Another September brings another new iPhone version. And every year it should be the case that this is the year when the novelty will wear off and people will simply yawn. But somehow the novelty stays novel, and the (now global) smart phone consumer populace lines up to buy them by the scores.
I must confess that I am one of those people. I purchased the original iPhone in the summer of 2007 (for somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 if I recall correctly) simply because I had walked into an Apple Store, picked one up, and then less than an hour later I walked out with the coolest thing ever. I had my music, my calendar, my emails, the web, the phone, and a plethora of apps to occupy my attention during staff meetings- awesome.
I have owned several new iPhones since then, and I have loved every one of them. What’s not to love? The little device is the portal and pathway to countless distractions. It is remarkable to me how quickly the task in which I am supposed to be engaged, or the person in front of me on whom I am supposed to be focusing, all get tossed to the side the instant that the phone beeps, chirps, vibrates, and yells for my attention.
Yes, it’s a very handy device, no question. But I have to say, looking back on it now, it has in many ways ruined my life, and ruined the culture at large, too. What the iPhone grabbed onto so remarkably well is our fallen tendency to avoid discomfort of any sort. It pains us to wait for someone else to get off the one common phone line in a household, or to wait for an internet page to load, or to miss transactions because we can only access email at the office, or to have to be near a radio to know the score of a game. Or, more directly: to deal with real people face to face, and in the setting that is right before our eyes. Boredom is the sensation of feeling trapped in a set of surroundings, or in a person-to-person interaction that we do not find pleasant. And actually, that is most of life.
But not with the smart phone. If we are not enjoying who is in front of us, or the reality of our immediate surroundings, we can go focus on someone or something or someplace else via the phone. Albeit filtered through the virtual reality of a screen, which really is just a sanitized version of people. Therefore they are not REAL people.
Getting out of that sort of boredom so quickly and regularly is addictive. So addictive that before long we cannot live in tension any more. We cannot deal with the tug of inconvenience anymore. We become a culture full of entertainment obsessed people who want to fine-tune every experience to our own, personal preferences. Why wait? Why share? Why watch someone else’s show? Or listen, as a group in the car, to the one song playing on the one radio? Community at that point exists purely through electronic means and the personal connection becomes a burden.
In a world where everyone has their own personal tastes device, then what need is there for Mass, or sacraments (which can never be administered virtually) or long, boring homilies? Or what need is there for any relationship, interaction, or friendship that exacts a price on us- that does not entertain us? What need is there for God? Or, more acutely, for a crucified God who preaches the necessity of bearing suffering patiently? What need have we of God to alleviate suffering when we have such medicating power in our pockets?
After I had my first iPhone for about six months, and I was frequently chattering on about its many virtues, my spiritual director said to me: “That thing is an idol. I am going to order you to smash it, ground it down to a powder, and drink it like Moses did to the Israelites and their golden calf.” He was right of course.
And then one day he, too, got an iPhone. And at that point I knew that all was lost.