Why do you care about leaked photos of the next iPhone? (featuring LEAKED PHOTOS OF THE NEXT IPHONE!)

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
Gold iPhone 5S
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The alleged iPhone 5S, in gold, in a video from AppAdvice.

It’s certainly possible to think up rational reasons why the Internet goes bonkers every time there are new “leaked” pictures of the next iPhone, which are still emerging just a day before its actual unveiling. And it’s possible to offer rational theories about the consequences of these leaks for Apple.

But all that rational speculation and rationed rationalization would be a waste of effort. The phenomenon is, in fact, merely bonkers.

The underlying urge makes sense — we all love an unauthorized sneak peek at new things. “Spy shots” of forthcoming or in-development products have been a standard feature of the car business for years. In the old days such pictures surfaced chiefly in gear-head magazines, whose Webby descendants devote whole sections to such fare.

Still, photos of an alleged 2015 Lexus or 2016 Jaguar simply do not explode across the web the way alleged images of forthcoming iPhones and similar gadgets do. That’s particularly true of anything remotely connected to Apple (maybe we should call them spiShots).

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A purported image of the iPhone 5S that made the rounds.

This clearly isn’t because the pictures are aesthetically interesting. Nor do they tend to reveal breathtaking technological progress: The buzziest allegation to emerge from the iPhone 5S leaks is that Apple’s new phone might be available in a gold color. ("GOLD IPHONE 5S PHOTOS" screams a typically breathless Business Insider headline). Moreover, pictures of smartphones offer little information about functionality — operating system features, camera quality, what the object is really like to hold, look at or listen to. It is in fact the sheer useless banality of the images that makes their popularity so fascinating.

Part of what is going on here is a misguided extrapolation of the dubious cultural cachet that’s come to be attached to “first adopters:” Being first on your block to glom onto every techno-novelty now roughly equates with an embrace of progress itself; the rush to see, and share, any potential novelty is a de facto stand-in for that urge during slow periods when there’s nothing physical to purchase.

In the case of Apple products, the effect is multiplied by the company’s reputation for secrecy: The near-mythological idea that the wizards of Cupertino have consistently stunned us all with its completely unforeseen inventions. What a heady experience, to glimpse the magic before the next spell has been formally cast!

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This could be your next iPhone!

That idea brings us to the theoretical perils of leaked-product-image frenzies for tech companies in general, and Apple in particular. The risk argument is counterintuitive: If we know too much about the awesome things to come, we stop buying the marginally less awesome offerings available now.

But: Really? For starters, when is the last time Apple introduced a completely unexpected product? And how does this theory square with the deeply entrenched, and bafflingly popular, ritual of announcing a product that pre-dates market availability by months? If this line of thought described actual consumer behavior, then back in June Apple basically shut down the possibility of any non-iOS user considering its mobile devices until now: The rhapsodic promises about iOS 7 made the current version sound like a pathetic mess. Nevertheless, I’m going to bet that some iOS first-timers have come aboard since then, just as Microsoft and Sony are still selling gaming consoles. There is more to consumer behavior than mere rationality.

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A purported image of the iPhone 5S home button.

Thus the final factor in explaining leaked-pic mania: It is a manifestation of the way the tech press strives to serve you, dear reader. Turns out that, for reasons suggested above, your hunger for the latest news about anything related to technology is truly voracious. Many, many outlets now respond to this hunger, and I hate to say it, but we have a supply problem: Genuine news of the future’s buyable arrival simply cannot match the demand. And thus we get this:

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This passes for news, apparently, in the Apple-watching sphere.

This lack of actual reportable progress is why the latest round of leaked iPhone pictures (and the next one) was (and will be) repackaged dozens and dozens of times, and tech news-seekers will encounter it so repeatedly that eventually they capitulate, and take a look — just to make sure they’re not missing what appears to be a significant development. Are the pictures real? Has Apple lost control of its secrecy armature? Were the images leaked by Apple itself? Such speculation doesn’t slow the frenzy; it feeds it.

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Is THIS the camera on the new iPhone?

Whatever we may tell ourselves about how our interest in seeing the latest leaked gizmo images is a function of tech-shopper savvy, we basically check out these pictures because everyone else seems to be checking them out. Nobody likes to feel like the last to know. And one surefire response to that is to click, right away, on what purport to be documentation of progress itself.

There is, of course, a word for millions of people who each believe they are a step ahead of the herd: It’s called a “herd.”

And now, here's a photo of what could be the replacement ringer speaker Dock connector module on the iPhone 5S.

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Apple has done it again.

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