It bends in your pocket, takes chunks out of your hair and, on the side, is a neat emblem for a lot that’s wrong with our economic system, and our way of life – it’s the iPhone.
Last month, American tech giant Apple released the iPhone 6, the latest device in its flabbergastingly successful line of smartphones. In cities around the world, gadget devotees queued outside Apple stores for days in advance, hoping to be among the first to bag themselves one of the £539 handsets. Media outlets reported a lucrative trade developing in prime spots near the front, with one eager beaver in New York selling his place in the line for £1,500. At Apple’s flagship shop in Regent Street, London, tents began to appear with about a week to go until launch day. In a Parisian shopping centre, customers fought over one of the few remaining units in stock and had to be restrained by police.
In healthy societies, these people would probably be sectioned. As it stands, they’re just particularly extreme examples of the consumer mania that grips whole populations and, as such, are just treated like kooky oddballs good for a chuckle on the six o’clock news.
The iPhone – even if only because it’s the archetypal smartphone – neatly epitomises quite a lot that‘s wrong with the modern world. It’s consumerism incarnate. The first iPhone came on the market in June 2007. In the seven years since, there have been six more – the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5, the iPhone 5C and the iPhone 5S. Now there’s the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus. And fundamentally, they’re all the same. That hasn’t stopped 500m of them being sold.
There is absolutely no reason someone who has an iPhone 5 will need an iPhone 6, in the same way that no-one with a 3G really needed a 4. Humanity perfected mobile phone technology ages ago. You can now sit in Borneo and speak to someone in Belarus. You could do it in June 2007. You can’t do it any better now.
What’s changed, then? Mobile telephones have amassed a mountain of secondary functions. Your phone is now a camera, a web surfer, a GPS tracker, an MP3 player, you can wave one about and have it hum like a lightsaber, you can play one like a harmonica, you can turn the screen of one into a virtual glass of beer and pretend to drink it.
Fragile ecosystem, finite resources, billions in life-limiting poverty, tens of millions dying through lack of the most basic life essentials – and what’s getting billions of dollars spent on its development, marketing and distribution, chewing up precious, dwindling fuels and belching out carbon in its manufacture and transportation, and animating hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets around the world? An overpriced plastic gadget no-one really needs.
Chisel away the frivolity to get back to their core function, and mobile phones are obviously very useful. If there was any substance to Apple’s cuddly, countercultural image, it could’ve designed one that shifted consumer technology in a radically different direction, and, in the process, helped societies rediscover something we urgently need back – the concept of ‘enough’. Instead of bringing out seven phones in seven years, they could’ve brought out just one – a simple, functional, high-quality phone designed to make and receive calls and text messages, maybe even access the internet, and be robust enough to last the user a decade or more. Instead Apple made billions of dollars shunting society very firmly in the opposite direction, both exploiting and intensifying the magpie-materialism that leaves people willing to punch someone over the last shiny gizmo in the shop.
It wasn’t a very surprising decision, because success in the current global economic system means endless growth – more profit, more expansion, all the time. And since the mid-twentieth century, when the amount of growth that could be achieved performing functions and making products that were vaguely useful began to dwindle, businesspeople have found a new way of fuelling that never-ending expansion – ensuring people have to constantly buy new things.
But for that to become viable, product lifespans had to shrink. Business hit on two ways of chewing away at product longevity – one, simply by making items more cheaply and shoddily. In a lot of industries, they really don’t ‘make things like they used to’. Everyone’s great aunt has a story about an old washing machine that reliably functioned for thirty years before conking out, then its flashy replacement only lasting about five years before it broke – necessitating yet another purchase.
And two, ensuring products quickly become obsolete, both technologically and fashionably. This is the one Apple has mastered. Novelty is the key. Make your product shiny, stylish, exciting, as much about the image having it projects as the practical, useful things it can do for you. Then keep bringing out even shinier, more stylish, more exciting ones, so that consumers want to drop their existing, perfectly fine electronic trinkets and replace them with newer ones.
Writ large, the result is catastrophic environmental damage and waste. The rise of mass consumerism in the West, and the corresponding boom in unnecessary manufacturing, has seen one corner of the planet do more ecological harm in 50 years that any other species has done in the previous 4.4 billion. China and India, the two most populous countries on earth, are now, understandably, clamouring for the kind of lifestyles they’ve watched Westerners enjoy for decades. Considering we’d need four planets if everyone on earth wanted to live like an American, it’s fairly imperative they don’t get them, and we quickly abandon them too. We’ll see whether a West made unquestioning, materialistic and painfully conformist by a half century of consumerism has the stomach for the radical turnaround that’s needed.
Apple, of course, is really just the most prominent symbol of all of this. It’s bad enough, but not the worst offender. If practically all modern electrical equipment wasn’t built in carbon-belching factories out of African conflict minerals by Chinese wage-slaves doing 12 hour shifts, we’d say boycott it and its Phones, Pods and Pads. Alas, boycotting the entirety of modern consumer capitalism is a slightly bigger ask, especially if you’re not keen on living in a mud hut and communicating by pigeon post.
That said, if you queued for the iPhone 6, you’re a mindless drone who needs to be chained to a table with a copy of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man until you epiphany, hard.
Being politically principled isn’t convenient. It’s very difficult. But if you care about the environment and the future of the species, you have a duty to try and avoid propping up modern civilisation’s general horribleness when you can, and, wherever possible, minimise the instances where you go with the flow for an easier life.
Resist the imperative to buy for the sake of buying, and shun the electro-age fixation with the shiny, wasteful novelty. Unless your livelihood absolutely hinges on you owning one (coming from Somerset, we know that for quite a few people in the sticks it does) don’t get a car. If you can afford it, boycott the big supermarkets – get your food from local businesses, butchers, grocers, market traders if there are any left. If you can’t, just do it every now and again. At very least, try your best to avoid spending all the money you’ve got to spend at some faceless corporation or other, even if that just means buying your lunchtime pasty from a small bakery rather than Greggs.
Big money might rule the world for now. But by allowing ourselves to be reduced to crushingly shallow consumer-zombies, we make maintaining a wrenchingly unjust, ecologically disastrous status quo much easier than it could be. Huge, unscrupulous entities like Apple are entirely reliant on us obediently trotting out to buy their extortionately priced electro-tat. We need to recognise the hold we have over them, and exercise that clout. For now, the vast majority seem content (or at least apathetic) enough not to. Ecological meltdown looms. Whether civilisation has much of a future depends on how much of that vast majority change their minds over the next few decades.