By Darrin M. McMahon
Sunday, June 24, 2007
American gadget lovers are already lining up for the tech event of the year: Friday's release of Apple's much-ballyhooed iPhone. By all accounts, it's a spectacularly cool gizmo -- a single, sleek device that, at the poke of a finger, lets you surf the Web, watch a movie, take a picture, listen to a song or even gab on the phone. It's easy enough to get seduced by the next next thing, as the phrase goes. But amid all the hype, the real question that a savvy shopper should be asking is: Can it make me happy?
In avid consumer societies such as ours, connecting a gadget, brand or product with happiness -- a true, lasting sense of well-being -- has become the stock in trade of modern advertising. No doubt Apple will be trying to forge that link again in the coming media and advertising blitz. (Just look at its hipster ad campaign for the shrewdly marketed iPod: all those Technicolor swingers jiving ecstatically away.) The underlying message -- Consume and Be Content -- is perfectly clear.
What is less clear is the effect that such products, and our helpless lust for them, have on our personal happiness and our societal well-being. (After all, it was Adam and Eve's longing for another apple product that first consigned humanity to misery.) Should we be worried that the iPhone, and the countless other material indulgences on offer in today's hypercapitalist economies, might have similarly nasty effects?
Benjamin R. Barber, a professor at the University of Maryland, argues in his recent "Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole" that modern capitalism drives grown-ups "to retrieve the childish things the Bible told us to put away, and to enter the new world of electronic toys, games, and gadgets that constitute a modern digital playground for adults." Indulging our desire for gadgets, Barber warns, makes adults selfish, sad and infantile.
Barber is just the latest in a venerable line of worrywarts. Moral and religious naysayers have been preaching for years that no good can come from plucking objects of desire -- from the tree or from the shelf. Classical thinkers in Greece and Rome fretted about the corrupting effects of luxury, and Christians (remember those hair shirts!) inveighed for centuries against gluttony and greed.
The anxiety that prosperity and commerce would rot our moral fiber only worsened with the onset of commercial society as we know it. In 18th-century Britain and France (with the United States close behind), the world's first consumer cultures consumed as never before: fine silverware to stir the sugar; chocolate, coffee and tea to give life savor, courtesy of life-wrecking slave colonies in the New World and Asia; Waterford crystal and Wedgewood porcelain to carry the delights of increasingly productive farms; ornate pipes and snuff boxes to hold Virginia tobacco; and clothes, clothes, clothes -- especially in Paris, which hasn't looked back since the first women's fashion magazine, the Journal des Dames, was founded in 1759.
Needless to say, such early consumer items were a far cry from the iPhone. But their novelty and popularity were enough to alarm the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who warned that human "needs" were being trampled by fleeting fashions and tastes. Far from making us happier, he scolded, the new abundance was fostering false needs, envy and self-love -- alienating us from one another and from ourselves.
Rousseau's insights were picked up by the philosopher Georg Hegel and then Karl Marx. The rise of modern economies, Marx argued, relied on convincing consumers that they needed gadget after gadget, luxury after luxury. Capitalism led people to regard objects newly available for purchase as magical and strange, investing them with a value they didn't inherently have. This argument, from the first chapter of "Das Kapital," is famously known as the "fetishism of commodities." You'll witness it firsthand with that first blissed-out friend raving on and on about his new iPhone.
Anyone who has ever attended a yard sale or browsed the stalls of a flea market will know just what Marx meant. Sure, you've got to have an iPhone today, but years from now, when the thing is lying on a dusty card table on your neighbor's front lawn, surrounded by Mason jars and headless Barbie dolls, your gadget will look as timeworn as your wheezing Apple IIe does now.
The pleasure we get from such objects is invariably short-lived. After an initial rush of excitement, the joy fades. And then you're on to the next gizmo, and then the next, in hot pursuit of happiness.
Researchers in the growing field of happiness studies have long appreciated this phenomenon. So did Freud, who likened it to the "cheap enjoyment" one gets from "putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again." Repeat the action as often as you like: The feeling of satisfaction always wears off.
Evolutionary psychologists suspect that Darwinian forces are at work here. Out on the African veldt, it was probably not in our ancestors' interest to remain too satisfied for too long. Better to be a little anxious and on the prowl than to be happy and eaten. After all, our perpetual pursuit of pleasures, such as food, safety and sex, is precisely what keeps the species going.
Where does that leave homo economicus? Are we really just like children at a birthday party rushing from one toy to the next? Do people like Barber have a point when they warn that an "ethos of infantilization" has infected our society?
Perhaps. But remember, homo economicus is also homo ludens, a creature of play. Is it really so wrong to amuse ourselves with our toys?
Political economist Adam Smith was wiser about such things than today's scolds and killjoys. A man of deep classical learning, he knew perfectly well that "frivolous objects" could never secure our happiness, which was above all a matter of the soul. So Smith took a clear-eyed view of the iPhones of his day -- the "tooth-pick, ear-picker, or machine for cutting the nails." But he also knew that our longing for what he called "baubles" and "gewgaws," like our longing for power or riches, was a productive force that tapped deep into the wellsprings of human nature. It was natural, he thought, to aspire to such things, and natural for us to imagine that having them would bring us happiness and ease.
That belief, Smith fully acknowledged, was a "deception." He understood that humans innately overestimate the amount of pleasure that gewgaws and iPhones would bring. And yet he thought that the impulse to acquire them was precisely the force that "rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind," prompting us to build cities, invent and improve the arts and sciences, and change the "whole face of the globe." The key to all human progress, Smith knew, was the pursuit of happiness.
So pursue away. Of course, the iPhone won't make you truly happy -- at least not for long. But don't let that keep you from enjoying it. People were meant to play, and there is tremendous power in such pursuits. Smith probably would have chuckled indulgently at the iPhone lineups at AT&T. He may even have picked one up for himself.
Darrin M. McMahon, a professor of history at Florida State University, is the author of "Happiness: A History."