The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Phone

By Anthony Citrano

A few years ago, Steve Jobs told New York Times reporter John Markoff that using LSD was one of the “two or three most important things” he had done in his life. Many who have used psychedelics describe the experience as similarly consequential; as a sort of illuminating, psychospiritual reboot. Before starting Apple, Jobs also backpacked around India studying Zen Buddhism on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. There’s little question that what he learned has been applied throughout his personal and professional life.

As the teeming masses jockey for space outside Apple stores this morning, it’s clear that Jobs has infused his devices with serious spiritual appeal. No company has ever catalyzed this level of loyalty and passion in its adherents. Again today, there is a feverish and virtually boundless excitement for a taste of Jobs’ newest reality – the iPhone 3G – as if it were a crystalline stepping stone toward technological nirvana.

Judging by the breathless anticipation and by-the-minute online coverage, it would seem that salvation was for sale, wrapped inside a beautiful box and gleaming with colorful, jewelesque tabs dancing across its face. It’s hard to miss the parallels with 1960s Haight-Ashbury, when many found a gateway to personal salvation in a package much smaller but no less colorful: the hand-colored blotter paper that was as good as currency during the Summer of Love.

But is this kind of spiritual zeal warranted?

In a way, yes. Under Jobs, Apple has put elegant, accessible technological power into the hands of millions who would have been terrified of it just a few years ago. If you believe that personal technology and the connectedness it enables is part of human evolution, then the more accessible that world becomes, the better. An elegant, welcoming interface can serve as a gateway to a world of unlimited power, presence and information. From a Zen point of view, there’s nothing oxymoronic about simplicity and power wearing the same face.

As an example, I was recently looking for a phone for my mother (my standard bearer for non-technologists) and was stunned to find that one of the two finalists was an iPhone – the same phone her geek son carries around. I knew she’d be able to just pick it up and make a call. If she wanted to do more with it, she easily could – but she wouldn’t need to know the intricacies of the device in order to use it for its intended purpose. Most mobile phones present an array of ugly, disorienting menus clearly designed by – and for – mobile phone engineers. As powerful as it is, it’s really hard to be confused by an iPhone.

The shift in technological consciousness that this enables, refined again today with the next generation of the iPhone and the new world of iPhone Apps, really will – however incrementally – change how people live their lives.

Seen another way, however, one could say the iPhone zealots have fallen into a trap. This is the Buddhist’s samsara – a vicious cycle of desire that can never end. It’s not technological nirvana at all because they’ll never be satisfied. There’ll always be the next revision, the next feature set, the next “fix” upon which to focus their lust. Through this lens, it can look like a dangerous and distracting addiction.

But a truly enlightened being would tell you that in life, the journey is the destination. No one ever lays on their death bed wishing they’d gotten there faster. Life is like a beautiful song; the point is not to get anywhere but to enjoy the experience.

Aspiration is at the foundation of the human spirit; our world is powered by exploration, discovery, and imagining how to turn today’s fantasy into tomorrow’s reality. Computing devices are one small result of that process. When we put our hands on the latest device and incorporate it into our lives, we participate in that cycle.

Zen philosopher Alan Watts once said “the only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Watts, himself no stranger to acid, called it “grooving to the eternal now.” Far out, man.

So, in that spirit, I’m off to buy me a new iPhone 3G.

Anthony Citrano is an entrepreneur, writer and commentator living in Los Angeles. He writes about technology and culture for several publications, including his personal blog, The Cosmic Tap.