Three Words For New iPhone Owners: "Shame On You"

Finally, the iPhones are available in stores! Across the country in Apple and AT&T stores, people waited in line for days to be the first ones to own the must-have gadget of the year. The sleek sexy look, the enticing ads, the cool new touch pad technology, the 4 to 8 gigabytes of memory, the built in iPod -- just writing about it makes me drool! Fortunately, before my desire to own the device turned into an all consuming obsession, I came across this article which puts the cost of ownership of the phone over two years - the required contract length with AT&T, the exclusive carrier for iPhones - to as high as $3,000. Even if one were to buy the lower end model and the lowest cost service plan, they would still have to fork out close to $2,000!

We are so steeped in consumerism and advertisement induced materialism in this country that we seem to have lost sight of how big a number that is! $2,000 to $3,000 for a cell phone!!! Don’t you see how ridiculous that is? If not, maybe you should take a step away from the TV and the blogs touting the virtues of the iPhone and look at the world around you for a minute. Maybe things will start to fall in perspective...

According to this world bank map (click on it for an expanded view) other than the developed countries, most other parts of the world have at least 10% of the population living on less than $1 a day, the threshold for describing extreme poverty. In some parts of the world more than 50% of the population is below this threshold! That means $2,000 is equivalent to about seven years of subsistence for a large part of the world. And you still think nothing of blowing it away on one gadget!!!

OK, let’s leave the extremes behind and look at the averages. The June 11th edition of TIME magazine had an interesting article titled "How the World Eats" (available online as a photo essay). The article/essay shows photographs of average families from different parts of the world and their weekly food expenditures. One of these images remained with me, and I couldn’t help but think of it when I was musing about the high cost of owning the iPhone, and American consumerism in general. The Namgay family of Shingkhey Village in Bhutan, shown in the picture below, have a weekly food expenditure of $5.03. If you count carefully, there are 13 mouths to feed. The reason this photograph stood out for me was that, these people do not look "poor". Rather, they came across to me as fairly average family content with what they have. Who says (other than the marketing and media folks) that you need a $2,000 device to achieve simple joy and contentment?

If you are still not convinced, let’s try something closer to home. According to this article on MSN Money Central, the average American household carries $8,000 in credit card debt. Considering that statistic, I would assume that a lot of the people who bought the iPhone put it on the credit card, and will likely pay their monthly service fees using credit cards too. If they do not pay off the bill in full each month, the lust for one device increased their debt by over 25%. Was it really worth it?

Overall, I am quite convinced that unless a person has no debt, has made sufficient plans for a secure financial future and contributes to at least a few charitable organizations, he/she has no business buying an iPhone. Of course, if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth go right ahead and buy that phone – an iPhone in your hand goes perfectly well with the silver spoon in your mouth :) But if you are an average Joe who now owns the over-priced over-hyped gadget and owes a tad bit more to the credit card companies than before, I have just three words for you -- shame on you!

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Wanda said...

I'm not getting an iPhone (not because of any moral objections, but because it's not a priority for me)... but I don't know. How is buying an iPhone different from hiring a personal trainer ($100/hour) or renting a more luxurious apartment than you need ($2000/month... and what's "need" anyway?) or leasing a car ($600/month)? It just depends on what people think is worth it to them. I do realize how I can be too relativistic here, but when we look at people spending $3,000 (over 2 year) for a phone and shake our head and think, shame shame, others are looking at us (clean water? $50 restaurant meal, only donate $100 to charity?) and thinking the same thing.

It's easy to look up and think people who have more or buy more don't deserve it/they got born into it/they are wasteful, etc., and it's easy to look down and think the people who have less are victims of their own irresponsibility/laziness, etc. etc.

Maybe there's a little bit of truth in that, but that's not the whole truth.

Besides, all technology need early adopters... they are the ones who'll let us know what the bugs are! In 2 years, if I get an iPhone, I'd be thanking them. ;)

ispf said...

Wanda: You are right - buying an iPhone is really no different from hiring a personal trainer, or any other luxuries we indulge in. And I do agree that this is entirely relative - while I say "shame on you" to the new iPhone owners, I am sure there are a hundred different reasons for others to say the same to me.

But every now and then, it hits you out of nowhere - of how much wrapped up in consumerism we all are, of how we brush off expenses that mean a small fortune to others, and how we justify the cost even if it means going into more debt. Drooling over the iPhone while reading all the hype was one such moment for me.

Then again, it may just be a case of grapes being sour. Who knows? :)

Anonymous said...

I am all for decreasing consumption. But...

I have to disagree with your post. The main cost of $2000-3000 is from the service plan. The service plan is not all that different from other similar plans. A phone with similar web abilities costs roughly $200. So in the end the difference is $300-ish.

Your argument is about cell phones in general. That makes sense. Just not i-phone specific.

I have been considering getting an iphone INSTEAD of a laptop. A good apple laptop will cost me, let's say, $2500. I will still need my cell phone... $45/month x 12 = 540 x 2 = 1080 + laptop = 3600.

GoldnSilver said...

Interesting Post. I love reading all the comments.
I don't own an ipod and don't want to get an iphone. But sometimes I think is unfair to "guilt tripped" people into feeling bad about our lifestyle or the envirnoment that we were borned in.

I am not saying this is what you are doing with this post, I think you are trying to bring another perspective on our [U.S.] consumerism.

However, I think it's impossible to have equity [economically/politically] across the globe, that's just the reality. Therefore, we will always have people living at a lower or higher standard than us.

Ed O'Reilly said...

Interesting post.

I wrote an article for Wise Bread not long ago, dealing with consumerism, debt and the often fruitless (and expensive) pursuit of 'happiness'.