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In Defence of People Who Queue for iPhones (Including Me)

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It's not difficult to make fun of somebody who queues up overnight, in the rain and the cold, for an iPhone.

Let's face it, as targets for mockery go, they're easier to hit than a whale shark in a barrel. For non-queuers they seem to represent everything that's wrong with the world: consumerism, vapid obsession and problematic personal hygiene. And when the launch itself occurs, and the maniacally cheering lines of Geniuses wave each customer inside like demented cultists on a pleasure cruise, it can be difficult to see the spectacle as anything more than fodder for a Radio 4 'Thought Of The Day'.

But before you dust off your Witty Tweet Machine ahead of the latest Apple launch, let me make the alternative case. For not only do I feel obliged, as a technology editor, to defend those hardy souls, I also have a confession:

I was once one of them.

This was long ago, of course. A distant, hazy time in the sepia-tinted past when I was a young and foolish boy.

No, wait, it was two years ago.

In my defence, I was not a technology writer or editor at the time. Instead I was a lowly minion on the HuffPost News Desk, harbouring secret tech-related obsessions and desires, of course, but as yet unable to put them into print via embarrassing, confessional blogs.

I had never made the jump into madness and joined the launch-day queue. But then came along the iPhone 4S, the model which introduced the Siri voice assistant, boosted the processor speed by half, or three times, or whatever, and it was amazing. To me it represented everything a phone could or should be. And I wanted one.

Which is why I woke up at about three in the morning, on launch day, and trudged down to the O2 store on Cheapside, London, to take my place in line.

I'd imagined that, upon my arrival, the scene would look something like a cross between Reading Festival and the IT Crowd. Instead there was just a single man, in line ahead of me, who had evidently been there since the previous night. He was huge, and had a vague, distant look in his eyes and was wearing giant headphones, plugged (naturally) into a previous generation iPhone. As I joined the queue, and took my place behind him, he looked at me, lifted his headphones and said, simply:

"Beat Ya".

Then he replaced his headphones and said nothing until the doors opened at 8am and we - along with the 50 or 60 people who had joined us, trudged inside to give somebody some money for a thing.

As I relate this tragic tale, I cannot argue that lining up for an iPhone was anything other than a long and horrible experience, in the moment. But as I reflect on it, I cannot dismiss it either. It lingers in my mind, not as something embarrassing, but as something worthwhile - and possibly significant.

For why did I join that queue? It wasn't because I wanted to be first, or just to acquire a phone for acquisition's sake. It was because I loved something. Not Apple, or iPhones, but technology; progress, advancement, a realisation of a promise that we really would, one day, live in the future. And out of fear, too - fear that I might literally die before getting the chance to ask my phone for the weather, and have it speak it back to me.

As somebody else has said, I didn't go there to die - I went there to live.

Some of the people who queue for iPhones are doing it for silly reasons: fashion, greed, or to export them around the world. Others do it for self-consciously honourable reasons - for charity, to raise awareness of homelessness.

But the vast majority are there for a more simple reason - they love something. They get enjoyment from something. And they're prepared to sacrifice a day to get it. And if you've ever got up early to buy a sought-after concert ticket, over-paid for a flight to go on holiday, or left home at 3am to drive up to Scotland to see your family on Christmas, you've done that too. They're not all equivalent, but they come from the same place in the soul.

Now, I didn't go back to the queue the next year. And even though my newly privileged position in the tech press negates the need to stand in line, I probably wouldn't do it again.

But what I took away from the queue, and from the baffled stares of the stock traders and bankers who made fun of us that day, as they strode to work at 6am after four hours sleep (ignoring the irony that they too were over-sacrificing for an ephemeral material dream), was also a lesson. A lesson in patience. Of learning to wait, and appreciate the anticipation of a thing long desired. And, yes, of broadening my awareness to the point where I didn't need to waste eight hours for a phone - though, in the end, it was not time wasted.

I still stand with the queue of the unwashed in spirit. And I will defend their right to be there.

At its core, the phenomenon of the Apple line is pure, and honest, and admirable. It is just people waiting in the rain for something that makes them happy. They are just fans, who dispense with reason to stand in line with other fans, and celebrate the thing that makes them forget that, one day, they too will die.

No, it's nothing anyone there should be too proud of - this is no political protest, or act of defiance. This is just an act of consumerism. But in a world of such terrors and heartache, can you really blame somebody who is prepared to endure ridicule for something they love - even if they love it beyond all reason?

I can't. And neither should you.

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