Here in Chicago – at the Fullerton stop, actually, only a few blocks away from my place – a woman fell down a set of stairs to her death. The really terrible part about it was that she was pushed by a total stranger who seems to have done it all just so he could take her iPhone.
It's a terrible story. But what fascinates me about the reporting that surrounds it, though, is that the woman's death and the iPhone are, in the minds of a lot of folks telling this story, inseparable.
Hence the bucketloads of editorials and blog posts online about the dangers of our reliance on smartphones. Hence the many news vans that were parked outside of the stop today when a sketch of the primary subject was released. And, perhaps most tellingly, hence the gigantic front page quote on a local major newspaper: "It's senseless to kill someone over an iPhone."
Few would deny that this is tragic. But this sort of thing happens a lot in big cities. Someone takes another person's life in order to get something they have that, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty meaningless. It's a very old story – and we human beings definitely have a thing for old stories. (Here's to you, Joseph Campbell. I hope you're proud that there's a damn good chance that your scholarship had something to do with the creation of the film Gnomeo and Juliet.)
But the oldness of a story alone doesn't necessarily make it front-page worthy. Based on the press's fascination with the iPhone itself – it seems to be mentioned by name in every story, a treatment that few gadgets are culturally worthy of – I doubt that this story would have been as big of a deal if the perpetrator stole, say, a purse instead.
So why the fascination? Well, it could have a thing to do with that whole "old story/modern twist" thing. But I think it might be the result of a bit of self-reflexivity on the part of our culture. Maybe this is us taking a guilty step back and going, "Hey, maybe I spend too much time caring about this thing" – even though it doesn't seem that the victim of this crime was subject to technolust.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this would still be a big deal if the coveted item was a wallet or purse. I really have no idea. I'm just weirded out and fascinated by the press calling out the iPhone by name. Somehow that makes the story seem more about the phone than the woman. And that freaks me out a bit.
Two disclaimers before I go.
1.) When I say "big deal," I'm not talking about this event in the big ol' wide perspective of things. Instead, I'm talking about its newsworthiness. Thanks to the internet, social networking and front-page articles, that seems a little more quantifiable than the prior.
2.) By no means do I intend to cheapen this woman's death by means of my analysis. I'm painfully aware as I write this that this whole post could come off as being kind of shallow. I guess all I can do about that is cringe along with you and apologize.
This is how my mind works. When I'm at a funeral, I spend too much time thinking about the mechanics and social functions of a funeral rather than just being in the moment alongside the bereaved. And when I see a story like this, I spend too much time thinking about what it says about the press and how it relates to our culture rather than the fact that a woman is now dead because someone else wanted a phone.
Make of that bit of self-psychoanalysis what you will. I'll sure as hell will be doing some thinking about why my mind happens to work like that.