A Fashionable Seduction

I’ve said it often: I have a fascination with good writing that explores common issues or current events from a secular perspective. Time and again I find myself reading articles of this nature and enjoying the author’s perspective, but wanting him to go just a little bit farther, a little bit deeper, and to introduce the spiritual dimension. So many authors get so close to explaining the way life really works, and yet they don’t ever get to the heart. I love to take writing like that and to look at it in light of the Bible. The Bible introduces that missing component and ties everything together.

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Tom Chatfield recently wrote an article for the BBC in which he looked at a subtle change he’s seen in the field of technology–a change that impacts each one of us, whether we consider ourselves technophobes or technophiles or somewhere in between. In the past couple of weeks, the news in the tech sector has been dominated by new products by fight-to-the-death competitors Apple and Microsoft. Apple took the wraps off a whole list of new products, including the long-predicted iPad Mini. Microsoft introduced their new tablet which is meant to out-iPad the iPad.

Chatfield looks at all of this and says that it is one more piece of evidence that there is a great shift going on right now in the way we perceive our technology and, therefore, in the way our technology is marketed to us. Where technology was once largely utilitarian with the emphasis on what it did for us, it is quickly becoming dominated by look, feel and lifestyle. “A shift pioneered by Apple but increasingly championed by all tech firms, it takes its cues from fashion, positioning tablets, computers and software as cultural beacons: stamps that immediately say who you are or, rather, who you aspire to be. If anything proves just how far technology is ingrained in our lives, it is this.”

Chatfield believes that what these phones and tablets and computers can do for us is becoming less important than how they make us feel and how they make others perceive us. “What’s on offer,” he says, “is a kind of technological sublime, promising not only the ultimate lifestyle accessory, but a place where the experience of living itself can be perfected.”

He believes that Apple is now a lifestyle brand as much as a technical brand. He may not give quite enough credit to the technical side of their devices (which, though beautiful, are also very functional) but his point stands. Apple sells us a lifestyle, they sell us an image, a self-identity. The competitors are just catching up, but are beginning to play the same game.

We can pause here and introduce biblical language. We see idolatry here–man’s desperate attempt to find meaning in someone or something outside of God. We bear his image, but long for something more. We are all on a desperate search for meaning and purpose and, ultimately, joy. All of these things are marketed to us in the form of a little glowing rectangle through which we can live such happy, such meaningful, such joy-filled lives. This is not to say that tablets or cell phones are inherently sinful, but that marketers can sell us more of them if they appeal to our sin natures, taking advantage of those deeply-held desires for significance. And this is exactly what they do.

There is a still darker side to all of this that Chatfield calls emotional obsolescence: the point at which a purchase stops imparting the gratification it first afforded. One of the most remarkable aspects of last week’s Apple event is that they announced not only the iPad Mini a new version of the full-size iPad; it came just six months after the last generation. Here is an important takeaway:

Aiming to achieve a revolutionary technical breakthrough several times a year is an impossible business plan. Fuelling a frenzy of public feeling at the same interval, however, is eminently possible. Hence the heady ecstasy of the modern product launch – and the fact that the best generator of technological profit margins in 2012 isn’t features or value for money, but the very fact that there is another model out there which is newer and different. It is an emotional experience that money most certainly can buy.

The notion of shoes and clothes making you a better person is one kind of fiction, and a powerful one at that. But with interactive media, what’s being promised is a lifestyle in a far more literal sense: a complete system for expressing yourself in the world, not to mention regularly topping up the premium status of this existence with purchases.

Here we see more idolatry and maybe a small dash of the fear of man (which, I suppose, is in itself a form of idolatry). Apple sells us a way of expressing ourselves to the world through a glowing rectangle. Microsoft is now doing the same, insisting that their new operating system “works the way you do.” What is ironic is that the desire to be different is actually a desire for conformity. After all, we can’t all be different in the same way. We want to be different together, which means we aren’t being different at all. Rather, we are so afraid of being different, so afraid of how other people might perceive us, that we play right along.

Chatfield gets so close, but when we apply that biblical lens to his story, we get that much closer. We begin to see that the iPad, the Surface, and all these other gizmos and gadgets, are a matter of the heart, a matter of our relationship with the God who created us.