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iPhone or iDol? Beauty, community and the image of God

The iPhone has sparked fundamental changes to the way that many people interact with the world – altering how we socialise, communicate, pass time, organise, and relate. Since launching in 2007, there have been more than 85 million iPhones sold worldwide and the whole smartphone market has grown substantially.

iphone5At its most basic level, the iPhone is a communications device that, much like any other mobile phone, allows the user to make phone calls and send text messages. However, part of the uniqueness of the iPhone is that it combines this basic functionality with a large finger-operated touchscreen, the capabilities of an iPod music player, and an always-on internet connection; which means the user can use this one device for entertainment, interaction with the wider world, browsing the internet and a whole host more. Essentially, the iPhone is much more like a portable computer which you carry everywhere with you than a traditional mobile phone, and in this sense, Apple have – as Steve Jobs promised at the product launch – re-invented the phone.

The multi-touch screen of the iPhone can be used for pretty much any type of user input, thus making the iPhone adaptable and consistently relevant. It is this adaptability which has formed a major part of the iPhone’s success and made it useful for many tasks that it was not specifically designed for, so that the “iPhone is like having your life in your pocket” (Steve Jobs).

However, the ‘life’ the iPhone allows you to carry with you is one mediated by Apple. For example, Apple operate what’s known as a ‘closed ecosystem’, where only apps which have been vetted by their team and given approval can be downloaded and installed from the official Apple App Store.

Consequently, buying an iPhone means trusting Apple to be the lens through which you view the world. You are buying into a lifestyle and a worldview which assumes that constant connectivity to people (through email, text messages, phone calls, social networking sites etc.) is good, fulfilling and healthy; that access to information and entertainment at anytime and anywhere is to be expected; and that all of this should be delivered in a beautiful, sleek and cool package which works simply and, therefore, makes your life easier and happier.

In essence, the iPhone appeals to some of humanity’s deepest needs – the need for relationship and intimacy, the need for knowledge, the need to belong, and even the need to wonder at something beautiful and good. Apple wants iPhone users to desire the best for themselves in these areas and to trust that Apple alone can mediate and supply these needs. It is these elements of hope and desire which have helped to make the iPhone a status symbol of success, wealth and happiness. Moreover, it has become a device which provokes powerful emotions – causing many to experience awe, wonder, joy and anticipation as the latest iteration is awaited and unveiled.

How, though, does this fit with the Bible’s account of human needs and the source of their satisfaction?

Firstly, the iPhone’s offer of continuous connectedness and community parallels the gospel promise of unity and oneness in the church (Ephesians 2:14-22). In this sense the iPhone promises to make us more able to express our humanity, by making it easier to relate to others as we were made to. However, because the relationships are mediated through technology, they lack the reality and intimacy of face-to-face interactions, and can actually lead to a lessening of real interaction with real people.

Secondly, the iPhone is designed to satisfy our God-given desire for beauty, goodness and purity through its minimalistic and simple design. This is an opportunity to praise God, because it’s His skill and beauty being dimly reflected in the design and production of the iPhone. It is also an opportunity to point those around us to the beauty of God’s creation, and of God himself – that they too may “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4).

Finally, the iPhone magnifies and assists the sinful desire to live life on our own terms by increasing access to information. As Christians we know that there is only one all-knowing being in the universe – the Lord God himself – and that the “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). Therefore, even though it is possible to have access to the whole world of online information wherever you are via the iPhone, it is only as you fear the Lord that you can know anything truly.

By Chris Houghton

This article is an abridged version of an essay produced in autumn 2012 for the Cultural Exegesis module (CE1.1) at Oak Hill College.