Before I had to give up video games because of a problem with my hands, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of being a “gamer” was reading gaming news and following several podcasts that gave previews of new games and technology. I probably spent on average twice the amount of time reading and listening to news and rumors about games than I did actually playing them. After I had to stop playing games, I eventually stopped following gaming news, and it began to dawn on me that I’d never really considered what effect this hobby might have on my identity and desires. The truth was that I had reached the point where I considered following news about future products to be just as entertaining and meaningful as using the products themselves. What did the fact that I took great satisfaction and enjoyment out of the mere prospect of new technology and products say about what I truly loved, hoped in, hoped for, and desired?
Our culture is constantly leaning forward, always oriented towards the future as a source of hope. It is scarcely possible to buy a product and enjoy it for what it is without anticipating how it will be improved upon in the future. For example, I don’t think my iPhone was out of its box for a day before I began imagining how much greater its next iteration would be. And I often compulsively check the Apple App Store to see if there are updates for my applications. When there are updates, I feel an inordinate measure of excitement and anticipation as I download them, as if these new versions of the applications held the potential to bring real, significant improvements to my life. When none of my apps can be updated, I feel disappointed. What is remarkable about this is that I typically don’t have any problems with the applications I use on my iPhone. It is not is if I have a running list of changes and improvements that I would like to see the developers make. I am simply excited and interested in the prospect of “new” features.
Just like my App Store update-fetish, this habit of treating news of future products as entertainment is a manifestation of our forward-leaning times. Although it is certainly the case that there is something good and noble about looking forward to some technology or work that has been well made, it is also true that a preoccupation with the release of new technologies and products can be a sign that we have accepted a view of what it means to live a “good life” that is in contradiction with the vision provided in the Gospel (See James K. A Smith’s interesting book, Desiring the Kingdom for more on how culture shapes our understanding of the “good life” through habits).
One of the challenges of living in America at this time is having a balanced view of material possessions. It is good for humans to be creative and build and innovate and to delight in what God has blessed us with. It is also a sin to covet and be envious and greedy and to make our material possessions into idols. So while we want to enjoy the things God has blessed us with, when we find ourselves so enchanted with the prospect of new products that we will devote significant amounts of time to reading news about these products we also need to question whether our love for material possessions is inappropriate. And since habits can shape what we love, we need to consider how a habit of following product news might nurture in us an exaggerated view of the significance and value of things which will be obsolete and helping to fill a landfill in a few years.
Issues like this one not easy to address as a Christian because it is not always clear when we are in sin, when we are being foolish and making provision for our flesh (in this case, practicing a habit which might nurture covetousness), and when we are merely showing appreciation for something good that somebody has made to be enjoyed. Here are a few suggestions that might help you think about the way you view product news:
- Consider how you value news about technology and products in comparison to news about global events. It is hard to love your neighbors if you are unaware of their needs, and it is hard to pray for Christians who are suffering when you don’t know what they’re suffering from. Following news of important world events can help you love your neighbor. It can affect the way you vote, give charitably, send missions, and pray. While I do not believe that we are commanded biblically to read the newspaper, I do think that it is one profitable way to practically love our neighbor. One question worth asking then is how much time, thought, and concern do you put towards learning about the needs of your neighbor in comparison to the time, thought, and concern you spend learning about new things to buy? Similarly, what has a greater effect on your emotions? Which is more likely to move you, news of a natural disaster or of an announcement for a new iPad?
- Stop leaning forward. At the heart of treating product news as real news or entertainment is the hope and belief that things will be better tomorrow, that when we have this new technology or good, some part of us will be fulfilled. By making a conscious effort to delight in what God has already blessed you with in an attitude of contentment, you can help to challenge the myth that you will be happier tomorrow with some new thing. In addition, this can help you to be grateful and appreciate, to praise and take delight in, the good things that people have made. One of the reasons it is not always a sign of materialism when we are excited about news of some new invention is that it can be good and proper to show excitement about something that people have excellently made. This, it seems to me, is in keeping with Philippians 4:8. However, I don’t think that most of us need any encouragement to work up excitement for the latest movies, songs, computers, phones, or cars that are made with excellence and are worthy of praise. I do think that many of us, myself especially, could learn to better be grateful for, content with, and enjoy those things that we already own so as to give them their due honor (See these old posts: “Beyond New Releases Part 1″ and “Part 2″).
My concern is not just that being a product news junkie is not a good use of our time; the problem is that if we come to see news about products as entertainment, then it is likely that we’ve already accepted a certain definition of what it means to live a fulfilled, happy life. And this definition is in direct conflict with the vision of good life presented in Christianity. However, we also need to be aware that habits shape the way we view the good life, what we idealize as a life of flourishing. If we treat news about products as important and significant then it could be a sign that we are identifying ourselves primarily as consumers, people for whom the “good life” is defined as a life where one must constantly purchasing something new to gain fulfillment. While it might not sound particularly valuable or important or enjoyable to reflect on the way our habits might nurture a distorted view of our identity and the value of material possessions, part of our burden living in consumer-driven America is that we must be particularly aware that covetousness, greed, and material idolatry are high virtues in our culture, and also sins.