I was browsing through the popular youtube videos this morning when I found one that interested me, shocked me, then made me pretty sad. It is caseyneistat’s video “The Dark Side of the iPhone 5S”. Here is the link:
And suddenly my thesis that the typical modern is not excellent by either Christian, nor atheist, nor pagan standards becomes all the more stronger.
In the video, the main question that keeps getting brought up is “Why are you doing this?” And no one is able to give all that systematic of an answer. It mostly reduces down to: “because I really want this phone… I guess”. And here we see a bit of cognitive dissonance, I suppose we could call it; on the one hand, these people have invested a huge amount of their time, energy and probably health to waiting in line (one group of guys probably younger than I am claim to have been in line for 2 weeks) and on the other hand, the value of the desired good is obviously not worth it, hence why the video is so bizarre to us. Moreover, the people themselves, when actually questioned as to why they are doing this, don’t even seem all that convinced that what they’re doing is proper and good.
Here’s what I mean: there are only about three things I would commit 2 weeks to waiting for, or even a day or two for that matter. I would make such a huge sacrifice for my future wife. My future child. A best friend. And if anyone were to ask me why I was doing such a thing, I would gladly tell them, and the force of the reasoning would stick to most people. They would understand why I wasted so much time waiting, because a wife, a child, a friend is irreplaceable and above value. They are goods that, even if they were to require my life as a sacrifice, would still be entirely worth it. Consequently the time would no longer be considered “wasted” but rather well-spent. It was spent on a forever unique, completely inimitable love, and this reasoning can be understood by just about everyone but the worst misanthropes, and maybe Schopenhauer.
Can the same thing be said of an iPhone? Is it of the same quality as the love of family and friends? Of course not, but there are many things clouding the water here. One of those things is modern-day branding, which seeks to convince its consumer base that the product IS actually of the same quality.
Consider a main thesis of James KA Smith’s work “Desiring the Kingdom”. According to Smith, Christianity is in a constant battle with certain aspects of the culture, such as consumerism, because they are both seeking to mold people according to a certain conception of the good life. With this conception of the good life also comes habits. So for the Christian good life of becoming saintly, the habits involve church involvement, almsgiving, prayer, etc. Then there is consumerism. The consumerist good life is the one shown and sold to us in the typical commercial: buy this thing and your life (or you yourself) will be better! It has its own habits, all of which are antithetical to religious frameworks: they include a love of shopping, a willingness to discard old possessions for more up-to-date ones, and identifying with the brands you use. And don’t we see all of these habits and more in the people of the video?
The iPhone has tried to convince us that it’s worth more love than it actually is. In this way, it can be called an idol. And idols are bad not because it makes god angry and super-ready to punish you with locust-plagues, but because it’s illusionary: idols promise things they don’t deliver on. It might be plausible to some to call Christianity mythic or superstitious in certain regards, but not when it comes to idol worship. When it comes to idols, Christians and the fiercest atheists can unite together to tear them down. And why do Christians hate idols so much? Is it because we do it to impose our religion onto others after we’ve ripped apart their beliefs? No, or at least that’s not the motive it’s supposed to be done for. Christians hate idols because Christians hate illusions. Especially illusions that end up convincing people to do things wrong, like sacrificing their children to a statue or sacrificing their sanity for a phone.
Deconstructing Brand Idolism
How is the iPhone causing such love in their fans if it’s merely illusionary, and why? The answer is in modern branding techniques: they don’t only hype up a product, but build a community around it. That way, the product not only becomes something useful, but something that, through loving it, literally gives you friends and a fuller life. The ideal is to convince people that when they buy an iPhone, they don’t just get a phone, they get a community full of iPhone users that will accepted them as initiated brethren. “You can have a whole new community, make new friends, maybe even find your soulmates,” the brand’s culture insinuates to us as we see legions of loyal and happy users smiling together. If only we buy the new iPhone.
In a way, this has striking resemblance to religious initiations. Again, as KA Smith notes, it encourages habit-building, which over time builds up a sort of “natural love” in people. This is why not only the iPhone, but most things being sold in modern commerce, could be considered idols. They try to promise entirely new lives if we own them. But in reality they will simply give us an expensive high for a few days, then we’ll get used to the thing, then a few years later we’ll be told it’s out of date and that you need the NEW thing in order to be cool and accepted and successful.
Of course, businesses would have a reason to convince us of all this: customers may leave if prices get too expensive, or the stock drops, or the services get a bit unreliable. But if they can be convinced that the meaning of their lives and the acceptance of their community depends on it, then people will put up with anything, since now their lives are at stake in a very real way. Then customers will begin to do the kinds of things most people will only do for their loved one, like wait out in the cold for days. Because for the customer who has been sold on this, the route to even having love at all may involve having this phone, ASAP. The entire set-up is tailor-made for exploitation.
And companies, especially Apple, have learned to capitalize on selling this fake community. It can be seen even in the youtube video I posted above. At the very end, when the phones are ready, and the store opens, all the employees begin chanting and cheering, even going so far as to make a cheering-line for those who have been waiting in line for weeks and days, congratulating them like cheerleaders to victorious athletes. And all this serves to do is further reinforce the image that the iPhone will make us happy/give us friends. But of course, this is all an illusion: do the employees care so much once you’re out of the door? Once you’ve spent the money, the hype ends, and within a few days you’re in need of something else to fulfill you emotionally/spiritually. So then we start looking for the next cool new product, and a cycle begins. One that fills us with fantasies and daydreams, and fills company pockets with money.
This is why idol worship is bad; because it gets us stuck in cycles hopelessly looking for fulfillment in things that have no real power to do such a thing. But they do have the power to exploit us.
All Night Vigils of a Different Caliber
Moderns typically pride themselves on not being anything like the ancients, and especially not the religious ancients. But here we see an extremely ancient (religious!) practice, secularized and taken out of context and (in my humble opinion) diluted. I am referring to the practice of keeping all-night vigil. It was a highly recommended way to resist demons and temptations, and was especially popular with the Desert Fathers & Mothers, ascetics and monks. Like waiting for the iPhone this was a rather extreme practice, yet many believed the spiritual benefits were great enough to rebuke the demonic.
I suspect many people in our modern society would scoff at staying up all night to fight demons through worship. But really, are we all that different from them, in light of the iPhone 5 crowds? We stay up all night in order to resist the sins of unpopularity and un-hipness so that we can have the beatific vision of giving an underpaid sales rep $200. The saints of past eras stayed up all night to resist armies of darkness, so that they could have the beatific vision of communion with Beauty & Love itself. Maybe the latter were too superstitious, but we can’t say that their stakes were low, or that the goal wasn’t magnificent, or that the joy earned was demonstrably false. We moderns cannot claim the same.