Teaching the Verizon iPhone (Or Any New Technology)

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January 11, 2011, was a landmark day for Verizon users as well as technophiles everywhere. Finally, Apple’s ever-coveted iPhone, previously available exclusively on AT&T, would be available on the Verizon network as well. As both a technophile and Verizon customer, I have lusted and waited. Now that it’s here, though, I find myself pausing for a moment, stepping back, and thinking about this phenomenon that has had me so firmly in its grasp—the desire for and consumption of technology. While doing so, it occurred to me that the Verizon iPhone could make for some very interesting assignment sequences. Sequence One: iHuman: The Consumption of Technology and People One of the first essays I’d use in teaching the Verizon iPhone would be Thomas Friedman’s “The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention.” Not only does Friedman directly address technology (in part by tracing the global web responsible for the production of his Dell computer), he highlights the role that global supply chains play in the world today. Part of his essay also deals with terrorism and the rogue supply chains terrorist organizations use to create a never-ending supply of suicide bombers. I think Friedman’s essay is particularly interesting in the context of the iPhone because of the connection between supply chains and human deaths. With just a bit of Internet searching students can learn about the ongoing problems with suicides among workers at Foxconn, a major supplier of parts for Apple in China. After asking students to look at the human cost of technology consumption, I might then move on to Mary Roach’s “The Cadaver Who Joined the Army” as a way of providing students with an ethical scaffold to continue considering the relationship between the global production and consumption of technology and the actual bodies bound up in this web.  I’d end with Francis Fukuyama’s “Human Dignity”; his concept of Factor X would give students an even more refined conceptual tool for looking at some of the social effects of tools like the Verizon iPhone.Sequence Two: Consuming Satisfaction: Happiness and Technology Daniel Gilbert’s essay, “Reporting Live from Tomorrow,” is also a great starting place for exploring consumer satisfaction.  Gilbert’s central contention is that we’re not very good at predicting what will make us happy, a fact that many Verizon iPhone users may potentially learn themselves.  Using Gilbert, I would ask students to think about the relationship between desire and consumerism as well as the lack of satisfaction that often comes from consumption (students can easily find litanies of complaints about the iPhone on AT&T). I might then move to Steven Johnson’s essay “Listening to Feedback” in order to get students thinking about the kinds of systems that operate around consumerism and the roles that consumers themselves play in the production of these systems. Finally, I think Richard Restak’s “Attention Deficit: The Brain Syndrome of Our Era” would make an interesting end to this sequence’s focus on the relationship between consumerism and happiness by looking at the real, biological effects technology can have on our brains. I can think of a number of other sequences, too. Michael Kimmel and Virginia Postrel would open the issues of art and aesthetics that are historically bound to Apple’s design and marketing strategies. Marshall Poe and Michael Pollan both look at open and closed systems, which would make for an interesting application to Apple products in general, which tend to exist only within a closed ecosystem. Finally, both Helen Epstein and Leslie Savan talk about the “cool” and marketing; they both also do so in relation to race. Apple has mastered cool, particularly with the iPhone, but how do its gleaming white stores reflect the racial inflections of cool? Of course, you could teach these sequences with other technologies, such as Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox 360, Sony’s Move for the PlayStation, the iPad, Google’s Nexus One Android phone, or the forthcoming tablets from Blackberry and Dell.  In all of these cases, the products themselves exist at an intersection between desire, globalization, economics, consumerism, humanity, and aesthetics.  Unpacking that intersection provides students some great opportunity for critical thinking. By the way, I’m not rushing out to buy my Verizon iPhone.  In part it’s because I suspect there will be a new model out this summer; not to mention that my technolust has already shifted to the iPad, whose second iteration should be coming around April.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.