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Self-Sacrifice in the Age of the Gadget

Every manufacturer wants their product to be desirable. Apple are self-appointed masters of this. Like Rolex and Jaguar, they design and sell objects which are functional and practical in nature, but which are highly prized because of their aesthetics and value as status symbols. The iPad is the most highly visible recent example of such an object, and such has been confirmed by a Chinese teenager and the sale of one of his kidneys.

The boy, whose forename appears not to have been confirmed (he is referred to on various websites, however, as 'Xiao') goes by the name of 'Zheng' or 'Little Zheng'. He is 17 years old, and in April of this year, he was pining for an iPad 2. Badly. But Zheng was poor and couldn't afford one, so it was only after a "broker" contacted him online to suggest he sell one of his kidneys that Zheng realised he could obtain the object of his desires. On April 28th he set out for Hunan Province (a distance of at least 500km from his home in Anhui Province) and a hospital where, under anaesthetic, one kidney was removed. Zheng then received 20,000 Yuan (about £2,077) and with it he purchased the longed-for iPad 2 and a laptop. Sadly, Zheng's health is purportedly beginning to worsen and he told Shanghai Daily that he "regrets" his venture. Police have been unable to apprehend the broker who contacted Zheng, and the hospital where he was operated on has claimed it was not officially qualified to carry out such procedures, but that their services had been "contracted" by a Fujian businessman. The story has since become a global news sensation. But what was really behind Zheng's expedition to Hunan? What was the "logic" which convinced him that it would be acceptable, even a good idea? What was it about the iPad that was so irresistible?

Regardless of whether the following accurately represents Zheng's motivations or not (the broker's skills in coercion obviously played a large role), these arguments and observations remain relevant in a world where materialism and consumerism are increasingly dominant features of a modern worldview.

"The first thing Zheng accepted when he went in to this situation was that this was a fair trade, that his kidney was expendable"

Let's start by assessing the items involved in this unusual transaction. We have a human kidney and we have cash, in lieu of the iPad itself. The first thing Zheng accepted when he went in to this situation was that this was a fair trade, that his kidney was expendable, and that it would be advantageous to him to exchange it for the iPad. Given that the iPad is (despite hints in marketing campaigns) not necessary to sustain life, subjective values must be at play here. Speaking generally, we can say that the iPad is valued for its functionality (electronic and informational capabilities, the innovations of its interface, etc.) and also, more esoterically speaking, as a status symbol. Now we are at last in murky waters.

Before I explore status symbols in detail, consider this important point: the exchange of kidney for iPad seems to embody an ideological transaction in which the value of technology and machines is considered greater than the value of flesh and blood - but this particular transaction is dissonant. The attraction of 'cyborgs' and body augmentation experiments has shown how fascinated human beings are with the attachment of machinery to their organic selves. However, unlike the science fiction stories (such as "Moderan", 1971, David R. Bunch) in which humans of the future assimilate new, more powerful mechanical limbs in a rejection of their weak, fleshy organs, the kidney-iPad trade makes no direct kind of 'evolutionary' sense because the iPad is not a replacement for or improvement upon the kidney - what it offers the owner is a completely different sort of functionality. The kidney's role in the body is very important, very complex, and there is not yet any synthetic equivalent or alternative. There's no app for that. Hence the dissonance which makes Zheng's story so shocking.

It does not matter how the iPad became a status symbol (although separately that is an interesting discussion), it just matters that it is one. Status symbols are fascinating anthropological artefacts which help us define a culture by its applied values. Here is an article about the role of various kinds of cap as status symbols in dynastic China - you can see that, historically, status symbols have notably lacked functionality. In fact, like the heavy jewellery, large embroidered sleeves and long wigs of the European baroque period, many such artefacts emphasised their own impractical nature because they signified that their owner was wealthy enough not to have to be practical; he or she did not have to work and yet could afford luxuries.

Modern status symbols have developed differently. They combine functionality and aesthetics. I'm not going to try and suggest when this began (some will say the printing press, others the automobile), but let it stand that a first-world, well-educated, socially mobile populace will inevitably prioritise those objects which help them to communicate, navigate, learn, produce, travel and interact - particularly those objects which do so in an elegant, eye-pleasing manner. (That's the aesthetics bit). And perhaps it is because some of these expensive and powerful technologies become barriers to social mobility that certain devices are eventually classifiable as status symbols. Until you 'get it', you're not part of the elite.

For a demonstration of the iPad's rapid advancement to powerful status symbol, you need only think of the incident at the launch of the iPad 2 in which the first person in line to buy one sold their place in the queue for $900 (or, roughly, the cost of a new iPad itself). This perfectly encapsulates the idea that it is not just possession of a device which is valued (at around $900); equally it is the relational status of owning the first one (also at a cost of $900) which matters. The social capital of iPad ownership is, for some, apparently off the chart.

"The social capital of iPad ownership is, for some, apparently off the chart"

Given the prevalence of the values I have just described to our culture, it is not necessarily surprising that we may see re-assessments of other kinds of value along the way (such as the value of our internal organs). To describe what Zheng did with his kidney using provocative terms, you could say that he sacrificed it. When we talk about the human sacrifices practised by peoples such as the Mesoamericans (specifically, for example, the Aztecs), we talk about a very specific practice in which an entire human life is given in exchange for spiritual benevolence, rewards in the afterlife and so on. The most important benefits of that kind of sacrifice are intangible, whereas Zheng's 'sacrifice' yielded very specifically tangible results. The word, 'sacrifice', in fact comes from a Latin root (sacrificus) which means to perform a "priestly function". But the modern sense of the word, which I am emphasising, is rather more metaphorical and has come to mean a transaction of some sort which is characterised by severity. (See, for example, the thesaurus entry for 'sacrifice' which lists words such as "forfeit", "suffer", "renounce" and "surrender".)

I am not going to suggest that the case of Little Zheng suggests something about contemporary materialistic values which were not present previously in human history (because I am not convinced that they weren't), but I would say that it remains worth quantifying what parts of ourselves, physical or otherwise, we are surrendering to technology and whether it is, in fact, possible to rationalise that transaction. Some of the things we forfeit (a little time, or a little money) may be justifiable. Others (a varied life, or a kidney) may not be. We have to assess each transaction as it is presented to us. We cannot rely on technology to always provoke rational responses from us - Little Zheng and others prove that. As technology becomes more and more sophisticated, the peer pressure which accompanies it will only intensify. It is fair to say, I believe, that Zheng signifies an unfortunate combination of our willingness to make self-destructive investments in technology and the social pressures which encourage that willingness. He is a reminder of our worryingly uncritical appreciation of gadgetry and the whole story hints at the possibility that, far from being destroyed by machines, our future will feature a mankind ready to destroy - or sacrifice - himself for them.

 

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