This morning as I was learning how to use my new iPhone at the Mac store, I got a call from my auto mechanic informing me that it would cost $7,400 to fix the broken monitor in my Prius. This has got me thinking about the pros and cons of possessing such fancy devices. 

I finally decided to get the iPhone when Mac announced a new generation of even more clever phones, which means that all the old ones are now on sale. Better yet, I discovered, they are selling refurbished models of old iPhones, so you can get a phone that could replace at least ten other gadgets for as low as $40 at Best Buy (not including service, of course). The fact that it’s refurbished lessens my guilt about buying another electronic device, along with the conviction that this is going to help make my work more efficient. In addition to the fact that I can videotape my talks and post them to the Internet, my phone can also invite people to those talks and give me directions to them. There is also a free application that turns voice into text, something that would have saved me literally hundreds of hours had I had it while doing interviews for my first two books.

One of my iPhone obsessed friends swears that it saves her time and money. I’m thinking I might never again buy a watch, calculator or musical listening devise for the gym, so this fancy phone is feeling very “simple,” in a 21st century kind of way. The fact that my phone is refurbished reminds me of the 18th or 19th century (?) Quaker rule that women could wear fashionable clothing only after it was no longer in fashion. It also raises the question of what exactly we mean when Quakers talk about simplicity. Frugality? Rejection of popular fashion? Environmental stewardship? Or anything that helps make more space in our lives for God? (If George Fox were alive today, I suspect he’d have a weekly podcast.). My husband and I once had an argument about whether it was simpler to paint the living room ourselves (with two kids and a dog helping) or to pay someone to do it. There are legitimate arguments on both sides, depending on how you define simplicity.

Of course, I’m sobered by the fact that Mac’s continuing innovation is motivated by the desire to sell more people more stuff, even when that means they will discard the old gadgets that were groundbreaking three weeks ago. I’ve yet to see an environmental analysis of ebooks, but I’m curious whether the paper and shipping saved will outweigh the effects of all the Kindles that will end up in the landfill once everyone switches to the iPad. I don’t think there is an obvious Quaker answer here. I suspect that most of us will flounder around in the wide middle ground that lies between rejecting all new technology and showing off the latest device. I also wonder how poor people will be affected by the growing technology gap between rich and poor. There already seems to be an assumption that everyone has a computer and a cell phone, even in circles where that is not always true.

Although I grew up in a frugal working class family that never had a VCR or an answering machine, I am now privileged enough to drive a Prius, my first new car ever, which is better for the earth than a Hummer, though admittedly not as good as the bus, which we tried for six weeks and decided that it did not make our lives more simple (Just getting to my son’s piano lesson, which took ten minutes by car involved two buses, an average of 45 minutes, and bus fare for three, since my daughter usually came, too.).

I was totally enamored with the Prius until this week when I stuck a portable GPS on the monitor and scrambled all the circuits. In short, we were too frugal to buy the Prius with the GPS installed, but I later decided that a GPS would be handy after getting lost at night on the way to a book group in rural New Jersey, so I bought a cheap one at Staples. In trying to mount one electronic device on top of another, I slightly dented the $7,400 screen that controls temperature and audio on the car, so that the car fan is now permanently set at high, and you can only get WXPN if you manually search for the station. As the guy at the Mac store commented when I told him the story, you could buy a few old used cars for $7,400—or 14 iPads. Or as some members of my meeting would point out, you could feed several thousand children or give them antibiotics.  Rest assured, we will deal with keeping the fan on high and find better things to do with our money.

Despite the ultimately high cost of my Staples GPS, it was good to have this past weekend when my in-laws were visiting from Wisconsin. The device enabled them to borrow our car and navigate the city with less anxiety than they would have felt if they were trying to read directions while driving. That may be one way to judge all this technology in the end—does it increase or decrease human anxiety? I’m not sure the jury’s in yet, but when it is, I’ll be able to read the verdict on my iPhone.