Saturday, September 8, 2007

A sucker born every minute

My two previous posts have gotten me thinking: Does the general public know a good thing when it sees it? Harry Potter. The iPhone. Both are lauded by the public, which begs the question: do the masses actually have taste?

In my opinion, the Potter books are average in terms of literary merit. The only way they've revolutionized the publishing industry is by sheer volume of sales, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the books themselves have not intrinsically changed the literary world (although some would argue they've encouraged kids to read, which I suppose is true, although I would counter-argue with the question: isn't it the parents responsibility to inculcate a love of reading from a very early age? I'm betting most of those parents out there haven't been reading to their kids since birth...). In any case, the act of publishing books has not changed because of Harry.

Conversely, the iPhone is extraordinary in terms of user interface design. It's a total paradigm shift in how a person can physically interact with a device. Suddenly, all other cell phones seem like dinosaurs, and I have no doubt that the cell phone with a push-button keypad is on its way out over the next 5 -10 years. (Obviously, comparing Harry and an iPhone is a bit unfair: Harry is content--words on the page, but the iPhone is content and functionality).

A barrier to entry of the iPhone is obviously cost. Mac products are always expensive and require disposable income. But, the plummeting price means that they'll be in even more people's hands sooner than ever.

Still, $600 (now $400) is an exorbitant and ridiculous price to pay for a device. A Harry Potter obsession would cost the reader approximately $116 if they purchased the entire hardcover boxed set on Amazon. If one had to choose their popular poison, it would be to one's economic advantage to adhere to Harry and shun the iPhone. But what about those of us who shelled out for both?

This brings us back to public opinion: Harry and the iPhone are both a success. One is largely mediocre when taken as a whole, the other is impressive despite its flaws (I really could strangle the phone for not syncing properly to iPhoto, and yet still I love it). Some people buy the books, some the phone, some both. This may suggest that it's not so much that the public is savvy or truly understands how to judge an item's merits, but that the general public likes to engage in public discourse around shared interests. Also, when critical mass is achieved, there is a sense of unity, i.e., I feel less alone in the world when I see someone reading Harry on the subway. Also, we like shiny, new things, we're easily distracted, and we are willing to spend, spend, spend to get that feeling of being a part of something larger than ourselves.

Even if the iPhone is a life-changing device, aren't we still suckers for shelling out half a grand that could be going into our retirement accounts? I can delve into snobbery and suggest that Harry stinks and the iPhone rulez, but aren't I the butt of an economic joke regardless of the intrinsic merit of the books or the phone?

There really is a sucker born every minute. To quote from Barnum the musical, "...the biggest one, excluding none, is me."

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