Home > identity, mobile computing > Electronics as Fashion–The Anti-Gizmo Fetish

Electronics as Fashion–The Anti-Gizmo Fetish

I regret to admit that I may suffer from an anti-gizmo fetish. Am I alone?

Since I teach in the school of Interactive Computing, it won’t surprise you to learn that many of my colleagues like getting new computers and electronics. Several pre-ordered iPads, and tweeted about opening the box, and their first impressions of the device. More than one colleague and friend has mentioned that they enjoy going out with their iPad and having people notice it and ask about it. In the row behind me on my flight yesterday, I overhead a conversation begin, “Is that an iPad? Mine just came! I haven’t opened the box yet.” Its features were discussed in great detail over most of the midwest and into the southeast.

This isn’t a post about iPads–it’s about the latest and greatest device, whatever that happens to be at the moment. For most people, having your device noticed is a pleasure. I guess I can speculate on how they feel, but I’m wondering: am I the only one who feels the opposite? When I imagine someone in a café noticing my iPad (or similar), I’m filled with a squirmy sensation I can only describe as embarrassment. I’m not sure if I need a “third device,” but I know if I get one I may wait until it’s commonplace.

I’m not a shy person. I’m more likely than average to strike up a conversation with the supermarket checkout clerk, the person next to me on the shuttle bus, or the other parent on the park bench. But the idea of those people saying “Oooh, is that a cell phone (remember when they were a status symbol?)/iphone/ipad/etc” is completely unappealing.

The topic of whether any particular device is actually useful or pleasing is a separate issue. I’m talking here about electronics as a fashion statement–an expression of personal identity. And for portable electronics, that statement is increasingly visible and public. Having a blu-ray player (when they were new) or a 3D TV (more recently) is one sort of fashion statement, but you need to mention it or have friends over for anyone to know. Having a portable device you use in public takes electronics-as-fashion to a new level. You really do “wear” it.

I don’t like being noticed for expensive clothes or shoes either. Is the issue the same? You can notice my jewelery, but only if it’s arty jewelry made from relatively inexpensive materials–I don’t want emeralds thank you very much. It’s not a lack of interest in fashion–it’s just a different sensibility for fashion.

Do you also have an anti-gizmo fashion sense? Leave me a comment!

In the comments, Kurt Luther asks–is this just about money? Could an inexpensive but new/useful device cause the same kind of phenomenon? I do think a big part of this is about money. But with a night to think about it, maybe it’s also about a kind of “techno-positivism”: the belief that new gadgets make the world better. I very definitely do NOT think that new gadgets necessarily make the world better. In fact, I’m pretty sure they sometimes make it worse. As I wrote in an old essay called “Christmas Unplugged” (written 12/25/92, published 12/94), I worry that being connected all the time is unhealthy. I think the new “wearable computing” conveys both money and techno-positivism, and neither is a message I want to send.

Categories: identity, mobile computing
  1. Kurt L.
    August 7, 2010 at 4:59 am

    I feel the same way, but your last paragraph in particular makes me wonder if the phenomenon here is really just flaunting expensive stuff, where “expensive stuff” can be electronics, jewelry, clothes, etc. For example, Apple products in particular are known for being pricey, so they carry with them a whiff of luxury — “sure, I can drop $700 on a big iPhone that doesn’t call people.” I guess we could test my theory if we could imagine some hot new gizmo that was moderately priced, but still a hot commodity. Would we feel just as icky about being seen with a 16 GB flash drive? (portable and pretty exotic but only $40)

    • August 7, 2010 at 7:46 am

      Kurt, I stayed up way too late last night staring at my screen wondering the same thing–is this just about money? Perhaps it’s money plus a kind of techno-positivism. Actually, I think I’ll update the post to say that!

  2. August 7, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Andrea, thanks for the compelling description of the other side of the debate. What I find so interesting is how differently Kurt and I feel about it compared to you! I guess I can imagine myself saying things to the principal like, “so how much money did you waste on that thing? Do you find yourself stopping reading a book to check your email? One of the things I like about books is that my email isn’t right there!”

    By the way, I almost wrote into the post something about your reaction to my considering getting an iPhone, a year+ after they first came out. (“OMG don’t get one–there are UI things about it that you’ll hate, and I know you–you’re going to complain to me about them!”) Please note that I have not complained. 😉

  3. August 7, 2010 at 8:16 am

    I don’t understand this one. 🙂

    In my experience, the excited conversations that happen are about “how this gizmo is changing what I do” and, since that’s what I think about for a living, I LOVE new gadgets and the questions people ask about them! I had a meeting with a high school principal last week and we spent the first part of the meeting discussing how to best use our iPads to eliminate the need to lug a laptop- what habits do you need to get into, what apps can help, oh you definitely need a Bluetooth keyboard, etc.

    I’ve never had anyone compliment me on my iPad like a necklace, but they do want to explore my apps and hear what I like/don’t like and share their experiences. I’m always astonished how people are willing to pick up your new apple product and examine it. (Hey! That’s personal!) At heart, I think the people who are most interested in these things are interested because they are interested in *what might be possible.* I love it!

    • Kurt L.
      August 8, 2010 at 9:35 pm

      I might feel differently towards online stuff. I can imagine showing off that I’m using some kind of new website or online service, but built into that comfort is the assumption that anyone who cares to could sign up and join me. Hardware, not so much.

  4. August 7, 2010 at 11:28 am

    I know what you mean. I don’t have an iPad, and I live in a place where the best advice is to keep your iPhone concealed on the subway, but this post made me think of the Vibram FiveFingers shoes I’ve been wearing for a little over a year now. I love them, but the only draw back is constantly having to talk about them. It doesn’t matter if I’m listening to headphones or reading a book. People feel like they have to ask me to explain them wherever I go, and it gets tiresome. I usually enjoy being different, but I’m beginning to look forward to them becoming more common.

    • August 7, 2010 at 1:21 pm

      The five-toed shoes are a great example of something trendy in that same way that isn’t electronics!

  5. August 9, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    I apologize for just posting links to my own stuff, but it turns out I’ve written a bit on this topic.


    My contention is that gadgets (and gadget companies) are explicitly changing consumer electronics into fashion. In that sense, it is *not* just about money, for even if fashion does sometimes involve wealth-peacocking. Fashion is also about, well, fashion: a style of ornament and behavior. The resulting discomfort you feel is thus not an anti-gizmo fetish, but just an extension of the overall distaste for fashion you describe at the end of your post.

  6. beki70
    August 9, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    So, as someone who mentioned that they like to engage in interaction around the device.

    First, I think I have little to offer the trendy and cool set. I realise this in so many small ways. But, I do enjoy passing the device to a familiar stranger and watching them explore it, listen to their imaginings, hearing about technology in their lives for better or for worse and so forth. I enjoy it as an encounter. It is a new gadget of course, but it’s way better than a bad pick up line 😉

  7. August 11, 2010 at 7:38 am

    This is a good topic, Amy. I’m sorry for Andrea but I’m afraid I’m also aligned with your side. Perhaps you’re right and in part this is about money. But I don’t think it’s the main reason. I think it’s more about gadgets as trendy items, and the feeling of becoming part of society’s “mainstream”. Apple hardware is the epitome of this phenomenon, and definitely something this company know how to exploit really well. Just pay attention to how they pack their devices and how they shine. As you said, people think it worths the time to tweet about that! They’re attractive pieces of hardware. People feel like if they were holding something really special. Consumer psychology. You bit the apple.

    Then you have people who got an iPhone probably because it was just a nice device to substitute their old cell phone, using their operator promotional discount. But regarding Apple, I bet their largest market quota comes from people convinced about the “trendy feeling” of Apple hw. They do their best to encourage this feeling.

    Another example to show that this is not *only* about money: video game consoles. I know quite a few cases of teenagers who literally squandered all their savings (or their parents money) to buy a PS3. Why? Because if you don’t have one you’re simply “out of the circle” of your closest buddies. Now take the same pattern to other social cliques and you’ll find that the basic underlying reason is the same. Yes, this is mixed with people who just want to feed their own “egometer” when somebody else notices about their brand new gadget/shoes/sunglasses/whatever. But the main segment of customers for some companies (apple hw, top cell phones, video game consoles, trendy clothes, etc.) comes from this social pattern.

  8. November 16, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Totally. I found your article while researching commodity fetishism for an essay about gadget trends.
    I’m in the same boat as you. While I’m quick to defend Apple (I own a couple of their products – won’t state which for fear of looking like an attention seeker) I despise the idea that people flock to it for the suave corporate branding.
    I suppose it’s no different from people who drive their flash cars around, revving them to turn heads.
    But I suppose if you confronted somebody like that they’d just shrug it off;
    “No no no – I simply HAD to buy the iPad! I’m a loyal Apple user and I’m simply PASSIONATE about technology!”


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