On rights, smart phones, and selfhood

Kaye Herranen

Over Winter Break a particular Sprint commercial caught my attention. First released last December, the commercial evokes the multifaceted nature of our everyday experiences and lives, implying that the iPhone 5 is unique in its ability to capture all these various aspects of our lived reality. According to Sprint, to fully express ourselves we need to share what we capture on our iPhones with others. The narrator says, “I need to upload all of me. I need, no, I have the right, to be unlimited”.

It’s a commercial for the iPhone 5 as well as Sprint’s unlimited data plan. The first time I saw it, I laughed. It’s so obviously stupid. And then I got a little mad. The careless use of the word “right” disturbed me the more I thought about it.

Unlimited data is not a right. It’s a service that you pay for. It’s not even something you need. Plenty of people survive without smart phones, let alone unlimited data plans. This commercial confuses wants with needs, and then conflates those needs with rights.

Wants, needs and rights are very different things. Those differences matter.

Human rights are a big deal. In countries and places not too far from our own hyper-technological America-indeed, even within America-people are living real struggles for their rights. To compare those struggles with one narcissist’s desire for unlimited data is extremely problematic.

Here are some actual human rights, as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948: “life, liberty and security of person.” The UDHR also declares, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” These are huge-ticket issues that are actually at stake for many people around the world.

While technology like smart phones and all pervasive wifi have the power to unite and connect people from all parts of the globe, that doesn’t mean it necessarily promotes a truly global understanding of the world. Many peoples, the ones whose human rights are actually at stake on a daily basis, do not have smart phones or regular internet access.

We cannot forget that our supposedly omniscient and all encompassing internet does not reach or include many people from a lower socioeconomic status. A rickshaw puller in Mumbai is not likely to tweet several times a day, or to have a Facebook account.

In this, and many other smart phone commercials, I’ve seen a disturbing conflation of the smart phone and the self. Somehow the smart phone becomes an extension of the body, another appendage that serves to aid and express ourselves. Some commercials seem to imply that by getting a better and newer smart phone, you will become a better person. It’s technology upgrade as self-improvement.

I do recognize that this commercial was manufactured by Sprint, and was intended to sell data plans, not outline a working vision of selfhood and rights. I hope this commercial doesn’t represent, or encourage, a growing like-minded sentiment among the larger American population.

While this is a brilliant marketing strategy-who doesn’t want to be a better person?-it’s just painfully shortsighted.

You are not your phone. Your phone is a hunk of metal, plastic, and glass. You are a living, breathing, and thinking human. An unlimited data plan will not remove the countless other more mundane limits on yourself and your identity.

As much as we do exist and manifest ourselves and interests in cyberspaces, we should not forget or collapse the distinction between technology and humanity.

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