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Why your iPhone is making you a capitalist tool

For centuries, economists have built their models of the economy based on a certain vision of humans: as rational, calculating, profit-maximising individuals, free from the whimseys of emotion, humour and spontaneity.

Homo economicus, as he (yes, he) is known, is a sensible, calm fellow, who roams the land making calculated decisions with perfect knowledge of all possible options and outcomes.

No regrets, no mistakes. He is an infuriating know-it-all.

Unencumbered by infants or spouses, he advances his own interests at the expense of others, demonstrating camaraderie only to the extent game theory forces him into some begrudging displays of co-operation and reciprocity.

Homo economicus is a lone wolf. He does not exist in communities in which giving, reciprocity and trust influence his decisions.

In short, you would not invite him to your dinner parties.


Social scientists have long lambasted economists for this artificial construct of humanity. Humans, they argue, are social animals. We thrive on human contact and interaction.

But I worry: are we increasingly resembling the economists' mould?

Technology – iPhones, iPads and laptops – appear to have atomised us. Together, but alone, we behold in our palms the wonders of the digital world.

The vast vault of human knowledge at our fingertips – encyclopaedias, holy texts – we choose instead to watch hilarious cat videos and take selfies.

We plug into the world wide web and disengage from our immediate surrounds.

Part outlet for pure hedonism, these devices have also blurred the boundaries between our working and private lives.

We wake up with our iPhones and we take them to bed at night. We are endlessly available to our bosses, if not to our children, who watch us with puzzlement as we grasp small glowing devices to our faces, and ignore their own.

I don't doubt smartphones have made us more productive at work. But it seems they have also extended the hours of the day in which we work.

And yet, the same devices which bring us work, we also expect to bring us leisure. Stressed by a work email? Switch screens and buy a new pair of shoes. Of course, you'll have to work harder to afford them. Rinse and repeat.

In the trade-off between income and leisure, it seems we have chosen income. Why? So we can spend it, of course.

And what a cornucopia of consumption!

The internet has opened the doors to a glittering global bazaar of endless new products and services to try. It has never been easier to discover prices and transact. The internet has created deep and liquid global markets in which we can trade with perfect strangers. It's no longer necessary to know the name of your local shopkeeper. Brand loyalty is shot. We'll buy from whoever, wherever, as long as they name the lowest price.

In a sense, it is liberating, the worlds that have opened up to us. And there have been enormous benefits: cheaper prices and the availability of a vast array of new goods to consume. Consumption is, after all, the economists' highest goal.

But I fear we will be all the poorer for the insidious invasion of our private lives and the slow erosion of community bonds.

We are no longer rooted by "place". The economists' assumption of a world of perfectly mobile labour and capital seems increasingly a reality. Courtesy of cheap air travel and underpriced fossil fuels, we flit about the world. Kids move interstate or overseas to pursue careers and new lifestyles. Family bonds are stretched to breaking point.

Barriers to trade have crumbled. Money flies around the world in a giddy money-go-round. Financial markets in distant countries sneeze and the entire world economy catches a cold.

It has long been the goal of businesspeople to have workers specialise in certain tasks so that we may more easily fit into the assembly line. Henry Ford's conveyor belt spelled doom for the age of the craftsman. We no longer build things from start to finish. Instead, you pass the widget and I'll add my part. The next guy will polish it and the guy after that will package it ready for sale.

This sort of specialisation hones our focus on one task. We melt into ourselves. It is no longer our job to communicate with the person down the line. That is not our concern. We make our part of the widget and we go home.

But eventually, life itself starts to seem like an endless conveyor belt.

You can almost feel the strain – the collective exhaustion, the loneliness – as we try to squeeze into the mould created for us by the economy. Perfect workers, but imperfect humans.

We are all economists now. 

Jessica Irvine is a Fairfax journalist.


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