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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Progress, but whose?

Published: September 13, 2012
Section: Opinions

I woke up Wednesday in the hopes of purchasing Apple’s new iPhone. It won’t be in my hand for another week, but I was ready to get my order in anyway. I’m a fanboy, so obsessed with Apple products that I watched the keynote address at work that afternoon, following dorky blogs for updates in real time about each new megapixel and inch of display.

Google is at work on eyewear that connects to the Internet. This Project Glass will present its wearer with webpage displays and instantaneous map directions, and of course the epitome of hands-free communication.

Another gadget from Leap Motion, an up-and-coming tech company, will debut next year and bring us the three-dimensional touch-screen interface. Plug the device into your USB, and you can literally grab the air in front of your computer screen to do to it what people used to do with a mouse.

All of these new inventions can be overwhelming. They serve as a reminder that we live in exciting times. Today we see the production of not just new toys but new modes of communication, better transportation, and potentially life-saving medical devices. I have a lot for which to be thankful and as I watched CEO Tim Cook unveil the iPhone 5 this week, it hit me that I also have a lot for which to feel guilty.

The “we” who get to make use of all of this new brilliant hardware is shrinking. At about the same time that Cook took the stage, the Census Bureau announced that income in the United States is waning, even years after the 2008 economic collapse. We know that poverty levels are stagnant and that families are struggling now more than ever.

Next week, the iPhone 5 will set new records for sales, selling tens of millions and making dollars in the billions. Most of those waiting in line, very likely including me, already have the second-most powerful phone on the planet—but I sure want the new one.

When I get it later this month, I can take advantage of the new and larger screen that Apple says is perfect for reading e-books. In some U.S. states, schools can’t afford textbooks for all of their students, let alone digital readers.

This isn’t some diatribe against general consumerism; the market is inevitable, and some will always be first. Nor am I going to beat myself or the reader with a moral hatchet, “woe unto me” and all of my friends who are tweeting while people are starving. I’m not going to stop using technology available to me just because it isn’t to others.

At the start of the consumer holiday season, however, the vision of new technology that is always just around the corner should make us stop and think.

The classic justification for such vibrant tech-fandom is that investments and research are producing life-changing efficiencies and life-saving equipment all the time. A twenty-first century synthetic heart? Forty million Americans don’t have enough health insurance to pay for a Band-Aid, and at the current rate, won’t be able to get cutting-edge treatment until at least the twenty-second century.

I want sunglasses that tell me the weather, and I want to control Facebook with my hands from across the room—and I will get the new iPhone. But the better our lives can be, the more we should consider those who are still trying to catch up.

If we devote a tenth of the national attention and private resources to these problems, maybe—since there would be a greater number of healthy kids and more middle-class families—Apple will be able to sell even more iPhones when number six comes out.