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Two Ways Of Seeing An iPhone Christmas

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Apple recently released a Christmas ad it calls "Misunderstood."

In it, a kid — maybe 14 or so? — spends Christmas with his family. He seems to be always looking at his phone when everybody else is decorating the tree, making a snowman, skating, or whatever else they're doing. He smiles, but he sets himself apart.

At the end, he reveals that he's been using his phone to make a video diary of their Christmas together. He was watching the whole time, not disconnected but documenting.

I first saw this commercial linked on Twitter by Maria Popova, who runs Brain Pickings, a site that gathers interesting things from the Internet. (That sounds like a small thing; she does it better than most.) Her take on it was this: "Hmm. This Apple holiday ad is such a metaphor for our culture — tells us it's better to record the moment than live it."

I then saw it posted to Facebook by one of my friends (who has kids) who loved it and said it touched her deeply, and others agreed.

It's true that the story can be (fairly, I think) read as a message from Apple that validates the idea of introducing your phone into absolutely everything you do, tells people not to worry about hanging back from the tree-trimming in favor of fiddling with their phones, and makes a hero out of the kid who drives his parents nuts by sitting off to the side in an electronics bubble. I think that's the way Popova read it, although even then, I don't think it says it's "better" to record it; it just says it's OK to record it.

But the other way to look at it is a little more charitable (to the kid, not to Apple, which, let's get serious, has no message except "buy more cool phones"). The part I suspect touches those who like this particular little vignette is that everybody knows — or perhaps has been — that embarrassed, activity-shunning teenager who loves the grandparents and the family but feels awkward with hugging. Who feels too old to make a snowman straightforwardly and too young to make one nostalgically.

By the kindest interpretation, it's a little story about how kids love you and don't tell you, how they're sulking but listening to everything, and how now and then they will surprise you by revealing that what appears to be antisocial lack of engagement is just a more internalized, complicated settling into the idea of family after you're too big to sit in laps.

The thing is, when I was a teenager, it wasn't phones, it was the Walkman. (My parents called the wearing of headphones "having your ears on.") But the idea was the same: There was tremendous public fretting that we weren't paying attention, and we were. Not being into trimming trees for a few years, not being into making a snowman, it doesn't necessarily mean you don't care about your family or you're being lost to a world of alienated isolation.

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