Ubiquity is a great word. In addition to sounding just cool enough to bump your perceived intelligence by a few points without getting too pretentious about it, it’s a positive term. It signifies potential. If something’s referred to as “ubiquitous,” generally it’s referring to something useful, something provided in abundance. The wireless carrier offers nearly ubiquitous LTE coverage would be nice to hear someday. Free WiFi is almost ubiquitous in some cities is a truth, and one that saved me a lot of trouble this weekend when my mobile hotspot failed. Ubiquity is a good thing.
Most of the time.
But what about when something once unique becomes commonplace? When a co-worker shows up to the office wearing the same shoes as you – a rare pair you thought you’d had exclusive knowledge of. That happens, right? Or when a friend buys the same brand of high-end TV as you. Sure, there’s advantages to be gained; you can share HDMI and DLNA tech tips with your friend, and you can trade … shoe polish, or whatever … with your coworker. But you know the down side: you’re less special now.
You guys wanna ditch the allegory and just jump right into phones? You know that’s where we’re going, right?
As you’re probably aware, smartphones (and dumbphones before them) are huge status symbols in today’s society. That’s why there are ridiculous brands like Vertu, it’s why those insufferable rhinestone carrying cases exist, and it’s the reason for the huge flame wars between
fanboys champions of different smartphone platforms. These devices are close to us. Sure, they’re tools -we need them to function efficiently and we use them for many utilitarian purposes- but they’re also crucially important for what they say about who we are. When Motorola launched the first RAZR in 2004, it was only available for $599 on contract. If you owned a RAZR during that time, it was more a status symbol than a communications device. The same could be said about the original iPhone, a glorified feature phone with an expensive logo: owning one was an advertisement. It was a statement that you deserved to own one.
I didn’t get to have either of those devices upon their initial release, because I was a poor college student. Once, when I broke a pair of stereo headphones during this period, I borrowed a soldering iron from my roommate and fixed them- not because of some innate need to demonstrate my self-sufficiency, but because I was broke and couldn’t afford a new pair. I used to eat Macaroni and Cheese for dinner three nights a week. Not the fancy stuff, either. Store brand.
But just because I was income-limited didn’t mean I was shut out of the fun entirely. I bought new high-end phones as often as I could, often saving up for months in the days before credit cards arrived to lay claim to all my future earnings. I began following sites like Phone Scoop -and eventually Pocketnow- to get the skinny on launch dates. This was before phones were “cool” in a broad sense, so I was often the only person in line for the hot new EDGE or 1xRTT devices. Best Buy employees would look at me quizzically as I asked to buy a phone that had just shown up in their inventory system that morning. I’d walk out of the store hundreds of dollars lighter, but enamored of my shiny new communicator, not caring that the indulgence would commit me to months of Macaroni et Fromage dinners.
I quickly learned, though, about the extreme fragility of new-phone ownership euphoria. Our managing editor Anton D. Nagy put it pretty well in a conversation earlier today, when he told me about an experience he had on London’s Tube. “I was standing there,” he said, “packed in with all of these people on the train, when a message notification went off. Immediately, everyone pulled out their phones to see if it was them.” The notification chime that had sounded was the default Apple message beep. Everyone who pulled out their phone was an iPhone owner. “That’s when I started hating my iPhone,” Anton said.
Anyone who’s ever taken pride in being part of an exclusive club, one of the first owners of a new high-end device, knows that feeling. I remember, maybe more clearly than is healthy, the first time I saw someone else carrying the same device as me. I recall it being a strangely disquieting experience, a bit like the feeling you get seeing your ex with someone else. Except your ex is a duplicate. And you’re currently dating her/him. Well, dating the duplicate.
You know what? Forget it. It’s not like that at all. But it sure is annoying.
More than that, though: it’s destructive. Before carrying multiple phones was part of my day job, I often had to explain my strange obsession to the “normals” of the world. The briefest explanation I could devise for my need to own multiple mobile devices was that “they’re more expensive than drugs, and nearly as addictive.” It’s the latter part that’s important; to people like us, mobile device acquisition is a type of compulsion.
That’s not intended to diminish or draw a parallel to addictions which cause physical harm, of course; it’s just that the behavioral patterns are quite similar. There are actually named and studied conditions that deal with shopping addictions as a whole, like Compulsive Buying Disorder, but the mobile-phone subset is particularly intense. That’s because it’s such a fast-paced world, where devices released less than a year ago (cover your ears, Galaxy Nexus) are already old news, and new products coming out aren’t getting any cheaper. Sometimes the driving force is status, and sometimes it’s boredom, but it all comes down to something the Onion figured out a long time ago.
If I’m honest with myself, the status factor played a pretty big role in my abandoning the iPhone 3G for a far-inferior Blackberry 8350i, an “upgrade” I detailed in my Where We’re Coming From device-history piece. Sure, iOS was boring me somewhat, and yes, I missed Direct Connect calls with my family. But the real driving force that pushed me away from the iPhone 3G was its omnipresence, it’s sickening, disgusting ubiquity. I saw that device everywhere. Here in Boston, every fifth person had one. It made me hate mine. And it called to mind every time I’d seen my current device in the hands of someone else. That event always marked the beginning of the end of the love affair.
That’s the scary bit, isn’t it? Are our techno-egos so fragile that they can’t bear not being the sole owner of a device in our social circles? I mean, maybe I’m just a freak-show, and if that’s the case then you all go ahead and rest easy. But if I’m not just nuts -and Anton’s experience quoted above seems to indicate that I’m not- well, that says something interesting about us. It throws the prevalence of custom cases and skins and ColorWare jobs into sharp relief. It forces us to ask ourselves how important personalization and uniqueness are to our sense of worth. Maybe for some of us, it calls into question just how greatly our priorities have shifted.
And for an increasingly small portion of the population still carrying years-old dumbphones, it validates a choice that has saved them hundreds of dollars, and the angst of constantly being usurped as the King of the Phone Mountain. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from their example.
Am I crazy? Probably. More interestingly, are you? Leave a comment below and let me know. First one to say “first world problems” gets an all-expense-paid trip to my Ignore list.