A couple of years ago, I px-ed my Volvo S40 for an Audi TT.
Initially, I’d been looking at family saloons but then I realised my brain was stuck in the mode of thinking I was still part of a couple, maybe we’d be having kids sometime. It was only a couple of years since my divorce had become final and I guess I was still living in the past. So, I went slightly crazy and went entirely the other way, buying a car that was beautiful but not exactly practical: an Audi TT.
In around three weeks, I’ll be px-ing that TT for a Nissan Qashqai.
Through the late ’00s, I started using phones that would eventually morph into the smartphones of today. This phone was one of the first:
Yep, that was a state of the art touchscreen smartphone fourteen years ago. It was great! Well, I went from that through various others until, in 2007, I wrote this review of a new phone I’d had for a week:
The iPhone had landed and within a few years, it had revolutionised the smartphone landscape, to such an extent that it’s quite hard to find anything that qualifies as a dumb phone nowadays.
Exactly a week ago, I swapped from my iPhone 5s to an LG G3 Android phone.
Relating these two purchasing choices to friends, the reactions have been the same for both conversions: why? Switching from perceived high-quality brands like Apple and Audi to LG and Nissan seems, to most people, perverse.
As a sociologist, this reaction fascinated me. There has been much written on the role of consumption in defining identity in late modernity and it appears simply by choosing items which I was not meant to, I was serving up a steaming, heaped plate of of role dissonance to my friends.
“But you’re an Apple person!?”
“You’re going from Audi to Nissan?? That’s the wrong way round!”
And so on and so forth.
What I thought was entirely in character for me (choosing utility and function over brand cachet) was completely illogical in others’ minds. But before delving into that world, let me explain my rather more prosaic reality.
I haven’t had a good experience with my Audi TT. I had an A3 around fourteen years ago (yes, the same time I had that lovely prehistoric smartphone) and that car felt solid and well-engineered. With the TT, I haven’t had that feeling. Too many rattles and trim malfunctions. And then there’s the demister which actually mists the screen for the first thirty or forty seconds of use. I say “use” but it’s actually useless and quite dangerous. There are many other points but I don’t want to write an even longer essay.
When I went to research cars for my Dad, a Qashqai was sitting there, resplendent in its gadgetry. It had me at 360º camera. So I took a test drive and… I loved the feel of it. It felt far more luxurious and solid than my TT. Yes, it was slower but I’m not competing in Le Mans this year so that’s not an issue. Everything in the interior was better designed, more integrated and the UI was actually modern and intuitive, unlike Audi’s which is like using CP/M through some fiddly buttons on a wheel stalk. Plus, it’d be quite handy having four doors and a usable boot again.
Onto the phone…
Like millions worldwide, I watched Apple’s hopelessly crappy streaming keynote. At the time, I was caught up in the religious fervour of what has to be the biggest worldwide evangelical event.
The day after, I was more sober. I looked at the iPhone 6 and was unimpressed. All the features that were lauded (bigger screen, NFC, third party keyboards) weren’t innovations, they’d already been around on Android for a couple of years. I wanted more storage and a bigger screen but if I wanted to do that with Apple, I would have to pay £800 for a 6+ with 128GB of space.
So, I went online and did some research. Finally, I bought an LG G3 for £400, new. I also bought a 128GB micro SD card for around £50. So, for £450, I had a phone with a better screen (538ppi vs. 401ppi), more storage (144GB vs. 128GB) and lots of gadgets like laser focus, wireless charging etc. that just aren’t on iPhones. Yet.
To me, these choices were no-brainers. I chose what had higher utility and felt like better design.
I use Apple gear for all my music making, video production and photography processing. I’m typing this on a Macbook Air, which I love to death and is my daily laptop as well as being my DJing laptop. So, I’m not an Apple hater.
But I only buy their products if they are better than competitors’ products.
I don’t like Windows as an OS. I particularly find 7 and 8 infuriatingly fragmented and unintuitive, all this knobbing around between touch screen and mousepad, I never know where to go. So, OSX is what gets my vote, still, even though it’s first iteration launched in 1999. But when I see a a phone that looks better specced than the top of the range iPhone for nearly half the price, you know I’m going to buy that phone.
The couple of years I’ve had my TT, I’ve had nice comments about it. Some women have actually cooed when they’ve seen it. I understand this: it’s a pretty car. But I bought it mainly because I wanted to own a small car that had stupid acceleration, that’s it. I didn’t buy it as a status symbol or to impress women because that just isn’t me. I also understand that a lot of blokes do buy cars for precisely that function but that’s pretty pointless for me as I would never be attracted to a woman who was most interested in the possessions a man had amassed. That’s an instant eurgh.
This whole switcheroo has opened up so many fascinating attitudes that I hadn’t even imagined before. Maybe part of the reason I’m switching from Audi is that I don’t want to be perceived as an “Audi driver.” Maybe anonymous Nissan family car stuffed with more gadgets than an NSA ops room is how I would prefer to roll ~ less obvious, more power. Maybe I’m switching to Android because I miss tinkering with OSes and I can spend the rest of eternity sorting through alternate SMS clients now.
The depth of reaction as well as breadth has also been fascinating. Why do these choices have these impacts? Could it be that cars and phones are both primary signifiers in our consumption-based identities? I couldn’t imagine people getting so worked up if I’d changed my brand of coffee or washing up liquid. I could imagine them being equally puzzled if I switched from, say, The Guardian to The Daily Mail or Vans to Converse. Does this mean there’s a central hub of brands/products that are identity-signalling, surrounded by layers of increasingly less important items? Obviously, these whirling orbs of signification could not be universal: I don’t give a crap about beer but I know beer heads have their own format wars.
Then yesterday, I realised that I had unwittingly pulled a Garfinkel and performed my own breaching experiments.
I had broken the rules of the unplayed game I was in with my mates. I was Apple, I was Audi, I was premium brand ~ this was how my player played and my performance shored up the values and norms of the whole game.
Throwing that script away brought uncertainty to the situation: one friend even gave me the line, “I don’t even know who you are any more.” She was joking but the root of all humour is, of course, fear/uncertainty. The joke had released the real tension she had in my disruption of the image that she had of me.
And the corollary is the killer: if I can change or if they were wrong about me all along, what else is unstable?
If I’m not me, then who are they?
Our identities as Westerners living in late modernity are myriad and desperately contingent. Even former monoliths such as ethnic and gender identity are fragmenting and blurring as all culture becomes diasporic and eclectic. None of us are natives, we’re all immigrants. We have become so alienated that we have become actual aliens, trying to pass for human, perpetually living with the fear of being unmasked as not belonging. So, we form tribes online to denounce the unbelievers who don’t see the light. Apple vs. Windows, iOS vs. Android, Xbone vs. PS4, this brand vs. that brand, my team vs. your team, even though, deep down inside. we know we don’t actually give a fuck.
Is it any wonder that we replace the stolid quotidian of productive identity with a magpie’s nest of shiny trinkets; cars and phones and shoes and games consoles. We declaim our public persona by documenting our props online, via tweets or instagrams or vines. We’re scrabbling round at touchscreens and jewellery, hoping these talismans will grant us totemic protection in a world which is nothing more than the static of dead airwaves.
And I am no different, no better.
When I first thought of switching, both car and phone, I felt a great deal of unease. I anticipated that my switching would be questioned, attacked, lampooned. And I was right. Once you’re on those rails (which both you and your peers have built,) it’s hard to jump to another track.
The whole episode has been tremendously enlightening for me, in making the unconscious social processes that surround us conscious, if just for a conversation, just for a minute. You may wish to consider what choices you could make that would provoke a similar reaction in your peers, you know, just for shits and giggles. Or you may not ~ whatever, man, get off my back!
Ethnomethodologically, it’s been a little goldmine and I’ve yet to sift nuggets from nougat in my head.
Possibly, I need to consider buying a better head. Hmmm…