” of its design vision for the smartphone.

As much as I have been rolling my eyes at the grand pronouncements of Jonny Ive of late, I agree with him here. The design is deliberate, not the result of a lack of vision. They got it right in 2014, right for the market as it exists. To interpret the fact that they didn’t totally overhaul the iPhone form (perhaps a sphere? or something like this?) as a lack of vision or chops is, I think, short-sighted, and probably a symptom of focusing on a relatively new device category as it starts to mature.

I think it’s enough that each new phone released by any manufacturer is better than its predecessor. There are a lot of ways to be “better,” and only one of them is cosmetically.

And shit, you’re just going to put a case on it anyway.

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