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Digital Dandies

To understand the market for gadgets, you need to understand fashion.
January 1, 2005

Some technologies are tools, others are toys, and still others are attitudes. A case in point is the 7280 cell phone just introduced by Nokia. The 7280 is the size and shape of a candy bar. It’s unusual not so much for what it has – a built-in 640-by-480-pixel camera and voice recognition – but for what’s missing. The work of Nokia’s Mobile Phones Business Group, the 7280 has no keypad at all. Numbers and names are entered by voice only and are displayed on-screen at a fraction of the size of those on conventional instruments. If less is more, the price is nice, too: about $600 retail.

Unhappy with this design philosophy? A separate Nokia division, Vertu, has just the instrument for you – a personal project of Nokia’s design vice president Frank Nuovo. The top-of-the-line Signature has a keypad. It also has 18 jeweled bearings, spring-loaded with microscopic rubber bands for what Vertu’s website calls “the perfect click.” The display is made of what Vertu says is the largest sapphire crystal ever offered on the market. The earpiece is made of aerospace ceramic for a warm touch, while the logo is deposited in a vacuum chamber for permanence. The Signature bezel is offered in platinum and gold; the platinum version sells for an eyebrow-raising $32,000.

But despite all the refinements of the Signature, the 7280 is the more radical technology. Transcending functionality, it is the instrument of the digital dandy. The Vertu is visibly luxurious, but conventionally so. Its buyer is the clockwork connoisseur, the admirer of solidity and complexity. Clockwork connoisseurship first flourished in the 18th century, when the artisans of London and Paris produced not only clocks and scientific instruments of the greatest refinement but also home furnishings with hidden drawers and compartments – more for aristocratic one-upmanship than for security.

In 19th- and 20th-century watchmaking, dandyism diverged from connoisseurship, giving us wafer-thin Patek Philippes on one hand and, on the other hand, self-winding Rolex GMTs carved from solid stainless steel, which told the time in two zones. Connoisseurship is masculine, favoring ruggedization and echoing the battlefield in its love of sandblasted and matte finishes. All-black cameras historically sold at a premium over brushed stainless steel, reflecting the obsession of professional combat and candid photographers alike with avoiding telltale glare.

In the early 21st century, most technological objects may be hybrids, but the connoisseur taste tends to favor the analog, the dandy aesthetic the digital. Most high-end audio equipment, for example, reflects clockwork connoisseurship. Black finishes, dials with flywheels, glowing meters, big switches, massive cables – all glory in overengineering. Connoisseurship revels in the triumph of solidity over domesticity. The dandy, on the other hand, is a flaneur, a jaded, narcissistic observer well-suited to the 7280, whose screen becomes a mirror when not in use. The dandy’s car is a near-silent hybrid, the connoisseur’s a Hummer.

The industrial world of the 19th century and most of the 20th belonged to the connoisseurs. The baby boomers, far from being culturally revolutionary, may have been the last connoisseur generation, closer to their parents than to their children, who have replaced the floor-standing speakers of the 1960s with the earbuds of MP3 players.

And to connoisseurs’ chagrin, the market has rewarded dandyism. Consider the Sony Vaio 505 notebook computer, introduced in 1997. Teiyuu Goto, its designer, reportedly insisted on a profile of less than an inch and a magnesium-alloy case at a time when the competition was still using plastic. After some concessions to Sony engineers, Goto held the line at 22 millimeters in thickness, even though an imperceptible additional millimeter could have doubled the hard drive’s storage capacity. Despite or even because of this, the 505 was an outstanding success.

At Apple Computer, Steve Jobs spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making the sides of his impractically cubic NeXT machine precisely perpendicular. While the NeXT’s hardware could barely support its sophisticated operating system, and the platform subsequently vanished, it ultimately gave Jobs the tools to restore Apple’s finances and eclat (the Mac OS X was built from the NextStep OS). Apple’s current icon, the iPod, is a dandy technology with the solidity, storage capacity, and ergonomics that make it appealing to all but the most diehard connoisseurs.

The 7280 is within the reach of the affluent young; the Signature is for the prosperous and perhaps socially anxious middle-aged. The 7280 reflects the glories of rapid electronic obsolescence; the Vertu denies death – its own, and its owner’s.

I’d love to have it both ways. I’d love to think that a solid key click builds character. But dandies don’t mind what they’re losing. They can always discard the current model when engineers catch up to designers’ visions. “Stand out like a flame in the darkness,” urges the Nokia website. Dandies may sometimes burn good money, but they light the way for the rest of us.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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