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Here's your morning quiz question:

What do Paris Hilton and the new Apple iPhone have in common?


Answer:  One is already trash and the other will be the moment the next shiny gadget catches the public imagination. And, no one actually needs either of them.

First some disclosure. I am the last person on earth who should be suggesting that the latest wiz-bang gadget is an unnecessary waste. Since 1978 I was the guy scratching at the glass doors of Radio Shack  to snatch up the first PC, then every new peripherals or software release.

But somehow the iPhone seems different. Maybe the time has come for Americans – and especially innovative companies like Apple – to take a break to consider what they are expending their money, talents and the earth's rapidly dwindling natural resources on.

Like, do you – or anyone you know – really need a $500 iPhone? No. We can all get cell phones for next to nothing at any mall in America. Want it to have a camera? No problem, it comes free with the phone. Want you cell phone to play music and connect to the Internet? No problemo, dozens can do that already.


So what's the selling point for the iPhone? Well of course it will be able to do all that, but with style and panache.

So millions of Americans will chuck their perfectly good cell phones, sending them off to either a local landfill or shipped across the sea to some third world nation where peasants will retrieve the precious metals and chuck the unwanted toxic materials into their landfills or the sea.

Apple Computer Inc. -- which makes superb products, also specializes in panache and image. The core of Apple's consumers view themselves as free-thinkers, socially responsible, sensitive, creative and, of course, ecologically responsible.

But just look what the good folks at Apple are about to unleash with it's latest don't-need-but-must-have product:. The iPhone's parts and pieces will be produced all over the globe. Those parts and pieces  then must be shipped to Asia for assembly. The final product will be packaged and shipped to US and European warehouses. From there they will be loaded on trains, planes and trucks and shipped to stores. (I'm sure some egghead out there can figure out how much energy that series of steps will end up consuming and how many tons of greenhouse gases will be produced as a result. But for the purposes of this article you can assume it's somewhere around plenty to the 10th power. )

If a product consuming and polluting that much filled an unfilled need and made life objectively better for mankind, I'd say, fine. But the iPhone – and products like it, are simply fashion enhancements on already existing technologies. Begging the question, is this sensible behavior considering the challenges that now and will face the human race? Challenges that could mean the difference between survival and mass extinction.

Products that actually enhance life and personal productivity don't need a lot marketing. I knew months before the first personal computer was going to be available at my local Radio Shack, and I was there the day it arrived, willing to pay way too much for a computer with just 16K of memory and a 9 megahertz processor.

But products like the iPhone, and it's predecessor, the iPod, require lots of buzz-creation, since they are not really needed by anyone. At best they are nothing but show-off enhancements on existing gadgets.

But of course, marketing buzz works. Just look at the cascade of spin-off iPod products that fill store shelves now. The iPod created entire industries around itself. Imagine the resources, the fuel, the human capital that goes into all that, then get ready for the tsunami of products that will feed off the iPhone.

b*tch, b*tch, b*tch. Right? “What's wrong with all that Pizzo? Are you a commie or something? Are you jealous because you're not getting a piece of all that action?”

No, and no. I'm just worried. I feel like a parent watching his grown children, once filled with talent, energy and promise, acting like that superficial little airhead, Paris Hilton. Oblivious to the real world around them. Self-indulgent, trivial twits, chasing trends and fads even as civilization and the earth itself, shift beneath their their feet.

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Stephen Pizzo has been published everywhere from The New York Times to Mother Jones magazine. His book, Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans, was nominated for a (more...)
 

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