What is the iPhone Doing to Us?

I’m sure I’ll buy an iPhone some day.  But on that day, I’ll feel a resigned regret similar to what my grandmother must have felt when she realized the organ would never be played again in church because tacky and repetitive praise choruses were the new accepted standard. I will feel similar to the forty-something parent who is forced to learn how to text so they can communicate with their teenager.

It will be a sad day because I will be buying an iPhone only because to not have one in an iPhone-run-world would be a costly mistake. I’ll be buying it for the same reason every American dad in 1966 had to buy a color TV set—not because black and white TV sets had been insufficient, but because the industry was changing for a color-TV world. Sometimes we can’t just throw up our hands in protest and say “Hey! I’m okay with the way things are!” The wheels of industry and capitalism will move on in spite of me.

So, as most of the world celebrates the arrival of the hallowed iPhone 4—a device that “Changes everything. Again.”—I will sit back in apathy, thinking about that dreaded future day when I too will somehow be excited about video calling and “better than my eyes” image resolution.  By then, not having something in my pocket that allows me to video chat with my sister while following a basketball game on ESPN will be a debilitating calamity. It will be akin to leaving the house without a phone or going a day without wifi. And it will be the only reason why I, even I, own an iPhone.

Full disclosure: I do already have an iPad. But it’s for work! I keep trying to figure out ways to make it useful—but so far all I’ve come up with is Netflix and a mildly amusing “build your own rollercoaster” app. Whenever I go to the app store I sort of feel like I’m in IKEA with no real goal, plopping 99 cent Japanese lantern votives in my cart because I can.  There are waaaaaay too many apps out there, solving problems we never knew we had and offering diversions we never knew we wanted. I can use my phone to blow out birthday candles? I can use it to do fake bubble-wrap popping? Of course I can! With the Blower and iBubbleWrap apps—both only 99 cents!

I recently heard about a university app that allows students to check the status of their dorm laundry machines on their iPhones, so they don’t have to waste time trudging down to the basement and waiting around for the rinse cycle to end. Awesome, right? So efficient! But what if “time wasting” is actually an edifying part of life? What are college students missing when they are so efficient that they never have to kill time in the laundry room, where a passing conversation with a fellow launderer might spark a serious friendship? What conversations or interactions are missed on the subway when everyone spends their commute glued to their iPhones, tweeting or emailing or checking Facebook?  Not that any of this is in itself bad—It’s just what it replaces in our “spare time” that worries me.

With an iPhone—which contains endless amounts of “task” potential within its aluminosilicate glass frame—“spare time” is a foreign concept, because when the world is literally in your pocket, there’s always something to do. But really, these “things to do” (that they are called “tasks” or “applications” is a clever way to convince us of their utility) are mostly just distractions. The iPhone is perhaps the greatest one-stop-shop distraction-generating device of our time. When we could be sitting silently, thinking, daydreaming, or waiting for something, it beckons us from inside our pocket: “Come on! You can’t just be doing nothing right now! Boredom is not an option. There’s an app for that!”

I don’t hate iPhones. I think they are beautiful to look at and impressive evidence of the ingenuity of man. And I realize that “we don’t need it” isn’t really a valid argument against it. We don’t need a lot of things. I just wonder if the iPhone mentality—of having everything at our fingertips (information, recreation, communication, etc) instantly, conveniently, efficiently—is necessarily a good thing for humanity.

Neil Postman once said that we shouldn’t worry about technology changing human nature; We should worry about what part of our humanness technology nurtures.

Technology doesn’t make us do anything. But it can certainly fuel instincts and reinforce behavior that is already there. In the case of the iPhone, perhaps what is nurtured is our human instinct to want to escape into our individual, subjective, “this is how I want it” worlds where we can access everything and say anything, wherever and whenever we want.  But is this the sort of humanness we were created to embody? I’m not so sure.

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8 responses to “What is the iPhone Doing to Us?

  1. Or like finally signing up for Facebook, right? :)

    I’m still holding out on buying an iPod – but I know when that day comes, I will enjoy it like Christmas morning. Not yet though, not yet…

    p.s. – my email says you posted this at 5:26 am on July 1st – don’t know if you care, but you live in the future.

  2. I’m actually looking right now to downgrade from an iPhone to something with, let’s say… less “robust,” open and full internet browsing capabilities.

    I can’t handle it right now with this phone at my side, and it does worry me somewhat we now have a nation full of dudes with 24/7 unfiltered web access. I wonder what that is doing to us as well.

  3. What worries me most about the iCult culture is the assumptions is makes about the end user, namely that they are a paying consumer.

    This idea of hard- and software designed to encourage consumption rather than creation really worries me–by (literally) buying into that culture, we co-opt the label of consumer as our own, and begin to define ourselves that way, allowing the things we own to define our identities.

  4. so you are giving into american materialism because everyone else has one. at what price, brett, does being hip constitute selling our souls to have the latest and greatest electronics to keep up with the jones’s/the rest of the american population? i thought jesus set us free from our cultural sin of materialism? yet within your post, it sounds as though you are subscribing to it, to fit into the american cultural norm.

  5. (Full disclosure – I’m an Android user and really enjoy the benefits of my phone…)

    I think that you’re pointing towards something vitally important here, Brett, and I think it’s something that Neil Postman addressed quite brilliantly in a speech back in the late ’90s. You can find the text of the speech here:
    http://www.mat.upm.es/~jcm/neil-postman–five-things.html

    It’s long, but worth reading and worth thinking about.

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  7. Good thoughts, an issue I’m sure wondering about.

    I’ve had an iphone for a while, but I’ve been toying with the notion of going back to ‘just a phone’. I think I’m missing a lot of the free time you talk about, playing games or endlessly checking twitter, time that could be redeemed. But I also feel like I’m unable to do anything like switching back without drawing attention to it, and then making it a ‘look at me’ thing. If the goal is to be less self-focused, does bringing attention to one’s self defeat that? What’s the difference between being different from culture and just trying to be different for difference’s sake?

    That’s probably an over-complication. More likely, technology is just there, and how we deal with it means more than whether or not we use it. Like you say-fueling instincts and reinforcing behavior.

    I sure find it easier, though, to blame the object instead of the subject.

    Perhaps that’s what spiritual discipline is all about-removing objects (and therefore excuses) to reveal the subject.

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