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Ed Driscoll

Are You an iPhone Zombie?

December 26th, 2013 - 1:38 pm


“Apple knows it has turned us into iZombies, and has become defensive about it, releasing its own little movie arguing that there’s some upside to this depressing new reality,” Kyle Smith wrote this past weekend at the New York Post:

Its new 90-second commercial, “Misunderstood,” centers on a teenaged lost soul who refuses to take part in a Yuletide family reunion. As family members build snowmen and exchange hugs, he hangs off to the side by himself, forever sulking into his iPhone.

It turns, though, that he’s not only aware of the festivities around him but he’s been carefully filming and editing the sweetest moments into a home movie that he climactically debuts on the living room TV, to general merriment and wonder. At the end of the home movie, he includes a shot of himself doing something we haven’t seen him do before: He smiles.

Now they get it: The weird loner, the emotionless little gadget monkey who never talks to anyone, is actually a proto-Spielberg who loves his family and is destined to warm hearts by the millions.

Apple’s intended message is that if you get an iPhone, you’ll be more in the moment, more in harmony with your surroundings, more lovingly connected than ever before.

In the history of nice tries, this one has to rank just below the mid-century effort by the tobacco industry to assuage fears about the safety of its products: One ad declared, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” Another: “Tests showed 3 out of every 4 cases of smoker’s cough cleared on changing to Philip Morris.”

As pitches go, “Buy an iPhone in order to get in touch with loved ones sitting on the couch next to you” makes about as much sense as teaching the world to sing by buying it a Coke.

We’re supposed to forgive the “Misunderstood” kid because he’s a talented filmmaker, but he is still missing out on the game by turning himself into a sideline cameraman. Everybody loves the end result because people like to look at images of themselves, but that doesn’t excuse the creepiness of his technologically-aided self-alienation. Picture a teen novelist who does nothing at your family gathering but stand by silently and take notes. Pretty irritating, no?

Moreover, the “Misunderstood” spot is a nonsequitur: Chances are the kid at your family gathering who is fixated on his iPhone is watching a video or texting peers about how lame you are or playing Candy Crush Saga, not making a movie about his vast love for family.

There is no twist in real life: Most iZombies actually are oblivious to their surroundings.

Kyle’s new article dovetails remarkably well with another piece on the perils of ubiquitous smart phone usage, from Eric Gibson at the New Criterion this month on “The Overexposed Museum” — overexposed, Gibson writes, because so many museum patrons are taking “selfies” alongside of great works of art:

The new culture of museum photography banishes the art experience. It transforms the work of art from something to pause before, explore, admire, and reflect upon, into a “sight,” like the Eiffel Tower or the White House. A fascinating, complex, multi-faceted product of the creative imagination becomes just a piece of scenery, one worth lingering in front of just long enough to have one’s picture taken with it, either just standing and smiling or by making a face or playing up to the object in other ways, like those tourists who pose beside the Leaning Tower of Pisa so that in the finished photograph they appear to be propping it up.

Non-photographing visitors aren’t immune from the effects of these new attitudes. Coming upon someone posing in a gallery, your impulse is to turn away; you feel like a voyeur. In front of the Mona Lisa the day I was there, the profusion of smartphones and tablets being held aloft created a strange meta experience. To see the picture, you had to look past a bobbing frieze of digital reproductions competing with the original. I have had similar experiences with works of art in American museums, albeit with smaller numbers of people.

This transformation—one might better say evisceration—of the work of art has wide implications for the museum and its mission. If visitors now regard a museum’s treasures as mere “sights,” they might come to regard the institution itself in a similar vein—not as a place offering a unique, one-of-a-kind experience but just another “stop” on a crowded itinerary, and as such interchangeable with any other. At the very least, it’s hard to see how this new culture of museum photography can fail to undermine the kind of long-term visitor loyalty to museums toward which so many of their public engagement efforts are directed. On the one hand, the visitor who makes an emotional connection with a work of art is likely to return. On the other hand, I can’t imagine there are many tourists who, having once had themselves snapped propping up the Leaning Tower, feel compelled to do so again.

All this is, admittedly, so much speculation. One thing that isn’t is the very real threat these new attitudes pose to the safety of the museum’s collections. A visitor conditioned to regard a painting or sculpture as but a prop in a personal drama isn’t likely to demonstrate due regard for its welfare as an irreplaceable work of art. In one of the galleries on my way to the Mona Lisa, I and others nearby watched in horror as one visitor reached across the low barrier separating the art from the public to grasp the gilt frame of a Renaissance masterpiece, then turn to strike a pose for a companion with a smartphone. This was the propped-up-Leaning-Tower shot moved into the museum. It only ended when a guard came barreling through crowd shouting at her to step away. Even then, the visitor seemed to have no idea what all the fuss had been about.

One of happiest moments during the otherwise grim couple of weeks my wife and I spent cleaning out my mom’s house in South Jersey after she died last year was discovering a huge cache of photos I took in the mid-to-late 1980s. Back then, I was at the peak of my 35mm hobbyist phase with the then-new and cutting edge Minolta Maxxum camera and lenses I purchased around 1985 or so. (The photos and negatives I stumbled upon had been stored in a large Barton & Donaldson custom shirt box, because, well, I’m me.) Suddenly, a lot of happy memories from that period that I had forgotten came flooding back, and I plan to digitize those photos next year to archive them and have them for easy viewing anytime I’m nostalgic. And it was a reminder that I really need to take more photos of current travels, to help avoid memory loss. But I also see plenty of people today who seem to be more absorbed by their iPhones than the current moment. (There seems to be less cell phones ringing in restaurants these days, but a lot more smart phones glowing; will fine restaurants with darkened mood lighting have to start warning their patrons to dial their usage back, if you’ll pardon the pun?)

I’m sympathetic to both sides of the argument. How do you take advantage of today’s ubiquitous camera-equipped smart phones and tablets, without becoming an iPhone Zombie in the process?

Related: Of Course: Photographer Who Took POTUS Selfie Photo Ashamed He Broke News.

Update: Merry Me-mas from President Selfie!

obama_selfie_nativity_12-26-13

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