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