Should You Buy A New iPhone?
Should I buy an iPhone 12? Considering my own financial situation, this question is purely academic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a question we should thoughtfully consider. We are constantly confronted with new technology and urged to be both early adopters and avid users—whether in the form of Apple’s latest offering or social media platforms. So here is an important distinction. ‘Can I afford to buy the new iPhone?’ and ‘Should I buy a new iPhone?’ are different questions. Unfortunately, in the age of unchecked consumerism most of us give little or no thought to the latter, once we’ve answered the former.
The above distinction lies behind Wendell Berry’s essay Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer, together with his follow-up piece, Feminism, The Body And The Machine. Given the success Berry already enjoyed as a writer in the late 1980s, he could undoubtedly have afforded a personal computer. If he asked himself, ‘Can I afford to buy a computer?’ his answer would almost certainly have been, ‘Yes.’ But that isn’t Berry’s only or primary consideration for deciding whether the purchase the latest technology. He is far more interested in the question of whether one should adopt new technology at all.
Between “Should I” And “Can I”
Unlike Berry, and judging by my own desire for new technology and the latest gadgets, most of us do not ask, ‘Should I buy the latest iPhone?’ Living as an author in the late 1980s, I reckon almost all of us would have been first in line at the store once personal computers became widely available. For the benefits are surely a compelling argument in and of themselves.
Our readiness to buy new technology and unwittingly flood our lives with its effects make Berry’s pause both timely and necessary. Ignoring whether we can afford new technology or not—credit, payment plans, and trade-ins mean we don’t really have to—we must consider the questions related to this one: ‘Should I buy a new iPhone?’
The word “should” opens us up to desperately needed and decisive introspection. “Can” simply considers our bank balance. But I would suggest that “should” considers our souls. We’ve all drunk deeply at the well of consumerism, much to the delight of companies like Apple and Samsung. When these companies release their latest smartphone the last thing they want you to ask is, ‘Should I buy this?’ Other iterations of that question are: ‘Do I need this?’ ‘Why do I want it?’ and ‘How will this product impact me, or my relationships?’ To call these questions important is an understatement.
Discerning New Technology
In what I hope will become a series of short posts on technology I intend to unpack some of Wendell Berry’s writing on technology for modern readers. But to bring this one to a close I want to briefly touch on one of his principles regarding new technology, from Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer. Berry writes, “It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.” Deliberating over whether to buy new technology, Berry considers both the individual and corporate ramifications.
Our problem is that in addition to being insatiable consumers we are almost aggressively individualistic. This individualism is evident in the fact that when adopting new technologies we don’t ask ourselves: ‘How might this disrupt good things, such as my personal relationships and larger community?’ Anyway, those proud owners of the new iPhone in adverts look so incredibly happy and fulfilled, not to mention surrounded by friends. Obviously, when I get my new smartphone I’ll have that too. Wrong. But even then, what “I want” and “can have” trumps whether “I should.”
I will conclude this post with a quote that I will almost certainly make regular recourse to. Berry writes, “The question of the desirability of adopting any technological innovation is a question with two possible answers—not one, as has been commonly assumed. If one’s motives are money, ease, and haste to arrive in a technologically determined future, then the answer is foregone, and there is, in fact, not question, and no thought. If one’s motive is the love of family, community, country, and God then one will have to think, and one may have to decide that the proposed innovation is undesirable.”