Let’s define our terms. If I walk into Costco and carry out a bubble pack with 40 double A batteries pasted to it, I think I’m a consumer. I’m consuming the batteries. Same with Band Aids, Kleenex, or M&M’s. Use, digest, dispose. The Pepsi passes through me; the plastic bottle is hopefully recycled.
Now let’s say I desire an iPhone 4. I can’t actually cite for you how specific apps will integrate into my life and work, but I still want one. But even though I’m stimulated by advertising—both of the standard and the covert type—and buy it just like any other consumer good, I will not be a consumer. Oh, baby, not by a long shot. No, I will be an iPhone 4 “user.” That’s a perception of my desiring and then buying a small black plastic box that is much more exalted than being just a consumer of something like batteries.
The integration of a plastic thing into sustaining services and systems appears to create a new shelf of consumer behavior. As a child, I yearned for a hula hoop. It was then, as it is now, a circle of plastic tubing that was deployed as a toy. Again, the item itself was a circle of plastic tubing. But if I buy a hula hoop today and then I start a blog about exercising with it and I use my mobile phone to organize spontaneous hula hoop “Hulathons” in public places… I think I become a hula hoop user.
Over the last few weeks the iPhone 4 has been revealed to be mortal, if you can think that way about a high tech product. The antenna loop circling the device has an Achilles’ heel of dropping calls when the phone is held a certain way. We might add at this point that iPhones and devices like them representing progress in communication are ironically less ergonomic than the beige Bell telephone deployed by “The Brady Bunch.” The shape of the phone has soft curves that seem alluring but you can’t hold one to your head without sliding the thing around to maximize ear-to-signal contact, thus greasing the shiny surface of the device with more facial oil than the “Before” shot of an acne cream commercial. And now you have to fiddle further with how you hold it in an effort to avoid contact with the vulnerable spot on the antenna.
None of this has appeared to slow the sales of iPhone 4 devices. The LA Times reports that 3 million have been sold in the three weeks they’ve been available. Whoops! Did I say “sold” like some sort of prosaic commodity? I meant appropriated and initialized by users, an army growing by one million a week. Compare those numbers to the turnout at the Tea Party convention in Nashville, which barely drew 600. Which is cooler, iPhones or disgruntled middle-aged people in bad sportswear?
Apple found it had to say something about the growing uproar against its newest device after the solid and credible Consumer Reports magazine said it could not recommend the new phone to potential buyers. Again, that was the iPhone being treated like some kind of consumer product rather than a quasi-religious fetish or magic future box. I mean, they only pointed out that it had a functionality gap. Like a car where the wheels don’t roll, or maybe they stop rolling when you hold the steering wheel a certain way. Consumer Reports did not deny that the iPhone was a magic future box or that any of its critically needed apps, such as the one where baby raccoons race around on go-karts (Yes, I’m making this up), weren’t still cool.
Enter Apple guru and pope Steve Jobs. With giant graphics behind him, Jobs insisted that the iPhone 4 wasn’t failing in any way that was dissimilar to other future box phones. And even better, he had a fix: A rubber band. Much better than the disgusting pitch made by others that you put a piece of (yuk!) duct tape on your beautiful face-grease covered iPhone. The accessory is actually a “bumper case” (or rubber band) that retails for $30 dollars. The website of the bumper case manufacturer cites their “worldwide sourcing and production capabilities”, so not much chance this antenna problem will produce a “bumper” crop of new jobs in the U.S. Although I’m sure that rubber thing is worth every penny of 30 bucks.
Because come on, this isn’t about money. The first iPhones were so good there had to be four iterations of the product in just three years. If this was about us being mere consumers, then that would lead to speculation that Apple sustains a program of rapid planned obsolescence where users keep throwing out their old models so that they can bond with the new ones. Which would lead to further speculation that wherever that mountain of discarded technology is ending up (maybe next door to the rubber band factory), some of the locals delight in retrieving an abandoned iPhone 3 just so they can feel closer to the light. At night, they turn on the magic future box and some remaining battery energy allows them to enjoy a few minutes of downloaded music or even the gentle roar of road-racing raccoons. Of course they’re not patched into the system, not part of the global faith. They’re just using what’s left of a discarded consumer good. If their humble incomes were somehow diverted toward sustaining a rich and full life with the latest version of the object, then they would be users. Although when that first bill comes, they might feel more like they were getting used.