The above video is required viewing for this essay.
Almost exactly two years ago, I gave up my smartphone for good. I wrote about making that switch here.
I was walking out of church this past weekend carrying a Bible and an iPad in one hand and checking a text from my wife with the other. I read the text and deposited the little feature phone in my shirt-front pocket (the objectively superior storage location on any article of clothing ever) and was asked by a friend on my left, "So you're still doing the no-iPhone thing, but you're carrying an iPad around. Doesn't that sort of defeat the point?"
I felt the itch to explain. "Well, see, I was teaching the college class today. I tried printing off a sheet of some of the quotes and sources I was using, but my printer was out of ink and I was not in the mood to run out and buy more, so I just put them on the iBooks thing on my iPad. That's why I'm carrying it."
"Ohhhh, okay," he said with a smile. Suuuuure, the smile said, figuratively drawing out that "u", figuratively nudging me. Poor little primitive me. I smiled back and drove to lunch without the radio.
Interactions like that one are pretty common, actually: "Oh, that's cute; you're using a dumb phone!" I get "hipster" a lot. "Rebel" occasionally. My response is usually just a noncommittal "Oh, you know" and a smile.
The point of the remarks that surround my (aww, cute!) little phone is that this whatever it is--act of rebellion, disdain for "the man," hatred of popular things wherever they are found, or whatever--is merely a phase that I'll grow out of. That it's a social experiment or some kind of game that I'm playing to flex my throbbing superiority complex. Feed that insatiable ego. Turn all those eyes on me--because if there's something that I love, it's people looking at me, you know. It's why I post all those selfies.
So how's it been these two years? Don't worry. I'll ask some of the questions that are likely on the tip of your tongue:
What is it like to switch from having a swirling Mary Poppins Bag of infinity warming my pocket to having to call somebody for the number for Amigo's so that I can call in a to-go order before they close because I'm on the road and can't look it up from my computer?
What's it like waiting for my order when I don't have apps to refresh to save me from the two minutes I'm spending without access to something that will distract me from the tyranny of boredom?
What's it like eating lunch or drinking coffee without filtering it and putting it on the internet to get likes?
What's it like not getting my every curiosity instantly gratified and having to, rather, attempt to either remember it until later, discard it because it doesn't matter, or apply my waning mental abilities to try to solve it myself?
What is it like not being accessible at a moment's notice via iMessage, Facetime, Twitter, Gmail, Instagram, Facebook, and Clash of Clans?
I'll tell you the answer to all of these:
What I intend to prove is that what you hold in your hand is not a mere device; it is something which has been actively marketed as a tool to make your life better. And which, I will also argue, does not make your life better at all.
Marketing: a Love Story
My, it's the golden age for marketing, is it not? We have marketing sneaking at us in ways previously unimagined. Gone are the days of the Ad Men; in are the days of Youtube commercials and viral videos.
I haven't done an historical survey of this topic, though I believe that it'd be fascinating, but I believe that there has been a switch in recent years. Once upon a time, I genuinely believe that advertisers sold products, simply because it was products they were selling. They sold things: headache powder for the purpose of ridding you of headaches, for instance. The products were tools; their marketing was the way those tools got seen.
This is obviously a gross oversimplification, but I think that you may be able to imagine what I'm talking about: products being merely means for accomplishing some task. Like a dishwasher, a refrigerator, whatever, replacing something to make your time more efficient. Dishwashers are easier than scrubbing (so they say; sometimes it's just faster to whip out the Dawn, you know?) and refrigerators are better than just packing things in ice. It then follows that the one with the most money (in a perfect world because of a superior product and, thus, more sales) would be able to hire more brilliant marketers. Makes sense.
Well I believe that there has been a shift, both in the products that are being made and in the way that they are being marketed. But I'll get to that. Let's look at a few of these early (print) advertisements:
Some of these are clearly older than others. The last Neptune Pen one is likely from the very early twentieth century, while the Mustang one clearly from the 70's. Even in the case of the computer advertisement though, the emphasis of these advertisements is on the products, themselves.
Let's pay attention to that Apple ad for a moment. Do you notice what it is the ad selling the computer based on? The computer it advertises is an innovation on an already-established market: a tool that is more powerful than the competitors' tools. A selling point is the computer's "1000s of uses" and ability to challenge your imagination.
There is a line that is drawn quite clearly in each of these advertisements: these are products which can make tasks in your life easier/accomplished better/whatever. (I keep emphasizing this point for a reason, I promise.)
It's classic, the basis of marketing: If they didn't sell these products as something that you need, they wouldn't sell anything at all. It is the fabrication of need that the very enterprise of capitalism depends on: need for a product, need to support a cause, need to encourage the free market, whatever.
However, I think that something changed. And it may have been begun by Coca-Cola.
Look at these vintage Coke ads:
There's nothing inherently diabolical at work here, I don't think; Coke just figured out that perhaps the best way to sell a product is to create a culture around that product. To sell more than a product; rather, a lifestyle. Notice what these ads are saying Coke will do for you: It'll start your baby out on the right foot. It'll give you that pep that you're missing in your step. It's not just a beverage to quench your thirst or give you energy, it's what you drink for the real times: when all those other beverages have lost their luster and it's time to settle down with what matters.
Coke continues this kind of life-branding to this day! Think of the images that Coke uses to sell itself:
Those adorable Polar Bears reuniting with their family and whatnot.
The very act of smiling (name me one person who doesn't know "Have a Coke and a smile.")
Freaking Santa Clause.
Most recently (and interestingly): The "Name" campaign, where they print the most popular names from respective countries on bottles underneath "Share a Coke with". At first glance, it's cute. But it catches on. Before the ad campaign, an estimated 50% of Australians, according to a Coke survey, hadn't even tasted one before. This campaign lit the country on fire, though, and eventually had to ad more names to the Australian sector of their bottle wraps because of the overwhelming demand for them.
What Coke did was create a culture of Coca-Cola, and it skyrocketed them to the position of perhaps best-marketed product in the history of time.
Selling Something New
Somewhere along the way, in a location I have not hunted down nor would I here, for this is already quite long, there was a different sort of thing that began being sold. It was not a product, or even something related to a product: it was life, itself.
I cannot escape the idea that it begins with the internet (though I could probably dig--and others probably have--to nail this bit of the conversation down more exactly). The internet was once a tool for easing communication. That's literally why it was invented: to make talking and sharing information with people easier. It was a tool that made a way for other tools: email, file sharing, weather prediction, global problem-solving (not to mention it was run on a surprisingly economical power source: cat videos). It veritably changed the face of the planet in a matter of years.
Personal computers were then adapted to be able to bring this fascinating technology into your house. You could pay for it like you would a phone line and suddenly you had access to everything, even if we didn't necessarily understand it yet.
The technology was expanded and its casing shrunk: before long, the power of this tool was engrained in the fabric of our cell phones. It became a cell phone's primary use (indisputable, considering the fact that you have to press a button to access the "telephone" portion of a cellular telephone). New ways of accessing it began being adopted and streamlined: 2G, 3G, 4G, LTE, whatever. You now had more, faster connectivity.
But here's something that I think is important: at some point the development quit being the development of a tool, and became the development of a lifestyle. Faster Internet meant that you could now perform daily tasks--many of which depend on the Internet--more efficiently. Prolific Internet now meant that the playing field in areas like entertainment, DIY instruction, and product development was now level: anybody can be a developer; anybody can be a Youtube or Vine star.
But notice what happened: these things soon became a way of life. Somebody who makes his living off of Youtube videos now veritably lives inside of the Internet, for example. But unfortunately, the residence of more than just those making a living off of Internet-stuff changed, as well.
It became how regular people interacted with their friends. It became how they did their shoe and clothes and grocery shopping. It became how they got their news, their entertainment, their cure for boredom. It became their brain--instead of thinking through something, they could Google the solution or get a survey of opinions from Yahoo Answers.
The more we experience the Web, the more we're entangled in it. The more we see things like:
....the point of which is that it is THIS DEVICE that is lit up that makes you powerful.
...which explicitly states that the time and technique and dedication and years of practice and study required to become a good photographer is superfluous; you need only to fork over the cash to get the newest and best camera that will fit in a 3cm wide area.
...which tells you that it is this device, transparent and looming in the background, is your life companion. Unchanging (until the next update), Personalized (according to the specifications programmed into it by developers), Sterile (except for the agendas of the corporations selling it to you).
Neil Postman wrote this about technology in 1995:
THIS WAS IN 1995. That was the year of personal computers which could do little but play CD-ROM video games and access websites that had gif graphics. The products we are sold, particularly technology, sell more than just products: they sell lifestyles. They sell a way to form your identity.
Buy from Urban Outfitters, and you'll look just like somebody who buys from Urban Outfitters.
Buy a Jaguar and you'll be suave and sophisticated like Benedict Cumberbatch.
Buy organic food and you'll be part of a movement to save the Earth or whatever.
It's a point that could have a book written about it, because I consider it of vital importance: the things that we buy are sold specifically to shape us into some sort of external ideal. And what is even more heartbreaking for me is that we don't even spend our money on the external ideals that we buy anymore. They are completely "free". Look at what an increasingly large number of people believe:
You are not your own; you are the clothes that you wear.
You are not worth the same as that girl, who has more likes on her instagram photo.
Your ideas are not as good as his because his blog was shared eight zillion times.
You are not as secure as that girl who put a selfie on Twitter without makeup.
You are not as good a parent as that mom on Facebook who posts about her perfect children.
Your relationship is not as good as theirs; look at all of the wonderful things she shows us that he does for her!
Don't you see? We've bought these external ideals like a marlin buys a baited hook, and we've bought them for the same price he did: it costs us nothing but our lives.
The sad truth is that the opposite--the reality--is NEVER said.
You are worth more than your likes on instagram.
You are more interesting than your most clever tweet.
You are not wealthy because of the car that you drive, you are wealthy because you are content in your means and do not crave more for the sake of having more.
You are not special because you pin original quotes on Pinterest.
You are not creative because somebody liked your baby shower layout.
Another 90s prophet, Chuck Palahnuik, cynically described the outcome of such a vapid, superficial generation's definition of identity:
"You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f***ing khakis. You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world."
You will never hear from a tech company that you can get along just fine without their product. You will never hear from a makeup company that you are beautiful in your skin. You will never hear from a clothing line that fashion is entirely arbitrary. You will never find satisfaction from Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, even though they promise acceptance and community and entertainment and social interaction--basic stuff that humans need--because they are specifically, intentionally designed to leave you craving, thirsting for more of them.
I made you watch a video before reading this post for a reason: it lays on the table, gasping for breath, one of the things that has been stolen from us by the Smartphone, instant-gratification generation: our attention. The very tool with which we solve problems on our own and think through difficult issues and practice the autonomy and self-examination that makes us human beings rather than gratification-seeking, pleasure-addicted, efficiency-worshipping machines.
I don't know that I'm technophobe--I have a Roomba, for crying out loud--I am simply burdened for my generation and the effect that selling has had on it. I am burdened for those who seek acceptance and satisfaction and rest from things designed specifically not to give it. I am concerned that, as long as we drink from a glittering, hyped, perpetually-evolving and ever-shallowing well (which is in no way concerned with quenching our thirst) with the intention of becoming less thirsty, we will keep overlooking the meek one, unchanged since the dawn of time, which will never dry.
And I am quite happy--more happy than I was when I had it all at the tips of my fingers--with my dumb little phone.