Oct 052011

The Great Want
I was saying to my friend Jason last night that waiting for the iPhone 5’s release is like waiting for Christmas morning when we were 10. Except for the fact that the reveal of this present will be more like “Here’s what we got you, but you can’t actually have it for another two to four weeks.” That part’s kinda cruel. He’s at 3G, I’m at 3GS – upgrade is ferociously justified (and cheap here in Japan). So, like lots and lots of Americans and other people around the world, we’ve been not so patiently waiting for Tuesday morning. In the lead up to this year’s iPhone update, there’s been a peculiar intensity…

The Troubling Telecommunication Technolust
I can’t, but can you think of any other product, across any and all areas of industry, for which a pending release has been the subject of such anticipation, such broad media coverage, and so much conjecture? And how is it that the key marketing strategy for a company’s flagship revenue source is their absolute refusal to talk about the product until after its launch? Do we really want the new hotness that badly? How are all these strings being pulled?

How can so many otherwise reasonable adults have so much longing for the iPhone 5? Even if one’s not an iPhone user, chances are one is at least curious about what Apple’s got for us. I mean, be honest, even if you’ve got only a passing interest in technology, you’re going to be paying attention to the announcement. And if you’re not actively following the story, you’ll hear about it passively – because it will be everywhere for a few days or a week or so.

So… what’s this all about? It’s just a pretty new phone, right?

No. We know that a phone hasn’t been “just a phone” for several years now (really, some of us hardly ever use the “phone” part of the device). This guy (Mike Elgan) and this woman (Amber Case) think that a smartphone is actually a highly personalized digital information prosthetic that literally makes us already cyborgs already. And as my 6 regular readers assuredly know, I pretty much agree. Smartphones connect us as individuals to the vast stream of human communication, and they put the sum total of humanity’s information in the palm of our hand. In short, their elegantly rapid penetration of human life has been… (dramatic pause) profound.

So yeah, it’s more than a pretty new phone – as a practical tool, the iPhone 5 will be an exciting addition to mobile communications and gaming and entertainment, and as per usual, Apple will probably introduce hardware and software features that will, in some ways, shape mobile technology on a global scale – that’s what Apple does.

And that’s awesome – but still – why do we care so much about the iPhone 5?

This is a Sign of Distress.

A Manifestation of Deep-Seated Social-Psychological Phenomena
But Maybe Only if You’re an American

Here’s the thing: perhaps counterintuitively, I think at the essential level all the iPhone 5 excitement and anticipation and media coverage and hyperbole actually has little to do with shallow, mindless American consumerism. And I’m talking about the U.S. here because, for now and for better or worse, that’s where a majority of the world’s high-technology, money, productive creativity, and iPhone 5 media coverage and consumers are located.

Okay – I’m about to drop some cheesy melodrama: I think that, subconsciously, the rabid anticipation for the iPhone 5 is actually about hope, and by that I mean it’s about the American Dream. In a way. Or the lack thereof. In a way.

I think it’s because, in these times, at a national level, we have almost nothing else to be excited about.

So What Does THAT Mean?
The afore mentioned Regular 6 know that I believe the world is on a rapid upswing in nearly all realms of human development. Things are just getting better in general, all across the board – but there are still a lot of crappy periods that briefly exist – little downward notches in the larger upward curve. We’re in one of those – the American Dream has lost coherence – and we are desperate for something big, something to inspire and unite us, something more than, oh I don’t know, the mentally retarded discourse of America’s pathetic political charade, for example.

You might think I’m making a pretty big leap here – generalizing too much – perhaps the population of the U.S. who find themselves anywhere on the mildly-curious-to-completely-rapt scale of interest in the iPhone 5’s pending release are a poor sample from which to gauge national sentiment (or, infer it, as I’m doing here). Well, there are around 310 million people in the U.S., and about 100 million are smartphone users, and I’d guess (and read survey data reporting) that a strong percentage of them are pretty interested in learning about, if not buying, the new device – so if you think a population block that size, who are engaged and ready to take action on an issue, provides a poor statistical sample, well then, you can’t count.

The iPhone 5, Insidiously Alluring in a Vacuum!
So what the hell am I saying here? Well, The iPhone is an incredible device that quite literally represents a truckload of previously impossible mobile functionality. Think about it – just 4.5 years ago it didn’t exist, and the App Store (which has been copied by, ummm…, everyone) is barely over 3 years old. It’s a beautifully designed tool, elegantly powerful in so many ways. But, it’s just a consumer product, and in another year, we’ll want the next version, and the next, and so on.

It’s just a thing – a product to be purchased. It is not a revolution nor renaissance. It’s an iteration – an artifact of late 2011. Ideas always trump artifacts, but at the moment, we’re fresh out.

See, We’re Just Projecting
In the U.S., where traditional notions of culture are diffuse and diluted, we tend to instead unite around ideas and ideals – and very often those drive and/or are a product of scientific or technological advancement of some kind – and sometimes, that can inspire others around world. The mass-production of automobiles and human flight inspired notions of the freedom of movement, TV launched and inspired immense creativity, and following the Soviets the Apollo missions united the nation, gave new appreciation for the Pale Blue Dot, and inspired the world to push into the frontier of space. And, American computer technology, much of it pioneered by Apple, jumpstarted what will probably be the single largest paradigm shift in the history of our species. It’s become natural for us to see great positivity and opportunity in our technological achievements.

So, Americans rightly appreciate and embrace innovation, we look to the future with hope – new ideas and new developments creating new economies and new possibilities. But our American Dream is now stuck in neutral. We have no common rallying point.

The best thing Americans currently have to collectively look forward to is… Tim Cook, 10:00am, PST. Currently, our nation’s greatest point of unity and excitement and anticipation is for the release of another mobile telecommunications device.

[sigh] Wow.
I think we desperately want good news, we desperately want a new great project or achievement – and there’s just… nothing there. The economy is crap, there is no great leader to inspire us, and there is no great undertaking for the betterment of all humankind. And I think that is where the iPhone 5 anticipation energy comes from. Americans want what is new, we want to push forward, we want profound ideas to inspire us now and for decades to come – and for a long while, we’ve had those things.

But, sadly, the iPhone 5 is all we got for now. If we were about to launch a manned mission to Mars, or a Manhattan Project-style energy initiative, or begin building a base on the moon, the iPhone 5 would be just a little spark. But…  nope.

So – the Dream is at recess now. But do check back later – we might have space tourism and near-infinite fusion energy pretty soon!

It’s Tuesday night here in Japan – going to sleep. When I wake up, I’ll check the news straight away, and I’ll be excited about the phone I will own in a few short weeks. It’ll be awesome, I’m sure. And the world’s most valuable company will get more valuable, I’m sure.

But, I hope we soon have a technology idea to believe in, not just a product to want.

I want to take this opportunity to make public that I have an idea that the device won’t even be called “iPhone.” Longshot, I know. But maybe it’ll be iSomethingElseThatMoreAccuratelyDescribesWhatItDoes.


Darth Cheney, Stephen Hawking, Myself, and the Rest of Our Cyborg Society
In Defense of Being an Always-On Human
Proactive Evolution and Transhumanism According to the Economist
PASSCODES – Protect Your Mobile Information Prosthetic (smartphone) from Warrantless Searches
First Cell Phone Call – 38 Years Ago Today