Wed, Jan 18, 2012 08:08 AM
About a month and a half ago, I bought an iPhone 4S. I upgraded
from a Samsung SCH-a870, which is one of those old clamshells
that's only half a step more advanced than the brick-phone that
Zack Morris used to carry around on "Saved by the Bell."
I wasn't so excited to get the iPhone. In fact, I was sort of
dreading it, the way I - dragged along by the march of progress -
dread making any improvement to my life via purchases that'll ask
me to read their instruction manuals and change the way I do
things. My iPod had died, however, and I needed a new device on
which to listen to audiobooks. I realized that it would be easier,
maybe, to carry around only one gadget, instead of two.
The other reason I decided to get the iPhone is that - humiliating
as it is to admit - my brothers and I still belong to some Verizon
family mobile plan whose bill my father pays every month. Tony and
Zach, who are 25 and 15, respectively, have both had iPhones for a
while, and it seemed wrong to me that I should be the only one
saving my dad money by forgoing an expensive data plan - I felt I
was being ripped off, so to speak, in my freeloading.
Nevertheless, I was sort of embarrassed to sign up for an iPhone
contract that would, for some considerable monthly cost that I no
longer remember, allow me to surf the Web from my phone, when in
fact I already had the Internet at home and had always gotten along
just fine without any on-the-go access. I didn't think I'd use it
much. I knew my Samsung was obsolete, but I felt vaguely resentful
about having been roped into this new, costlier way of doing
things, even if I wasn't footing the bill.
Contrary to my expectations, however, I found myself from the very
beginning using my mobile Internet all the time. It's addictive. I
check my e-mail, and I check NBA box scores. I look up movie
show-times and addresses. When I'm at the store and thinking of
buying a beer that I've never heard of, I check beeradvocate.com
for reviews. During a debate at work, I verify the 1936 Best
Picture winner (it was "Mutiny on the Bounty"). I keep up with
James Fallows's blog.
Even as a longtime hater of the few Apple products I've used in my
life (is iTunes the worst software ever created?), I have to admit
that the iPhone is actually a pretty great machine. It's attractive
and intuitive. The camera is better than a lot of the independent
digital cameras I've owned.
Siri -Apple's personal-assistant software- isn't as useful as you
might hope, and I find myself annoyingly conscious of sounding like
a jerk when I have to dictate voice commands to her in public (if
Siri were male, I'd probably feel less bad about bossing her around
in front of people), but even she has her uses and can, sometimes,
pull up in seconds information that, by normal browsing, would take
a couple minutes to find.
The iPhone has some issues - for example, it has trouble
recognizing whether you're holding it vertically or horizontally
and so it frequently won't reset its keyboard to accommodate
But the truth is, after a month and a half, I can't imagine going
back. The problem isn't that I've purchased something I don't use;
the problem is that I've become dependent on another thing that I
used to be fine without.
Is this how life goes for us? Will I accumulate more and more
absolutely-necessary electronic accoutrements until, one day, in
the words of Obi-Wan, I'll be more machine than man?
It would be reassuring to find, after buying the iPhone, that you
really don't need it - that you have enough internal resources not
to become bored on a bus ride without music, that you're
adventurous enough to want to buy a bottle of craft beer without
checking the reviews, that you're smart enough to know which movie
won Best Picture in 1936 without looking it up - even if this meant
that you'd wasted your money. But, after all, you're not
superhuman; you're regular-human, and regular humans aren't that
great. They need help.
Smart companies and inventors find needs we didn't know we had, and
they fill them. We need high-speed Internet. We need HD. We need
DVR. We need artificial lungs. By the year 2050, how many needs
will we have? How many devices will we need to fill them?
People who shun technology tend to admire themselves for it -
they're better people because they can make do with less. In my
mind, they're taking the easier way out: technology points out our
inadequacies. And our inadequacies are easier to ignore if we
ignore the technology. The value of the rejection is, to me,
spurious - simple-living types "get along just fine" without the
iPhone, but in the same way that people "got along just fine"
without antibiotics: it doesn't mean their lives were better.
Luddites applaud themselves for their ability to say no, but every
"no" carries an implicit "yes" to something else, the opposite, and
in this case the yes is to more boredom and less information and
less efficiency - less living, really.
Still, it must feel good to feel complete without any buzzing
gizmos in your pocket, without paying a big bill to a phone company
or a cable company - to get by with humbler devices: a bicycle
instead of a car, a book instead of a Kindle.
On the other hand, if we were really Spartan, we could drop the
books and bicycles as well. (These, too, are inventions, additions,
unessential.) At some point, though, we'd have to stop saying no:
if we reject McDonald's, we must accept some other kind of food.
"No" takes you only so far. "Yes" just keeps going and going and