History, as you know, is a difficult construct, beset with at least as many problems and discrepancies as the life of Lindsay Lohan. History, said Napoleone di Bonaparte, is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.
Actually, the Little General is no hero of mine and I’m hardly in the habit of quoting him. Excepting, of course, his alleged battlefield sex note to the Lady Josephine. "Ne te lave pas," he is said to have excitedly scrawled. "J’arrive."
Or: don’t wash, love. I’m coming home.
Nothing else he said sticks in my wayward mind. But you do have to hand it to this connoisseur of strong feminine odour: history is nothing but fuzzy consensus.
Amid this haze, there a few events we can agree are worthy of scrutiny or honour. For the sake of today’s argument, let us confine our roll call only to those technological events that shook, buzzed or multi-media-messaged the world.
Combustion engine. Flight. Grain elevation. Telephone. Insert any other innovation you think Ned Ludd might break in two as though it were a stocking frame. Vaguely imagine all of the industrial advances that have forged historical alchemy. These are the things we can agree upon as influential.
Today, thanks to a passionate media scrutiny, the yelps of 3G zealots resound. The device we’ve come to know as the Jesus Phone is on sale worldwide. I’ve asked a few staunch Apple types to pinpoint the telephone’s Messianic properties. And all they can say is, "It’s going to change the WORLD." Frankly, I think this parallel is a shonky. Although I am an atheist, I refuse to see how a tool whose primary function seems to be as a shopping aid might be likened to the Lamb of God.
Then again, it’s been an age since I’ve bothered with the New Testament. For all I know, Our Lord might have helped the Samaritans of Sychar make good real estate choices by way of offering instant 3D gallery tours, Google Map coordinates and data on how much the last Pharisee owner paid.
But I doubt it. As I doubt that Jesus came with a 2 megapixel camera.
As I doubt that the iPhone is the historical advance that those currently yelping and freezing in the shade of happy resellers suppose it to be. This doubt is not the product of pure cynicism NOR an irrational loathing of Steve Jobs. Rather, it is extracted from a mild understanding of history.
In short, I’m suspicious of all this heraldry. History’s true technological marvels tend not to be commended in advance of their function or purchase. There were, I’d venture, no giddy teens in attendance at the debut of the wheelbarrow, combine harvester or windmill. No passionate fool camped out overnight to get a glimpse of, say, the periodic table, pasteurised milk or Forrest Bird’s electric refrigerator.
And, if the Wright brothers are to be believed at all, not a single soul witnessed their flight phenomenon. (Although plenty of Parisians had already viewed soaring dandy Alberto Santos-Dumont by then. Fellow bon vivants were less dazzled by his mechanised magic and just plain jealous that he was able to make it to Maxim’s so quickly.)
Significant technology begins in the minds of magicians, grows in the industry of war and then dies in the dustbins of that odd consensus, history. The iPhone, prefigured as it is by throbbing brand awareness, might be nifty for a while. I’m just not sure, in a few obsolescence cycles from now, if we’ll all agree upon the version of history as Apple would have it.
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