Saturday, July 24, 2010

The View of Humanity from the iPhone Queue

About 2-3 weeks ago, I decided to get a new iPhone. The iPhone4 caters to wishes that were previously whims: it has a forward-facing camera that lets you make video calls and take self-portraits and (most importantly) use your phone as a compact mirror. ;) It multi-tasks, it's faster, it's leaner, lasts longer, and it's both easy and fun to use. But getting one is not easy and not fun, it's not fast, and it doesn't cater to your whims. I ordered one the day I wanted one, and about 20 days later got an email saying I had 24 hours to go pick it up, or they'd sell it to someone else. Lots of other people got the same email, which means lots of other people also showed up at the Apple Store within that 24 hour window to pick up their new phones too. So we all had to wait in the Apple Queue.

Americans hate waiting in line. We associate waiting in line with our former foes of "The Evil Empire," those wicked and wretched puppy-killing godless communists of the USSR. Americans want to feel special -- Americans feel special; the special person should not have to wait in line with everyone else (who, by virtue of not being "me" are not in fact special at all!). Waiting in line is like exposing yourself in public, like sitting caught in a public stocks. Everyone knows if you could get out of the line, you would. You are trapped. And worse, you need: you are incomplete. You want: you are weak.

Even our home-contrived American religions emphasize the "personal relationship with God": you are not a member of God's flock, not a singer in the chorus of his praise. No. You are his buddy. His pal. His confidant. You and God take long walks on the beach together, just the two of you. He's concerned about the little things that bother you. He helps you win football games. He's always on your side. He wants you to do well in real estate. He wants to bump you to the front of the line.

Years ago theme parks started letting people jump the queue in exchange for a more expensive ticket. This of course made the regular ticket even less valuable, since given a finite number of ride-seats and an absolute number of park guests, the person with the regular ticket is now waiting longer than he would have before, while the person with the more expensive ticket hops right on. At least, that's how it worked at first. This system has been going for a while, so anyone who can afford the better ticket gets it: now the special people have to wait in line with each other. (The people with the poorer tickets are just as screwed as before.) Lines can function by more than one method, and there is no doubt that the first-come first-served model is the fairest of them all.

At the Apple Store, we were surrounded by perhaps 20 people in line, and all of them, without exception, were complaining. A few were complaining good-naturedly, but most were complaining with real indignation. One man of about 50 and of pricy personality-free golfwear argued for several minutes with the Apple employee before he would even get in the line. As he argued kept half-glancing over at it, not able to make full eye contact, as though he were disgusted, as though his mind could not possibly conceive of himself tossed in with such a bovine mass as we. When finally convinced that he could not pick up his new iPhone without waiting in line first, he stood with us others and started saying, "well this is just ridiculous." "I can't believe this." "They should have more people working," (there was an unbelievable number of people working at breakneck pace). "Apple needs to get its act together." Meanwhile, the girl beside him was ranting into her phone to someone (at 4 times the volume she would have spoken to a person standing beside her) much the same thing. It turned out she was there to buy a new power cord and did not have to wait in line at all. She was only waiting because she saw a line and got in it. And then started to complain. The guy took extreme satisfaction in her leaving and letting him move ahead. He actually smiled.

It's experiences like this that really make me wonder about my fellow man. Are we so spoiled, so catered-to, so above inconvenience that we can't even deal with waiting, not even if it means buying a cutting-edge gadget that does everything but wipe your ass for you for $200? Today I used my iPhone to make a video, edit it (on an iMovie app), add music, and email it to my landlord (to show her the paint job we did on her kitchen). The entire process was complete in less than 2 minutes. Gadgets that can do this are not yet common as candy-corn and purchasable on a whim at your nearest 7-11. Someday, sure, but not yet. Right now it's kind of special. So put on those patience-pants your momma knitted for you when you were six and relax.

On the other hand, what type of person is most prone to want a gadget like an iPhone? Perhaps the ride from eager to impatient is a short one. I found myself very eager to get my new phone. But I didn't let that slip into some ugly sense of angry entitlement. The way my fellow customers were barking (really, looking down their noses and sneering, and barking) at the employees was just shameful. They seemed to feel that they were speaking to people beneath regard. One guy yelled at an employee because he couldn't find the "Store" button on the Apple website. He acted like it was somehow her fault. He repeated, "and I'M really TECH-SAVVY!!" several times, as evidence, I suppose, for how his not finding the "Store" button was her fault and not his. I would like you to click here and tell me if you have trouble finding the "Store" button.

In the end, we did actually have trouble getting our phones set up: Brian's was defective and had to be brought back to the store and exchanged (which they did quickly and happily). I'm honestly glad that if there was a bum iPhone in the batch, we got it, because some of those other people would have turned red, pulled down their pants, and crapped all over the floor while screeching and crying.

I really, really love technology, but even I worry that somehow technology is at least in part to blame for the un-maturing and devolving of people from reasonable persons with a concept of their place in the universe and respect for others into irrationally egomaniacal and self-obsessed oversized children incapable of seeing past the needs of their own assholes or understanding anything from another's point of view. People need to be nice. Where's the app for that?

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