I remember lamenting 10 years ago that I couldn’t afford this brand new iPhone thing (“it’s a phone but also an iPod and camera and it has the internet on it!”). Now, 10 years later, we all have one or something made in its image. But are we better or worse off because of the iPhone?
From a tech angle, there’s no doubt the iPhone got it right at the right time and changed the world. Among the best reactions to the iPhone’s 10 year anniversary that I saw yesterday were Jason Snell, who wrote about the greatness of the original iPhone for Macworld; Jessie Char, who shared a FAQ she wrote up as an Apple Store employee on iPhone launch day in 2007; and John Gruber, who said “few products in the history of the world compare; we may never see anything like it again”, labeling the iPhone a “perfect ten” over 10 years.
But there’s also a cultural question: what effect has all this pervasive technology had on us as humans and communities? That’s what I’ll explore here.
Response and response
I asked friends to respond to the central question—”are we better or worse off because of the iPhone?”—and I got some great, thought-provoking answers that centered around three themes: the power it gives us to connect, share life, and unite together; the convenience it affords us to go anywhere at any time; and the knowledge it provides us, which we no longer have to retain ourselves.
Elly chose “better” because of the way the iPhone empowers us and society:
I know a lot of people are gonna want to say worse because social media. But damn it, these things are handy and make quality of life so much better. Google is amazing. It can answer any question you have in under a minute if you know how to properly search. Photo sharing sites like Instagram are amazing places either to be your most creative, or just document the highlights of your life. I get to watch my baby cousins or nephews grow up, and I’m not missing out just because we live far away. I can carry half a library of books or music in my phone.
People love to say that phones disconnect us from people because we have the tendency to be more involved with it than those around us. And I agree with that; I’m guilty of it myself. But think of how having mobile internet has brought us together for better. I mean, Black Lives Matter is a perfect example. They bring so much awareness to the world via things like Facebook and Twitter. Protests and marches are organized almost entirely online, and I think it’s safe to assume phones make that easier. Yeah it’s not perfect, but no other method of communicating ever has been.
I think Elly did a fantastic job making the argument that despite all the problems with social media, 10 years of the iPhone means we’re ultimately connected to each other and the world more. I often think about what it would be like to have more of those unknowns in life like we used to, and sometimes the imaginary thought of giving this up and going back seems appealing—but I think it’s telling that I know even if I were given the option, I would never really trade it away.
Kayla sided with “better” because of the convenience we enjoy, with a caveat:
When driving in Death Valley, we had the spottiest cell phone service imaginable. Google Maps was just shaking its head and laughing. We knew it would be like that (because we looked it up when we still had service), so we took paper maps. And we survived! It was a fun adventure—actually reading and interpreting a map, and using a bit of intuition. And yet, we had so many questions along the way, and Google wasn’t available. It. Was. Annoying.
That’s just a tiny example, but bottom line: I’m so glad we have this technology. When it works, it’s amazing. I never want to go back. But at the same time, I’m glad it’s still feasible to abandon it all for a short amount of time!
Kayla nailed it, and she reminded me of when I was getting my phone repaired recently and it spent the night at a store. For me, driving around at first without it felt almost scary or wrong, until I reminded myself that people used to do this all the time. But even though I haven’t had an iPhone the whole time I’ve been driving, I’ve at least had some sort of cell phone that I could use if I had to. It was so weird to be off the grid entirely. I felt transported back to the ’90s for a night—making concrete plans to meet at a specific place/time is much more important when you don’t have a way to say “hey where are you?”. On the other hand, these devices also enable people to be flaky now and cancel plans altogether at the last minute. So, pros and cons. But I’m with her, despite that, I wouldn’t want to go back.
Tina flipped the script and went with “worse” due to the work it does for us:
We’ve gained a lot and also lost a lot too. I was blessed with many friends that know how to put down the phone and have a good time. A wonderful time! You pick up the phone and send a group text and 30 minutes later you are with your friends. There are unfortunately a great amount of people that get together to be near one another and are still so disconnected. They sit with their phones in front of their face, and that’s not something I would want to happen. Use your phones to contact one another, and then put down your phones and be a part of each other. Listen, interact, respond.
Now I’m not gonna lie here, I frickin’ love my iPhone and there are so many things that as a human race we can do with this kind of technology, and it’s more than okay to want it. Like, I’m so incredibly directionally challenged. I would get so damn lost if I didn’t have maps on my phone. And so much information is accessible with it. Siri makes it easy for you to be hands off when you’re driving, which makes it safer. But I also know that way back in the day, we had the real MapQuest: either you had the slow-ass dial-up and had to print out directions, or you had to go even further back in life and go get a map from the corner store and map that shit on your own. But when we did that, it made you more knowledgeable about your city. If someone from out of town came, you would be more than willing to give them directions, which made your city itself more personable. You had to talk to find where to be. Now it doesn’t matter. It’s on your phone.
It’s made us smart, but yet it has not. It gives us knowledge to look up, not knowledge that we had to learn. I know 2+2 is 4, not because I looked it up on my phone, but because I was taught. I was given examples. I was given the tools to figure things out by myself. I still feel like the iPhone is a good way to learn, but there are people now who are not given the same opportunity as I was to really know things. So, in conclusion… worse.
Props to Tina for bucking the trend and reaching the other conclusion. It’s such a great point that we, as individuals, don’t really have to know anything anymore if we have all the world’s information at our fingertips and can look it up anytime. I remember kids in school making that argument about calculators—”if we can just punch in the numbers and it tells us the answer, why do we have to learn how to do it by hand?”—except now it’s like that with everything you could ever learn about any topic you could ever imagine! So while these devices enable us to do so much more, we’re not forced to retain any of the knowledge we discover. While we can more easily connect with the people we want to, we don’t spend as much time talking to other humans we don’t know. It’s fascinating to think about.
The big picture
It’s impossible to say that we’re entirely better or worse off thanks to the iPhone, because of course the answer is complicated and a combination of both. There’s an argument to be made that we would have a different president if he hadn’t felt enabled by the iPhone, the internet, and Twitter to spout off vile thoughts and amass a cult of followers. But on the other hand, countless people have used the same technology to find a platform and do good for the world that they couldn’t otherwise. As Aparna Nancherla pointed out today, the best and worst part of the internet is that everyone has a voice.
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) June 29, 2017
Where would we be without the iPhone? The internet no longer feels like a place that you deliberately go to on a computer; now it’s with us at all times, which means all of us are with the whole world at all times. That’s mostly a great thing. It’s also sort of not. The rest of our lives will be defined by it.
Despite all the implications, I suspect you’d have the same answer I would if I told you someone is coming to take it all away: Hell no. Don’t touch my phone.