Category Archives: Consumer Culture

Thank God the iPhone Sucks!

Ever since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone at the Macworld conference a few days ago I’ve been trying to avoid any sort of news about it. While I’m working I keep the NPR webstream on pretty much constantly to provide background noise. I keep having to turn it off/down or switch to a different station to avoid hearing folks talk about the iPhone. Why? you ask. Because I thought that the more I heard about it, the more I would want it. And, believe me, I already really, really wanted it.

I have a love/hate relationship with iPods in general. Before the iPod, I didn’t think MP3 players were worth my time even though I listened to music everywhere I went. I was majorly put off by the memory limitations. It didn’t seem worth the hundreds of dollars they wanted for the things if they only held 512MB of songs. To add more memory would cost $150 or more. I bought a MiniDisc player, instead.

And then came the iPod. I think the very first ones had 1GB, but I could be wrong. I remember it was a lot more memory than others were offering. And it looked so cool. I’m a PC person, but at the time I seriously considered buying a Mac just so I could get an iPod, too. The only thing that kept me from it was money. I didn’t actually have enough to do that and still eat. I pined for the iPod for a long time.

When I finally had the money to buy one I decided not to. I have a lot of problems with iPod and Apple, mainly concerning their Digital Rights management (DRM) policies. I think they are too strict and/or stupid. I know plenty of people who can ‘unlock’ music bought from iTunes and hack the iPod to keep it from restricting the use of music, but I don’t think I should have to hack anything to have that freedom. I bought the music, whatever form it comes in, and I should be able to do whatever the hell I want with it. Especially at $1 per song.

I bought an MP3 player with more memory than iPods offered at the time (80GB!) with more integrated features for less than most iPod models. The only area in which my MP3 player falls short is in the looks department. Very few things are as pretty as an iPod.

Now Apple has an iPhone, the device many of us have been waiting for. A phone/PDA/Camera/MP3 player with iPod sensibilities. And it’s pretty, too. For several years I’ve been waiting for an all-in-one device so I could ditch the 10 things I have to carry around with me to keep connected. But, again, the stuff on the market didn’t really appeal to me because of the memory. 1 GB? Pfft. Not enough! The iPhone comes with 4 or 8 like a proper player should.

The desire was creeping up on me. Soon I would spend my days heartsick because I couldn’t have an iPhone. In the summer I would start seeing them and get jealous of those who could blithely drop $600 on such a device. Sadness threatened me.

Then I read the iPhone posts on the Consumerist and started to feel better. My analytical brain pushed my wanting things brain into the background. The first blow? iPhone is only for Cingular, one of the worst cell phone companies ever. And it’s only available with a contract (maybe) and not for month-by-month customers. Tied to Cingular for 2 years? I think not. Especially with their new contract terms. Someone somewhere will figure out how to unlock the phone so you can use it with whatever provider, but, again, I don’t have time for crap like that.

Once I got over wanting the thing, I started reading more about it and discovered that the phone itself is not so great. Paul Kedrosky lists 5 things wrong with it, including:

1. The touchpad. How do you operate a touchphone in your pocket, or under a table by feel at a meeting? You scoff, but you’d be amazed how often that is how business emailing happens.

2. The closed system. Is Apple serious that it won’t let third-party developers build software for the thing? If so, and put simply, the device will fail.

Scobleizer continues with 5 more things:

8. The camera sucks. It’s a 2megapixel device without flash, without zoom. Nokia’s newest cameras blow this one away.

9. No GPS. For a $600 device that really, really, really sucks.

I think I may be over my Wanting phase now. My thinking self took over. Thank God the iPhone sucks – I can stop coveting.

I wonder how many other people saw that new iPhone and automatically wanted it for whatever reason? I wonder how many will buy it despite its drawbacks. Not everyone may feel there are drawbacks. I wonder how many people don’t care if the device isn’t all they need or all it could be or not even the best piece of hardware on the market. I wonder how many folks will still have to have it because it’s new, or it’s pretty, or it’s a trend. Judging from the high number of white earphones I see on the subway every day, I’m guessing the answer will number in the millions.

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More Thoughts on Food

As a follow up to my post on Food the other day, here are some items I found in the news this week.

The first is an interview with Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food, broadcast on NPR’s Marketplace on 1/9/07.

KAI RYSSDAL: This might not be something you think about when you walk into your local supermarket. But as you wheel that shopping cart down the aisle trying to figure out what’s for dinner, you’re at the receiving end of an enormous marketing campaign. It’s not unlike clothes or cars. Manufacturers trying to get consumers to buy — and to buy into — a certain brand or model to make them feel better about themselves. Author Barry Glassner says food today is way more complicated than just You are what you eat.

BARRY GLASSNER: I think we think that what we eat and what other people eat tells us a whole lot about who they are, who we are. And I think a lot of what we pay for in our food these days is not just the basic food but some kind of image of ourselves that we get by eating one way rather than another.

… the food industry depends on [people spending and spending]. And they do a great job with it. And they do it in some really clever ways so they can get us to pay more for less. So if it’s low-fat or low-carb or low-sugar — whatever we’re into — we’ll pay more money for that.

I think what we’re paying for, for most food these days, is a story. A story about the food, a story about ourselves. That, you know, somehow if I eat something that is labeled as cage-free — in the case of eggs — that I’m saying something about myself. I’m doing something great for the world.

… food has become a lot more like fashion now. We don’t like to talk about that. That’s not widely talked about. That’s one reason I wrote the book, is to sort of expose that. What people like to say is, “Oh, no, no, it’s all about health. It’s all about nutrition. It’s all about being righteous.” No. It’s mostly about who am I, and who am I trying to say I am?

Listen to the entire interview here.

The second item came from All Things Considered: “A new study, co-authored by Harvard researchers and analysts from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, suggests there’s a systematic bias in nutrition studies funded by food companies.”

From the Boston Herald:

“We found evidence that’s strongly suggestive of bias,” said Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Children’s Hospital Boston who led the work, which was published Monday in the online science journal PLoS Medicine. The consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest also participated.

Biased science can affect consumer behavior, doctor recommendations and even federal regulation of marketing claims for such products, Ludwig said.

“I don’t blame researchers for this problem. I think most are highly ethical and dedicated to science. The problem is that when government underfunds nutrition research, industry money becomes hard to resist,” he said.

The full audio from ATC is here.

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Book Review: Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping

Since Not Buying It inspired me to start this experiment, and since I used it as a rough template for the endeavor, I thought a review of the book might be useful to others.

Not Buying ItFor anyone interested in our growing consumer culture, bucking materialism, and living simply, Not Buying It may prove an interesting book for you. However, it may also frustrate you and make you angry.

In Not Buying It, Judith Levine provides us with a very narrow and personal view on the concept of not participating in consumer culture. The book is not meant to instruct or provide resources, tips, and support. It’s a personal journal with focus and agenda. If you keep that in mind you might avoid some of the vehement annoyance the reviewers on Amazon display. (Though I should point out that I agree with most of their assessments of this title.)

I think Not Buying It had the potential to be a great book, even if it wasn’t a How-To. But several things got in the way of that.

First, the author decided to embark on her project during a particularly nasty election year – 2004. I found myself wishing that she’d come up with this idea during some other year. Then the heavy political rants might have been avoided. I’m as left-leaning as Ms. Levine (perhaps more so), yet even I got tired of the politics and Reagan/Bush/Conservative bashing. It added nothing to the book and detracted from the very interesting thoughts on how consumerism operates in our culture. I would have liked her to explore the corporate side of the problem, instead.

Second, the author is an incredibly privileged person. She and her partner have two residences, three cars, and between them so much stuff they need to build extra rooms on their house to fit it all. So much that they can go a year without buying and still have too much. Therefore her view on living simply and not buying unnecessary things is a bit skewed. When you already have too much, it’s easy to do with what you have. But that doesn’t resonate with me. That she never examines this aspect of herself is annoying. She does mention the piles of clothes and shoes she owns, some with the tag still on. She doesn’t go farther than mentioning it, though.

Third, the aforementioned nature of the book – that it’s just a personal journal not a how-to guide. The non-how-to-ness doesn’t bother me so much, but the narrow POV of it does. It’s a very inwardly focused book that offers very little to the reader. One person’s personal journey to enlightenment is only so interesting, and this book doesn’t even offer that. The whole thing is very half-hearted, in my opinion. Levine doesn’t delve deep into her own struggles to combat her consumerist ways nor does she offer any real help for other people to do so. It’s very superficial.

Nevertheless, the book isn’t a total loss. If the topic interests you, then this book provides some interesting bits on consumer culture, materialism, and the drive to buy things. Looking at them from the outside did give Levine an interesting perspective. I wish she’d gone the investigate journalism route more often than the political screed or personal journal routes.

Conclusion: Borrow the book from the library, but don’t buy it. It only takes one read to absorb what little of use there is in this book.

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