On a retreat with college students earlier this year, we collected everyone’s cell phones as a way for students to disconnect from all they left behind and to be present to the group during our time together.
When I looked in the plastic bag that held all the phones, I had a hard time believing my eyes. Out of roughly 30 phones we collected, all but 3 were iPhones (and 2 of those were Droids). My phone, the kind that can make calls and send texts and not much else, was the only one that wasn’t a smartphone. It made me think: Am I really that out of touch?
I also thought – as we were on a retreat – if Jesus were to join us for the weekend, would he have dropped an iPhone in that bag? He had a flair for being not only for the people but of the people and with the people. Would that include looking to get his hands on the new iPhone 5 recently revealed by Apple?
In my mind, the iPhone belongs in an ambiguous category between a “want” and a “superfluity.” For the past several years, when it was time for me to upgrade my phone, I just got whatever phone was free from my wireless provider. Sure, I thought it would be nice to have a phone that could do other things like check the weather, the score of my favorite team, or send an email in a pinch. But in addition to having to pay extra for a smartphone itself, I’d also have to commit to a mandatory data plan that would add an extra $30-40 per month to my cell phone bill.
That kind of expense – to say nothing of the status symbol it represents – seemed more than I could justify.
I’m not saying the iPhone is evil or that it’s inappropriate for anyone to own one. But I’m not so sure it’s something everyone needs (in contrast to the messages implied by Apple’s entertaining ads and the buzz generated by Wednesday’s announcement of the iPhone 5).
I understand that it’s easy to get sucked into such excitement. We are bombarded with messages, both subtle and less so, that train us to think that we will only be happy if we have what everyone else seems to have and that we both need and deserve these luxuries. The nature of such technologies is to create a hedonic treadmill through planned obsolescence: these gadgets generate strong feelings of desire, attachment, and yes, deep satisfaction – until newer versions come out. Then it’s like a game of hot-potato, where we can’t wait to dump the old version in favor of the newest.
I can’t help but wonder if we should be discussing more chaste ways of using technologies like iPhones. This hilarious parody of the newly-launched iPhone 5 hints that something bigger is at play in all this.
William Cavanaugh writes in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, that the problem isn’t so much that we’re too attached to material goods, but that we’re cultivating habits of detachment (33-47). In other words, we’re developing disordered relationships with material goods, consuming them and disposing of them without more carefully considering the consequences (for ourselves, for the kinds of demand this creates and the way that shapes the market to produce more goods for us to needlessly consume, and perhaps most especially the effects on the environment, where increasing amounts of the earth are being filled with skeletons of old computers, phones, and other digital devices). In fact, psychologists like Sherry Turkle at MIT point to the way in which this rapid consumption of goods is changing our relationships, and distorting the way we see other people. Instead of these technologies generating greater communication and connectivity alone, they are in fact producing new and troubling trends of isolation, alienation, and anxiety among their users, as well (for more about this, see Turkle’s most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other).
Of course, there is a lot of good generated by the iPhone and other digital technology products. I am sure it is an excellent tool for connectivity and communication. I know priests and other men in formation who have taken a vow of poverty who have one (like this guy), and they refer to it as an “essential ministerial aid.” And I’m aware of the innovation, job creation, and economic stimulus that result from products like these (some think the new iPhone 5 could save the U.S. economy). On the other hand, we should not turn a blind eye to how these goods are produced; there are serious questions about how Apple gets the materials for these gadgets and the conditions of its workers in assembling its products abroad.
Full disclosure: I am due for a phone upgrade this week. When I consider the new phone options, I am intrigued by the ways I could be more time-efficient if I had a smartphone to check and respond to email on the go, access the internet for whatever information I suddenly think I need, and make use of the growing number of apps. I am also attracted by the ways the phone could provide increased connectivity when I’m away from my family, like being able to video conference with my wife and son before our little guy goes to bed.
As I contemplate whether or not the iPhone is a prudential consumer purchase (and lifestyle?) for me, I keep coming back to the same question: Would Jesus buy an iPhone?
Not that I can really compare myself and my daily actions with Jesus and his works. Nor could I really know whether he would or wouldn’t make such a purchase. But I am left to ponder what, if any, should be the Christian moral norm for the good and right use of digital technology. After all, there are a lot of people and organizations working with those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, and poor who could do a whole lot of good with the money I’d be spending for a new phone and month cell phone and data plan. It’s easier to look out at society and lament the increasing wealth gap, the abundant luxuries of the 1%, the misappropriation of our nation’s budget, the cultural priorities that seem so out of whack (like billions of dollars spent on sports stadiums, but that’s for another post) than to reflect critically in my own life and see where I am rationalizing more comfort and convenience than I need – and in so doing, perhaps turning a blind eye to ways I could help others who are actually “in need.” I wrote earlier about living a lifestyle of solidarity and I’m just not sure how an iPhone fits into that vision of solidarity.
Oh, and the students on retreat? They positively gushed about having the weekend free from being tethered to their phones, interrupted by text alerts, and anxious about what they were missing on Facebook or Twitter. But the students who were most enthused about the days being technology-free were also the same ones I saw later in the week glued to their phones walking to class (and even in class) or pulling them out in the elevator to avoid a second’s worth of silence and inactivity.
These are hard habits to break. All the more reason we should be thinking more about where such habits might be taking us.