I have been thinking about getting a cell phone. Sometimes I feel quite unencumbered and self-righteous in not having one, but at other times I feel like I am hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch with reality. Tyler Wigg Stevenson, in his book, Brand Jesus, does not make the case for or against a cell phone, but he does give some insight into how it shapes our identity. It is not merely a tool.
The mobile phone became the first material object in history that was universally available while simultaneously being unique to each consumer. In a way that stands out as singular in the history of the human species, with the mobile phone, anyone can have a phone, but also his or her unique phone, by virtue of its special digital identity. And this fact augurs a shift in our perception of ourselves and our place in history and the world. The mobile phone introduced a new level of control that one could exercise as a consumer. We really do gain a consumer identity that is genuinely unique, and it is here that we see the seeds of serious theological implications for how we live our lives.
Of fundamental concern for us is the fact that though we may choose what we do with our lives, we do not choose the physical settings or characteristics of our humanity, of our God-givenness. Think about the passage of a life and how little of it we actually choose: we do not choose for our parents to meet and procreate. We do not choose the DNA upon which we are built. We do not choose the day of our birth. We do not choose who raises us as children or where. Though we can radically affect our health through our behavior, we do not finally choose how or whether to grow old. Finally, not having chosen our point of entry into time, space, and history, neither will any of us choose whether or not our bodies will one day die. These choices, among the most significant determiners of our lives, are not ours to make.
The sequence of the consumer’s digital “life” and a large part of his or her consumer identity, however, run in nearly perfect inverse parallel to the events of physical existence. [We choose the day to buy. We choose the company to purchase from, etc.] Here is the absolute and categorical difference to which so little attention is paid and yet upon which so very much depends: there will never be an aspect of the consumer’s digital identity that is not chosen and purchased via financial transaction. The same was never true of prior consumer identities. The result is a growing disconnect between our sense of the person we have bought ourselves to be [digital identity] and the person we have been created to be [flesh and blood identity]. This technological development marks a sea change in the way we think about ourselves. The cell phone is but one early example.
He goes on to give some examples of how “developments in manufacturing technology have resulted in an astonishing capacity to personalize mass-produced goods. In this world people are not people before they are consumers—they are people perhaps because they are consumers.”
What do you think? I think I’ll stick with “thinking about it.”