In the early 1960s, advertising executives realized it could be incredibly fruitful to sell products not as objects with practical uses but as emblems of identity. That car isn't a machine that can get you from one place to another -- it's a statement to the world about who you are. That soda isn't just sugar and water -- it's something that binds you to other members of your generation.
No company in recent history has worked this angle more strongly than Apple. It's "I'm a Mac" ads were the logical endpoint of the idea that buying a particular kind of computer (and a set of associated products) meant you were declaring yourself to be a certain kind of person. If you're an Apple person, you're young, creative, savvy, contemporary -- all the things that PC people allegedly are not. You're not a person who uses a Mac; you are a Mac.
And I suppose if you camp out to get the company's latest offering just minutes after it is released, you're even more young and creative and savvy and contemporary. It's easy to look at the people lining up outside an Apple store and say, "What a bunch of idiots." After all, what, precisely, were they doing there? They were there because although they could have ordered the iPad over the Web and received it some time Saturday afternoon, or walked into that Apple store later in the day Saturday, it was worth camping out overnight on the sidewalk so they could get their iPad a few hours earlier. They emerged in triumph, holding the box over their heads to the applause of the crowd, as if by plunking down $500, they had just performed some remarkable feat.
It reminded me of a recent Simpsons episode about a company called Mapple. "I can't afford any of your products," says Lisa to a clerk in the Mapple store. "But can I buy some fake white earbuds so people will think I have a MyPod?" "Sure," the clerk answers. "Those are called MyPhonies. Oh, and they cost $40."
I love gadgets as much as anyone. Nancy does, too. And Apple undoubtedly makes great products -- I'm sure that if I had an iPad, I'd enjoy it very much. I'm also not claiming that only phonies attempt to project an image of themselves to the world with the things they buy and the clothes they wear; we all do it, consciously or not. But every once in a while, before you get too swept up in the hype, it's good to remind yourself: I am not my smartphone. I am not my mp3 player. I am not my tablet computer, no matter how cool it is. Those are great things to use, but they are not me.
-- Paul Waldman