Of memory and iPads | WORLD
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Of memory and iPads

A digital device is a poor memento mori

A still from Apple's "Crush!" iPad Pro advertisement Associated Press/Photo by Apple

Of memory and iPads
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Apple just released an ad showing the accoutrements of civilization being crushed—paint splatters, a piano cracks apart, a sculpture is smashed, and so on, all in painfully high resolution. When the carnage is over, the latest, sleekest iPad appears. There was widespread revulsion at Apple’s dystopian vision of replacing the tactile material world with an ephemeral digital realm—work, leisure, culture, and relationships all mediated through the digital kingdom dominated by Apple and a few other tech giants. The backlash was so fierce that Apple even (kind of) apologized, but without showing any understanding of why the ad was repulsive.

The ad revealed that Apple is still committed to a vision of technology as a way of life. That vision effaces physical existence. Apple promises that instantaneous access to almost universal content, connection, and creativity is just a device and a few subscriptions away. But this convenience comes with costs, including ceding control to Big Tech—if you need an iPad, Wi-Fi, and a streaming subscription to read your books, listen to your music, and watch your movies, are they really yours? And a centralized digital world will only expedite the already occurring rewriting of history and literature. And so the political theorist Patrick Deneen advised: “Buy and keep real things. Books. Vinyl. Instruments. Art supplies. This destruction of actual things that you can own and keep, replaced by permanent renting of ‘virtual’ content, is what they are aiming at.”

This problem runs much deeper than the potential malfeasance of Big Tech. The flight from the tangibly physical into the digital would be a mistake even if it did not cede power to tech giants. Disassociating ourselves from the physical is spiritually hazardous. Christianity insists that we are not souls that happen to drive around bodies like meat-suits. Rather, we are our bodies as well as our souls. Furthermore, Christians believe that the God who created the material world and declared it good also became incarnate in it. We believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead, and we look for a new earth along with a new heaven.

Of course, our material desires must be disciplined. Still, there is nothing ascetic about what Apple is selling—an iPad is physically minimalist, but Apple wants us to be expansive digital consumers. This may mimic a detachment from possessions, but it encourages more consumption, often of the mediocre or even harmful. The ideal is a sort of Spartan indulgence—you live in a pod and eat the bugs, but get endless content on the screen.

The signs of the broken continuity between generations—between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are yet to be born—are all around us.

And digital consumption is ephemeral and disposable, both in terms of the content and the devices it is created and consumed on, which are meant to be replaced after a few years. The digital existence Apple is promoting is the purest form of the trend toward living in a consumerist now, in which everything is replaceable and disposable. The digital world is one without an inheritance. There is nothing to hand down: no books, no instruments, no paintings.

We rarely live in the houses of our ancestors, or till the fields of our forefathers, or work with tools passed down to us, and the digital world further dispenses with natural reminders of our mortality. But we need them; we benefit from living among reminders of the dead. The endurance of things provides an important reminder of our mortality, the gratitude we owe to the past, and the duties we owe to posterity.

The signs of the broken continuity between generations—between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are yet to be born—are all around us, from collapsing birthrates to the push for euthanasia to unsustainable but politically untouchable old-age entitlements.

And these civilizational ailments arise from a spiritual and relational deficit that Apple’s vision will only exacerbate. Digital life must be balanced by robust physical reality. FaceTime is not a substitute for actually visiting grandkids. A picture on a screen is not interchangeable with the experience of standing physically before a great painting, such as El Greco’s Christ Carrying the Cross or Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. Digitally creating music in an app is not the same as the physicality of precisely playing the wood and wire of a guitar. Watching a sermon online is not the same as joining the body of Christ in a specific congregation.

The unity of body and soul means that we relationally and spiritually need the physical. We wither without human touch. We need the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the real-life gathering of believers. We need the physical world, and the physical presence of others, to be fully human, and to instruct and remind us of who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. Compacting civilization down to an iPad will not do this.

Nathanael Blake

Nathanael Blake is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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