Will the iPhone 5 Give You Utility or Positioning?

I love the fact that, as a web developer, I can make Apple launch events part of my “research.” Since the first official iPhone announcement back in 2007, I’ve been hooked on watching Steve Jobs and company reveal new hardware, software, and “one more thing.”

The downside is, of course, that when the iPhone 5 is announced on October 4, the devices in our pocket today will start to look a little less shiny and seem a little less powerful.

So why does this happen?

Tools Have “Utility”

“Utility” describes the functional usefulness of a tool. For example, we measure the utility of a shovel based on how well it digs holes. When buying a shovel, a person decides what kind of holes he needs to dig and then finds the shovel that will accomplish the task in the most efficient manner with the least effort.

Notice, however, that there are no magazines called “Shovel Rumors” or “Shovel World,” and that no one keeps up with the pace of shovel development. Why is this?

There are two reasons. First, unlike phones, shovels are not in active development so there is not much to report about them. But second and more importantly, because shovels are so purely useful, they have no positioning power.

New Things Offer “Positioning”

“Positioning” is the power of a product to put you somewhere on a timeline which measure social significance.

The clothing industry is an extreme example where a product’s utility is completely secondary to its positioning power. We think very little of the usefulness of a shirt, but we think a lot about where it puts us on the fashion timeline. Is the shirt so old that it’s “out of style”? Or is it so old it’s retro cool? Or is it new but designed to look retro? In each case, the utility of the shirt is insignificant compared to its power to position use socially.

It is this hidden positioning that makes our 11-month-old phones feel like dinosaurs. Today, my iPhone 4 feels pretty cool, but I know that as soon as the new iPhone 5 model(s) are announced there will be a new dot on the timeline, and my iPhone 4 and I will be stuck in the past, sitting at the back of the cool bus with a scratched up yellow Sony Walkman cassette player.

The Timeline Fuels Consumerism

This timeline shifting is powerful force that drives consumerism. Consumerism isn’t just “buying too much stuff.” It’s buying into the idea that our position matters. It’s that rush of cool that we feel when buying something new, and that dissatisfaction we feel when the next thing comes out.

When I look at the iPhone 5 next week, on the surface I’ll see the new features (larger screen? new field communication? more memory?!) that my current phone doesn’t have, and I will think about how much “utility” those features will bring me. And maybe (hopefully!) there will be enough utility for me to justify an upgrade.

The trouble is that I find it very hard to know when I am valuing something for its usefulness vs. for its positioning power. Do I really need that feature I didn’t know about the launch event, or do I just feel behind because the new device shifted the timeline and now I’m not on the edge of it? Do I value the new feature for its actual usefulness or for the feeling I get from having the feature?

I’m also tempted to say, “I’m not into consumerism. This is just how phones today work.” Ah, but Solomon reminds us that the timeline is much older than the mobile phone industry:

As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them? Ecc 5:11

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

13 thoughts on “Will the iPhone 5 Give You Utility or Positioning?”

  1. The distinction between utility and positioning is a powerful one and a helpful grid. I also am intrigued by our ability to justify something by over selling utility. Are there certain professions where positioning is utility? I’m think there are, or is that just an allusion?

    Oh, and I wonder if among ditch diggers (and other sub-cultures that we might dismiss) is there a positioning that comes from certain brands or kinds of shovels or whatever their “non-technological tools” happen to be?

    1. I’m only an amateur ditch digger, but my neighbors look with envy at my Wolverine chrome nickel alloy steel spade. I can really shovel it!

      If you want to experience “positioning” at its most rabid, spend some time in Shanghai.

  2. Not to pick at an illustration and miss the [very well made and well-taken main point], but there may be at least one other aspect to the clothing example that complicates our thinking about the question even more: beauty. I don’t mean the kind of beauty that is primarily related to positioning, but simply beauty: the kind that comes from a person who, appreciating beauty, decides that a tool need not be ugly, but may also reflect glory with beauty. Like when my wife puts flowers on the purely utilitarian table we use for supper. Of course, back to agreement with your point–most clothing today is surely bought for positioning and not merely beauty.

  3. Hmmm, I would actually say that technologies function in various ways, one of which is socially. If you are buying your gadgets to increase your social standing, then that gadget is useful to you in that capacity. Another way that technologies function is aesthetically (as Scott suggested above). In fact, sometimes the usefulness of a technology is less important than some of these other functions. For example, how many people had chairs in their houses while growing up that were “not for sitting?” :)

    With that in mind, consumerism is based mostly on what GM once described as “the organized creation of dissatisfaction.” What you call “positioning” is one way marketers do that. But they can also do this by convincing you that you need certain “useful functions.” In order to keep selling stuff to you, you need to be dissatisfied with what you have. So if they can do this by questioning your social status or by creating a need that their product usefully fixes, they will.

    As William Cavanaugh says in the quote below, consumerism is more about wanting than about having:

    “How can we be content with [a razor with] a mere two blades when the current standard is five? How can we be content with an iPod that downloads two hundred songs when someone else has one that downloads a thousand? The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, “It is enough. I am happy with what I have.”

    The truth is, however, that we do not tend to experience dissatisfaction as merely a negative. In consumer culture, dissatisfaction and satisfaction cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit. There is a pleasure in the pursuit of novelty, and the pleasure resides not so much in having as in wanting. Once we have obtained an item, it brings desire to a temorary halt, and the item loses some of its appeal. Possession kills desire; familiarity breeds contempt. That is why shopping, not buying itself, is the heart of consumerism. The consumerist spirit is a restless spirit, typified by detachment, because desire must constantly be kept on the move. “

    1. Welcome Daren! I sure hope to be more positive about technology (at least in so far as its creation reflects our creator) than Postman, but I appreciate the kind words!

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