Readers of this blog will know that I have mixed feelings regarding the ubiquitous nature of technology in our culture. On the one hand, I am happy to use it for the things that make my job easier; on the other, I resent the way in which I allow it to monopolize my time and dictate the manner in which I engage with the world around me. I resent the way it conditions us to value the immediate, the visually stimulating, the excessive, the spectacular, and the trivial. Technology giveth and technology taketh away; it is a decidedly mixed blessing. This, in a nutshell, is my view on the matter.
One of the things that I find annoying about our infatuation with technology is the way that technological progress is just assumed to be unquestionably good. Each new deliverance from the technocrats is enthusiastically greeted as the logical and entirely necessary next step in a culture which can only understand itself in terms of its technological progress. We seem to be convinced, at the deepest level, that technology holds the answer to all of our problems. We hardly stop to wonder about what kind of people our attitude to technology is turning us into.
This was driven home with some force as I read this article about the mania that accompanied the release of the iPhone in New York yesterday. Among other things, I was struck by the euphoric nature of the group dynamic outside the Apple store on 5th Avenue—it was almost as if people were caught up in this collective transcendent experience whereby they were transformed from ordinary citizens into something much grander and more significant—iPhone owners. Or, at least, iPhone participants—i.e., people who were there when the blessed device was first revealed to a reverent public. Listen to the way that the writer describes the first iPhone owner’s experience:
“This is incredible,” Geoffrey shouted, and it was: like being a great athlete in an arena, like being Caesar, lauded and honoured: hail to the early adopter!
Now the crowd went wild: pictures, congratulations, applause. People wanted to touch the boxes. They were heroes. “Get it out, get it out,” A professional photographer shouted. “Take it out of the box! Right here!”
Does this strike anyone else as just a little bit silly? Or, worse than silly, almost deranged? We’re talking about a technological device here, a phone!! From the description of the scenes in New York, one would expect that what was being unveiled was the Holy Grail itself but no, in fact, it was simply a product that will probably be outdated in a few months or years—just in time to whip up enough public enthusiasm for the next revolutionary iThing.
To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of these iPhones until someone at the Seattle Mariners game the other day mistook my friend’s ordinary camera for one. Alas, our fellow baseball fan was not to be given the privilege of making visual contact with one of these blessed creations—of being in the very presence of the holy iPhone. I can only wonder what might have happened if my friend would have said ‘yes.’ Maybe we would have been hoisted on the shoulders of an adoring crowd, and triumphantly paraded around the ball diamond. Perhaps we would have received a coveted spot on the Jumbotron! Sure, we would not have been on the same level as professional baseball players who can command $10 million/year for swinging a bat four times a game and standing around in the outfield, but we would have been something almost as important—iPhone owners! And one of the first ones at that! It would have mattered not that we did nothing to merit such adoration and attention—we would have possessed a piece of technology that has captivated the public consciousness, one that everyone wanted, one that held the secret for a future life of “connection,” “convergence,” and meaning.
I confess that, aside from my philosophical objections to the ways in which we are conditioned by the technology we use, I still fail to understand what’s so special about these iPhones. I suspect that, like most Apple products, one of the main selling features of this product is what it is not, namely, a PC. But apparently, in addition to this important feature, there is yet more. One blogger raved about how these things can “predict” what you’re trying to say and then “correct” it: if you type “muther” but really meant “mother,” the iPhone will “show” you (gently? lovingly?) what you really meant and correct it for you (roughly like any ordinary word processor’s spell checker). I gather that you can do almost anything with these things—make calls, store data, surf the web, share music and photos, and undoubtedly anything else you could imagine short of cooking your breakfast or saving your soul.
Or maybe it can do that too. One observer who was fortunate enough to be present at this momentous iPhone unveiling, was at least perceptive enough to state the obvious: the response to the iPhone represents something much larger than people getting excited about a product which solves some pressing problem, or could conceivably result in a noticeable change in their lives: “I think the iPhone has transcended technology and become a philosophical device.”
A philosophical device indeed. For a people who have lost confidence in any sense of an overall “metanarrative”—a story within which to locate themselves which tells them where they have come from and where they are going – technology steps in to fill the void. After all, who can say if God(s) exist, or if history has a purpose, or if we are accountable to anyone other than ourselves? Who can say if there is any meaning in the cosmos beyond that which we create for ourselves? How could we ever know such things? Who’s to say it even matters anyway?
And in this default condition of agnosticism/practical atheism, technology steps in to fill a void that stubbornly demands to be filled. We’re making progress, we tell ourselves; we’re moving forward, we’re creating stuff that makes our lives easier, more interesting, and more entertaining. We’re inventing devices that make it possible to “connect” with people across the planet in a truly unprecedented manner! Technology is providing an orienting narrative within which to locate our lives—we are part of a story of progress. And, despite this narrative’s shaky philosophical foundations, historically unjustified optimism, and vaguely defined future, this progress simply is deemed to be positive and worthwhile.
I couldn’t help but notice a deep irony with respect to one source of fascination with the iPhone: it is thought to be more personal. One observer commented that “It isn’t just that the iPhone embodies technology, but that it let everyone become more physical with technology, so it feels more human.” Apparently, features such as the touch-screen (“you stroke it the way you’d stroke a face”) leave its users with the impression that their device is more than just a collection of metal, plastic, and computer chips – it is the “technical manifestation of a soul.”
And so this is what we have become—people who seek, in the technology we create for ourselves, to recover such irreducibly human things as contact and touch that our technology is increasingly rendering unnecessary. Like human beings down through the ages, we continue to have high expectations of our gods. You can count me among those who remain skeptical that the iPhone, or an iAnything, can deliver either on what it promises or on what human beings increasingly seem to demand from their technology.
UPDATE: To get a sense of just how much of a status-symbol the iPhone is (“To have an iPhone in New York City at the moment is to be a status god”), you can check out this article in today’s Globe.
UPDATE II: For a humorous take on the iPhone’s inability to live up to its promise, see this article in Thursday’s New York Times.