The Universal Shtick: Why One of History’s Biggest Technophobes Would Love the iPhone.
Ever since 1812, when a posse of disgruntled textile workers decided to raise their sledges against the automated loom, modern society has housed within it elements that look upon new technology with suspicion and scorn. And no, they aren’t all primitivists either—folks looking to revert to nature by disappearing into the Alaskan wilderness.
Many technophobes are, in fact, old, distinguished and known to wear Harris Tweed with leather elbow patches. And it’s amongst this last category of cigar-scented gentleman where my favorite of them resides: the curmudgeonly English writer, G.K. Chesterton.
Born in 1874, Chesterton was the platonic ideal of the hoary, old (small “c”) conservative. If he were alive today, he would probably dedicate his life to yelling at clouds, and chairs and finding other ways to stand athwart history with the sole intent of grumbling at it. He might even have been a Tea Partier of sorts, though he’d have been sure to produce the wittiest crank e-mails your uncle ever forwarded to you.
But revere as he might the “old ways,” there is little doubt that he would send his righteous rants over an iPhone 5 or Galaxy S3.
“Cast your eyes around the room,” Chesterton once said, “and select some three or four things…let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner or a fire in the hearth. About each of these you will notice one specialty; that not one of them is special…the knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects.”
The stick could be used to pick a man up, or knock a man down. It could be sanded down to a point and used to pierce a boar and then roast it over a fire. The fire itself could be used to toast muffins, tell stories, boil kettles, and serve as the iridescent heart at the center of a man’s home.
The point, according to Chesterton, was that the primordial tools of man had a multi-dimensionality that were simply lacking in the new-fangled gadgets of his era. How pathetic, he barked, that the flashlight illuminated but did not heat; what tripe, he echoed, that all you could do with a telephone was telephone.
“Everywhere there used to be one big thing that served six purposes; everywhere now there are six small things; or rather (and here is the trouble), there are just five and a half.” For Chesterton, specialization in tools (as in life) might be necessary, but it was no less tragic for that reason. For the incorrigible old codger, there was undoubtedly something spiritual and meritorious in the universality of the old institutions, and he longed to experience that universality more fully. There was wisdom in being widely (even if somewhat shallowly) read, he knew, and he bemoaned the ever-greater specialization that modernity foisted on the denizens of our oh-so-modern economies.
In the 76 years since Chesterton died, society’s relentless march toward specialization has only picked up speed. And there have been but few countervailing trends pushing against the era of hyperspecificity; foremost amongst them, however, has been the invention of the now ubiquitous smartphone.
In an age where chefs design vacuum chambers for the specific purposes of cooking meringue, Chesterton would sigh in relief to behold an iPhone, a device capable of fulfilling multiple human needs—both vital and frivolous.
They make phone calls, of course, but they also order pizza, dispense directions, provide restaurant reviews, trade stocks, access global newspapers, entertain children, take photographs, store appointments and remind us of anniversaries. In many ways, our phones have become the most multidimensional tools we’ve fashioned since Chesterton proposed the “universal stick.”
Our existence as social animals—along with everything that that implies—has been indelibly impacted by these ingenious little creations.
Smartphones have their limitations, of course. Siri still makes for a frightfully boring conversation partner (she doesn’t like drinking beer, after all) and a too faithfully heeded GPS may land you in a pond, but the sheer multiplicity of their functions should amaze us. The general retreat from specialization should also serve as something of a respite, given our era’s overly focused monomanias.
The smartphone is the Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none—the aspiration to the universal is its shtick.
The devices are a bit like us in that they are unfocused, or multifocused, and do not cease to grow after their initial creation. They are consistently transmogrified and worked upon and developed through their interaction with external forces. A human intelligence, somewhere, “teaches” one to solve a unique problem, and with the flick of a switch that previously unknown skill is available to millions of devices across the globe.
In this sense, they have become almost as flexible and multi-purposed as we are.
Chesterton would look at these devices with a furrow in his brow, ponder their myriad of functions, and appreciate the expansive potential to be found there.
You can’t use a smartphone to heat your house, or cook your food or bludgeon an assailant, but it will help you pay the gas company, locate a reasonably priced market and call the police. That’s not too bad, really; and from the perspective of a chronic technophobe like Chesterton, ever concerned about the narrowing of human experience, it might even be a step in the right direction.
Thomas DeVito has a Master’s degree in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has traveled to over 30 different countries and spent 2011 living and teaching in Panama. Thomas also writes at Mission.tv.
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