King Henry VIII Would Have Loved His iPhone

As humans, we crave power and influence.

For millennia we have manufactured technologies that enable us to satiate this hunger, primarily by enabling our proclivities for consumption and communication. And we have learned that portability is an important aspect of power and the method which generates it.

In other words, despite the fact that mobile phones are far advanced from rough-hewn wooden wheels, they still serve the same purpose: early access to juicy gossip.

Whether by the horse-borne flight of a messenger to Rome with a tattle-tale proclamation about King Henry VIII or a tweetorrent about the fresh death of pop star Michael Jackson, we are constantly gunning for the upper hand in a relationship.

And mobile technologies are our favourite enablers.

Power, and the degree to which we are able to wield it as an influence, defines us as human beings.

And power takes many forms. Fear manufactured by a schoolyard bully. Rumours mongered by office politicians. Nuclear warheads.

Sticks and their kin are crudely perceived as the best power, hence our world of warships and broken bones.

But physical power is typically too clumsy, cumbersome and unaesthetic.

No, as Jared Diamond wrote in Guns, Germs, and Steel: “Knowledge brings power.”

Take the aforementioned Twitter post, for example, which arrived on my phone just as I was ordering coffee and only moments after Jackson had said farewell to Liz. I shared the news as I read it with the start-struck barista. His eyes teared up, and his emotional outpouring earned me the cup for free.

Our information age proves that there is no more powerful commodity than intelligence. Some governments have perverted this truth, but we all leverage it to our own best advantage.

And that’s where horse-drawn carts and handheld computers come in.

Our sense of power is constantly fed by our ability to satisfy two key aspects of the human condition: our needs to communicate and consume.

Technology, in many ways, is an age-old quest to fulfill both of these hungers that gnaw at the belly of humanity.

Talking, texting, tweeting, telegraphing, tossing mail into boxes: we are a species driven to prove informational supremacy through a perpetual state of dialogue.

But there can be no communication without consumption, and we are all on a constant quest to access, hear, buy, acquire, and absorb new things.

In many ways, consumption and communication are the yin and the yang of human existence. One is in, the other out. One is the product, the other is the sales pitch.

And when one is able to balance control of the two, power is achieved.

Which is why so much of humanity’s energy goes into the design and manufacture of technologies that improve our ability to beat our chests.

Because communication is not only in the newspaper and on the internet. We are all constantly broadcasting messages in a quest for some form of power.

The bike rider carving a path through the traffic of contemporary green sensibility exudes moral power.

Conversely, the Hummer driver, drowning out daylight with exhaust, exhibits a machismo that barely compensates for the damage all that juice did during his years of heavy bodybuilding.

In both cases, communication and consumption are balanced. The consumer goods, the bike and the monster truck, are visual metaphors for their owners’ projected beliefs.

But quite possibly the culmination of humanity’s age-old quest for power is the mobile smartphone. For it is truly balanced on the twin pillars of communication and consumption

The smartphone is the epitome of every consumer’s wet dream: an identifiably branded, pocket-sized idol that perfectly represents your techno-religious tendencies. In so many ways, the smartphone becomes its owner’s avatar, encapsulating his or her personae.

What’s more, it can provide ubiquitous access to all forms of information, an indefatigable well of ammunition.

Remember that scene in The Two Towers where Gandalf and Saruman battle with magical powers they draw through their staffs?

Now give Gandalf an iPhone and Saruman a Blackberry and have them launch into a diatribe of celebrity dope that they surf up from TMZ and E! Online.

Sure, magical lightning bolts make for a better movie scene, but the concept of power stays the same.

Were Mae West around today, she’d ask, “Is that a smart phone in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

The answer would be: that’s you in my pocket, Ms. Mae.

The culmination of millennia of lust for power driven by our penchant for communication and consumption, the smartphone represents the highest achievement of humankind’s technological efforts.

This side of the mini-doughnut machine, anyway.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 3, 2009.

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