Earlier this month, Apple hosted its annual product announcement event, where CEO Tim Cook unveiled the trillion-dollar company’s latest wares. The stars of the show were, predictably, the redesigned Apple Watch and the new iPhone models—the XS, XS MAX, and XR—which boast the biggest screens yet. For Apple users (that is, pretty much everyone), these mammoth displays appear to be welcome and expected developments. Who among us doesn’t want to spend hours in bed hate-scrolling through their frenemy’s Instagram on a screen larger than a Subway sandwich? In the name of unceasing progress, though, Apple pulled the plug on one of its best products ever. I’m talking, of course, about the iPhone SE.
For two years now, I have been a faithful iPhone SE evangelist, a solitary voice crying out in the technological wilderness. This has been a lonely and generally unsuccessful vocation, one that has often made me the subject of ridicule from friends and acquaintances alike. But as the iPhone SE prepares to cross over into the Silicon Valley afterlife, I’m even more convinced we’re losing something important, and the world is worse off because of it.Choosing the iPhone SE was a way for me to practice the spiritual discipline of simplicity.
The allure of smartphones used to be their compact nature. Users received a mind-boggling amount of computing power in a small, handheld device. Once touchscreens became standard, all that changed, and since then the dominant philosophy driving iPhone development is that bigger is always better. But the iPhone SE, with its modest four-inch screen that Apple once referred to as “a dazzling display of common sense,” provided an alternative way forward for those of us who weren’t convinced adding an extra two inches of screen to the device we use most would benefit our lives. The iPhone SE felt like a much-needed appeal to practicality, to moderation.
From a technical standpoint, was the SE the best phone Apple offered? Of course not. But it was most certainly good enough, and that was, to me, its charm. Sure, the camera didn’t capture the sharpest photos, but there’s no need to pretend I’m Ansel Adams when all I’m doing is sending people pictures of my dog’s new haircut. As for the SE’s size: utter perfection. It was so subtle, so sleek, I often forgot it was in the pocket of my trousers. It was cheap, too, with a starting price of just $350 (the most affordable iPhone now starts at $449). Most importantly, it could be easily operated with one hand without running the risk of a thumb dislocation. Simply put, the SE was the ideal phone. And Apple killed it.
This may sound like the inane rant of a technophobe who fancies himself the second coming of Wendell Berry, but nothing could be further from the truth. Just last week I acquired a pair of Apple AirPods, and they’ve changed my life for the better. I own an expensive MacBook, even though I use it almost exclusively for writing papers and watching YouTube videos. Reader, I confess that in my weaker moments I’ve even flirted with the idea of purchasing an Apple Watch. While I love these products as much as the next twentysomething, I’m disturbed by screen proliferation and the addictive and unhealthy behaviors these shiny glass boxes seem to encourage.
Nowadays, a screenless life is unrealistic, and not even necessarily a noble goal in and of itself. My job, for example, essentially requires me to have an iPhone. What’s more, my phone helps me pay the bills, learn languages, stay connected to friends, order food, and even read the Bible and pray. These are all good things. But for someone who has struggled with allowing too much of my life to be mediated through a screen, choosing an SE over a newer, flashier, and bigger phone was a small act of protest that helped me put this tool in proper perspective. I owned the SE; it didn’t own me. That is to say, choosing the SE was a way for me to practice the spiritual discipline of simplicity.
In his classic book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster describes simplicity as “an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle,” and when we practice simplicity, “we cease from showy extravagance not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle.” I purchased—I suppose it’s more accurate to say “I received,” as my parents were the ones paying—my first iPhone in high school, and all through college I took pride in having the latest updates the day they were available in stores. My friends often chastised me for pulling out my phone in the middle of a conversation, usually to check social media. This largely stemmed from my inability to pay attention and my frantic need for affirmation and connection. My inner chaos was manifesting itself outwardly. As I became aware of this chaos and sought ways to simplify, I made a personal rule: never buy the newest model, and always pick the smallest screen possible. While this isn’t meant to be prescriptive for everyone, it was an everyday reminder that reoriented me toward the inward simplicity Foster describes, which “involves a life of joyful unconcern for possessions” and makes room for focusing on the kingdom of God.
Tragically, the battle for a small, reasonable iPhone has officially been lost. The stewards of technology ultimately have no interest in us using their products in moderation. With this new line, “Apple is making a statement about how you ought to use your smartphone,” Ian Bogost writes in The Atlantic: “Not casually, but wholly. With your entire face and body involved. Both hands gripped fast to the device, held close, so the external world can recede and the smartphone’s can take its place.”
So what comes next? Can these new iPhones and the discipline of simplicity coexist? For some, probably, but for me, I’m not so optimistic. For now, though, I still have my SE, and I plan on protecting it at all costs. One day, its screen, which is already cracked nearly beyond usefulness, will flicker black, and I’ll once again be plunged into inner chaos.
But hey, who knows: I hear the new models have an even better camera. Perhaps a few glamour shots of my Goldendoodle will be enough for me to abandon my principles and find rest in the cool touch of Jony Ive–designed stainless steel.