Archive for April, 2009

Style Over Substance: Obama, the iPhone, and What We Pay for Being Cool

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why my friends buy dysfunctional products. I include myself for my two cursed MacBooks, each of which has been in the shop multiple times in their first year of service. I’ve been using Macs so long that it would be a major issue to change all my files, though every month or two I think about it.

But because of my MacBook horrors–which include having to buy a second one when the first one simply wouldn’t turn on the day before a month-long trip to Afghanistan–I’ve resisted the siren song of the iPhone and stayed with my reliable if unglam BlackBerry.

Yes, I’d love to have the function that identifies songs that are playing, and the photo storage is cool and good-looking. But from what I’ve heard, it just doesn’t work. Lately, every time I’ve walked up those silly transparent steps to the Moronbar at my local Apple Store with one of my two lemon MacBooks, I’ve watched the line of hipsters waiting to drop their iPhones off for repair–and recoiled.

Then my visiting friend from Los Angeles, Rachel, told me she needed to use my landline for a radio interview because her iPhone was unreliable. I knew I’d made the right choice. I don’t need another product that doesn’t work.

My friend Edward, who is 49, told me that a 27-year-old woman he recently went on a date with showed him how to use some of the apps on his iPhone. (Maybe that’s what people do on dates these days). Edward is brilliant but an “old 49″ who dresses like a man of 60. So the iPhone is the equivalent of sharper shoes for him. It involves him in the culture of younger folk.

The iPhone seems to have a fatal allure for my 50ish friends, and I’ve come to think they see it as a way of clinging to youth that doesn’t involve fashion mistakes or plastic surgery. With both the iPhone and BlackBerry now available for about $199, with a contract, neither is a signifier of wealth. But each has a meaning. And maybe the BlackBerry is a way of leapfrogging to full adulthood–the corporate world, seriousness, all that–for some users in their early 20s.
Don’t get me wrong, part of me wants an iPhone, too–the same part that occasionally buys really uncomfortable shoes because of how they look. And I understand those who have both iPhones and BlackBerrys; it’s like having both sensible shoes and stilettos. If you’re willing to lug around two devices (the reason many people give for buying an iPhone is that they don’t want to carry both an iPod and a BlackBerry), and can afford it, why not?

My bi-phone 51-year-old woman filmmaker friend Pamela loves her BlackBerry (“I’ve dropped it at least 300 times and no matter how hard it falls, it still works!”) and her iPhone. But what she e-mailed me about the iPhone reminds me of Edward:

“Not only is it useful in my line of work, having an iPhone is sort of like having a dog–you take it out and you instantly make friends with lots of very attractive young people–you sit around and trade tips on the best new apps or show each other photos or films you’ve made. This definitely makes it worth every penny.”

Ah yes, the very attractive young people–and so accessible! Who can blame Pamela? The quest for signifiers of youth is pretty harmless, in the field of consumer goods.