Questioning the iPhone

How Apple is Exploiting the Difference Between Felt & Objective Needs

When the iPhone 12 Pro was released last week, thousands of people began asking themselves if they need a new phone. I decided to use the opportunity to ask if we even need the iPhone at all.

To ask whether we “need” anything is never straightforward, since our felt needs often exist in tension with our objective needs.

One way to understand the difference between felt and objective needs is to look at a curious event that occurred in Afghanistan not too long ago.

The Mystery of the Broken Well

As coalition forces endeavored to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban, one of their primary objectives was to work alongside locals to address humanitarian needs and improve the quality of life for ordinary Afghan people. Putting this into practice in a village in the eastern part of the country, military leaders consulted with a village counsel to identify areas of need.

The men on the village counsel shared that they needed a local well. As things currently stood, the village women had to travel three to four miles daily to draw water from a river and bring it back to town.

Eager to help, coalition forces installed a well, amid great rejoicing in the village. Finally, the women of the village would no longer be burdened with the daily trek to and from the river.

The rejoicing was short-lived. Inexplicably, the well-kept breaking down. After being repaired each time, it would shortly malfunction. Eventually it became clear that someone was deliberately sabotaging the pump. A search was conducted to discover the culprit, but to no avail. It seemed as if the pump was being sabotaged by an invisible enemy.

Eventually, after extensive surveillance, the culprit was discovered. To everyone’s amazement, it was the women of the village who were sabotaging their own well.

From a Westerner’s perspective, the women’s behavior seemed bizarre. After all, the well had liberated the village women from having to travel three and four miles in the heat. But from the perspective of the women themselves, the daily journey to the river was their only opportunity to interact with one another, to share news, and escape the boredom of life inside their compounds. The daily journey to the river was less of a burden than the burden of having their work taken away from them.

This story, which was shared in David Livermore’s "Customs of the World" lectures, illustrates an important principle. Sometimes there can be unforeseen consequences to our technologies as they bring opposite results than what we supposed. Sometimes technologies that promise to make life easier in certain areas actually end up making things harder in other areas. Moreover, sometimes a technology will benefit one segment of our population only through adding a corresponding burden on another segment.

Technological Trojan Horse?

I thought of those events in Afghanistan following all the hype surrounding the new iPhone 12 Pro, after it became available for pre-ordering in mid-October.

Since Apple’s line of smartphones was first released in 2007, these devices have been heralded as one of the greatest inventions of all time, enabling us to flourish through increased access to information and connectivity. Yet the story of the Afghan women reminds us that the ostensible benefits of a technology may not be the only story, and sometimes we hear a different story by listening to the most marginalized people and groups.

Often when tools seem most successful at optimizing our lives for greater efficiency, there is a chance of losing the things that matter most. Indeed, sometimes it is when we are the most excited about a technology that we are tempted to approach it with the same mindless gullibility as the Trojans when they brought the wooden horse into the walls of their city.

Here are some elementary questions that should be asked of any technology, whether it be a mechanism for drawing water or an iPhone:

  • How will this technology impact our social relationships?
  • In making life easier in one way, will this technology make life more difficult in another way?
  • What spiritual, emotional, aesthetic, psychological, neurological, or metaphysical implications might this technology bring?
  • Does the benefit this technology brings to one segment of our population involve a corresponding cost for another segment of our society?
  • Does this technology satisfy felt needs while ignoring objective needs?

This last question brings us back to the disjunct we touched on earlier. But what exactly is the difference between felt needs and objective needs?

Felt Needs vs. Objective Needs

When attempting to explain the difference between felt needs and objective needs, I often point to the activity of sitting down. Most people, if they have a choice, will prefer to sit down rather than stand up, at least for the majority of the time. Whether we think about it or not, we instinctively feel a need to sit down. Yet from a scientific point of view, healthy humans actually have an objective need to stand up for the majority of their waking hours.

Curiously, some of the most basic human needs are often perceived, not as needs at all, but as encumbrances. Examples of basic human needs that are often perceived as encumbrances include the human need to work, to serve others, to eat healthily, to have a physically active lifestyle, and to be attentive to the community not just ourselves.

Humans also have a range of intellectual needs, yet many of our basic intellectual needs appear, not as needs at all, but as problems to be fixed. This includes such things as the need for slow thinking rather than quick thinking, the need to experience struggle and confusion as preparatory to comprehension, the need for regular contemplation, the need for boredom and stillness as incubation periods for higher-level cognition and creativity, and so forth. When these and other needs appear as encumbrances, then we are primed to welcome technologies that promise to remove these perceived encumbrances from our lives.

Enter the iPhone.

Apple has a vested interest in treating many of our intellectual needs, not as needs at all, but as problems to be overcome. For example, by offering us a permanent insurance policy against boredom, the iPhone has robbed countless young people of the interrupted stillness they need as a necessary precondition to higher-order cognition, creativity, and wisdom. This is no accident: Apple’s engineers have harnessed research on distraction to design one of the most addictive devices known to man. Few of us are any match for what Farhad Manjoo has called a “sophisticated machinery of engagement and persuasion being built into smartphone apps.

The Afghan women knew that their time walking to the river was important. But what if the generation growing up under the ubiquity of the iPhone do not know what they are losing? That, finally, is the real tragedy of the iPhone. It does more than merely rob us from having important cognitive needs fulfilled; it virtually guarantees that millions will not even recognize that they have those needs at all.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Ph.M. in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in library science through the University of Oklahoma. He works as a freelance writer and researcher for a variety of publications and operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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