Are Our iPhones Making Us Feel More Entitled?

I wonder if this makes sense to anyone else.

When I say that iPhones make us feel entitled, I don’t mean that we feel entitled to more and more consumer or electronic goods.  I speak instead of the soft entitlement of convenience.

Let me give a story to illustrate a more obvious expression of this kind of entitlement.  When I was department chair, I received a call from a student who wanted permission to get into one of two world history classes that were closed.   One of the classes was an honors course.  The other was in a program we call the “Learning Cluster,” in which students take three courses together, with world history as one of the courses.  She was neither in the honors program nor in the Cluster program, so I told her I could not let her into those classes.

She countered by saying that because she needed this world history class to graduate and no other section worked, I had to let her in.  We had three other world history options, so I asked her why those did not work.  One conflicted with another required class, she explained.  Fine.  The other two?  They didn’t work out well with her personal schedule for various reasons.  After some discussion, in which I did not budge, she told me I had to let her into one of the world history classes she wanted because she had no choice in this matter.  I told her that the other two sections that did not fit well with her personal schedule may not be ideal options, but they were options.  She did have a choice, even if it wasn’t the best choice imaginable.

She was mad.  “And I thought Malone was a Christian college!” she declared.

And thus endeth the conversation.

Now, at the time, I just chalked this up to a student who had an abnormally healthy sense of entitlement.  I rarely run into students who are either this insistent or this critical of the theological character of our fair college.  But she does illustrate a larger pattern.

It seems to my colleagues and me that students will ask for things related to convenience, which students did not ask for ten years ago.  They sometimes expect matters to be arranged in ways that would never have crossed our minds when people of my (old) generation were in college.  They are deeply shaped by convenience and they expect it.

Now, I should say I love my students.  They are wonderful in many ways.  They are usually very polite and nice, often to a fault.  The soft entitlement of convenience is not some character flaw particular that they chose, but rather as something new in the wider culture.

  •  For instance, students will often ask us to teach independent study courses for them, apparently unaware that independent study classes require extra time and preparation by the professor.  (Many of these are legitimate requests because of scheduling conflicts, I should point out, but some are just made because the student thinks it sounds good).
  • On my student evaluations for an 8 a.m. class, I had several students say that they thought I should move the class to later in the day.  I’ve always had students say that they didn’t like 8 a.m. classes (and we didn’t like them in 1981, either) but I have never had students actually suggest that I can and should do something about this.  (They don’t realize that limited classroom space and conflicting schedules make it impossible for all classes to be held at the ideal times of 11, 12 and 1).
  • A student who was unhappy about his C+ grade came in to see a colleague of mine to ask why it was not higher.  One of the complaints the student had was that the instructions were not clear enough.   When my colleague pointed out the instructions in the syllabus, the student replied that this was not his fault because the instructions should have been in boldface type in order for him to see them.
  •  My wife, who teaches high school history, had a student skip her final exam, then appear in her class at the end of the day to take the exam during the “make-up” time slot that had been set aside by the high school (for students who had been sick or absent earlier in finals week).  When asked why she didn’t come to the morning exam, the student said that the make-up slot was available, so she didn’t see why she couldn’t take the exam at the later time.  I asked Elisa if this was just a really bad excuse, but Elisa (who knows her students well and is a pretty good judge of character) said that this student was quite sincere.   Seemingly, this student thought it was totally appropriate to sleep in, or study more, or go to the pancake house, or whatever, because that “make-up” time was there on the schedule.
  • I had a student contact me one week after the semester was over, and ask if there was any extra thing he could do to raise his grade, now that he saw what he received on his final grade report.

I could go on.

Does anyone else see this trend?  And if so, what is causing it?

My first thought was that this is just the latest evolution of consumerism.  We are socialized to be consumers from the moment we watch our first TV program and we expect to be able to get what we want.

This problem is related to consumerism, but I did not find this explanation totally satisfying.  After all, consumerism has been fairly widespread in America at least since the 1920s and became especially pervasive in the 1950s.  We have all been shaped deeply by it, regardless of our age.  So, I wondered, why has this soft entitlement of convenience seemingly appeared in the last five years or so?  What is new or different in society?


(Disclaimer: I’m told that iPhones are wonderful things.  I believe this.  I don’t actually own an iPhone and have never used one.  I’m not, however, anti-Apple or anti-technology.  I am writing a blog, here, after all).

Here’s my theory.  In order for a new set of social attitudes to appear, they have to result from more than just an idea or a new way of thinking.  Patterns and habits formed by repeated actions play a powerful role in forming new attitudes.  On the other hand, if you do not participate in a particular pattern on a regular basis, it won’t shape you very deeply.

For instance, twenty years ago when I was in Kenya, a dentist friend of mine explained that it was hard for his African office workers to alphabetize files.  It is not that they were stupid.  They knew the alphabet and were literate.  But they lived in a culture where they only rarely encountered things that were alphabetized.  Americans, meanwhile, are used to thinking alphabetically when we check an index, glance at our phone list, scan a list of people, open our computer files, or browse shows on the cable TV guide.  We’ve been alphabetizing almost daily since the second grade so it becomes second nature to us.  Twenty years ago, these Kenyans rarely, if ever, did any of these tasks.

So how do iPhones affect patterns of behaviors?

Think about the many functions and apps on iPhones and similar devices.  I’m at the grocery store and I don’t know if I need eggs, so I call home.  We’re going to the movies with the gang and my friend is late, so I text her to see what the deal is.  I am in a new neighborhood and want to eat at Panera so I do a Google search on my phone to find the nearest one.  There is a detour on my road, but Google maps is right there on my phone to tell me where to go.  My coffee maker broke and I need a new one, but I don’t have time during the day to run to Target, so I buy it online with my iPhone and the coffee maker is delivered to my door by the end of the day.  I’m at a Bible study late Sunday afternoon while my favorite NFL team is competing in the playoffs, so I (discreetly) get updated scores from my phone.  I want to go to a restaurant on Saturday night when they are all very busy, so I check my app that tells me which spots in the neighborhood have a free table available now. I drive by the gas company and suddenly realize my utilities bill was due today, so I make the payment electronically at the next red light.  I am writing a blog about iPhones, but I don’t own an iPhone and in fact I have never used an iPhone and I don’t want to sound totally stupid about iPhones so I Google “most popular apps” to get material for my blog about iPhones.

I could, of course, go on.

The point is that iPhones encourage users to try to make life more convenient on a nearly constant, minute-by-minute basis.

Each one of the examples above represents a minor problem that pops up in life.  In 2000, each of these problems could be addressed, but they would have taken some time, some patience, some work, and even then they might not have been resolved successfully.  They were inconvenient.  In 2013, with an iPhone in hand, a person can fix each problem in an instant.  How convenient!

And if a person used their iPhone over and over and over again, dozens or hundreds of times a day, for days and months and years, wouldn’t this person unconsciously start to engage the world in a particular sort of way?  Wouldn’t these habits, like alphabetizing, become second nature?  And if a person were in the habit of constantly manipulating their engagement with the world electronically to make their life more convenient, wouldn’t that person almost instinctively expect to be able to arrange most or all things for convenience?  Like class schedules?

But those stubborn, small-minded department chairs stand in the way of the world history class that fits so well with a person’s schedule!   Obviously this “Christian college” app isn’t performing the way it should.