How the iPhone changed literally everything

The iPhone was released 10 years ago this week (in case you weren’t feeling old already).  It’s kind of crazy to think back about what the world was like before smartphones but it was really only 10 years ago.  You know, back when the world was a dark and barren wasteland and we had to actually talk to one another.

Entrepreneurs talk all the time about disruption and innovation.  The theory of an efficient market would dictate that new products come through from time to time which not only disrupt and existing industry but end up creating a new one.  That’s exactly what the iPhone did.  Heck, the iPhone even created new language.  Ten years ago, almost nobody was an “app developer” and now they’re seemingly everywhere.

In my In-Flight Reading series I talked about a book called Sapiens.  It’s a history of the homo sapiens species and is an excellent and challenging read.  One of the most incredible points the author makes is during discussion on the Agricultural Revolution, where humans supposedly domesticated wheat.  Yuval Harari makes the opposite point.  Wheat required lots of care and protection, meaning humans had to settle down and stay in the same place.  Since they were in the same place, they had to build more permanent and lasting shelter.  Since plants needed to be watered, those shelters needed to be relatively close to a water source.  Since plants had value, they had to be protected from animals and other humans.  In other words, it’s not a stretch to say that wheat domesticated us.

In that same fashion, the iPhone disrupted and innovated in a way we haven’t seen since Gutenberg.  But the iPhone trained and domesticated us.  We outsource key components of our humanity to our phones now and the iPhone was the first device to bring that sort of disruption to our lives.

Don’t believe me that the iPhone domesticated us?  Let’s look at some examples.

We don’t remember directions anymore

When I was younger, going somewhere new meant you had to prepare.  You had to think about things like driving directions, think about how far away a place was, and look at these crazy old things called maps.  Today we have to do none of that.  Directions for us are a “click” (skipping that clicking on things is a concept that is going away) away.  Not only that but with apps like Waze we don’t even need to plan for traffic anymore.  We can type in where we need to go and the app will tell us what time we’ll arrive and what route to take based on current and historical traffic trends along that route.  Heck you can even tell it what time you need to arrive and it will back into what time you should leave.

Ten years ago we didn’t have that concept.  We either had road maps or big binders called Key Maps (if any of you were delivery drivers back in the day you’ll know Key Maps) so we could figure out where to go.  As Kevin Nealon pointed out in his legendary SNL skit, this was sometimes a bit confusing.  Sometimes we had to pull over at a gas station and ask for directions, it was a ruthlessly analog process.

In ten years we’ve gone from jokes about men never wanting to ask for directions to having a computer tell us what time to leave for a place based on data assembled from hundreds of thousands of other people in real-time.

We don’t remember phone numbers anymore

This was happening way before smart phones, sure, but the iPhone really amped things up with its ability to store hundreds (or even thousands) of contacts.  As a result, there’s now no longer a need to remember someone’s number.  I can remember the phone number we had when I was a young kid in Houston, Texas, and I can remember the numbers we had growing up in Waco, Texas, but that’s because if you didn’t remember someone’s number you simply didn’t talk to them until you got to a phone directory.  Nowadays I remember my mom’s cell number, the main line to my office (I purposefully don’t remember my direct line…), my uncle’s number in Houston, and that’s honestly about it.  Embarrassingly I don’t even remember my brother’s cell number and he means the world to me!

We document (and share) everything

The photo-sharing website Flickr shares some stats every year from its millions of users and pretty much from day one the most-used camera was the iPhone.  Heck, I said the same about the iPhone a while back.

Having a camera in our pocket/purse is a great thing, and it’s helped so many of us capture moments we would’ve otherwise “missed”.  I put the quotations around “missed” because we wouldn’t have really missed that moment, we just wouldn’t have a photo to make remembering that moment easier.  We suck at remembering things, as I ranted about a month or so ago.  Taking pictures of every possible moment is good and bad.  Sometimes it’s ok to not take a picture of every moment (yes I realize the hypocrisy of me saying that and having posted almost 4000 images on this blog).  Sometimes the sweetness of a moment is because it’s just you and someone special, or you at a special place.

Along this line, we share everything with our social networks.  I do it too, and it isn’t necessarily bad, but it takes the excitement out of storytelling.  Bear with me.  I have a good buddy I haven’t seen in years who I’m meeting for a beer soon.  Because of Facebook I know about his wife and son and how their trip to Colorado was recently.  But how cool would it have been to hear about that from him instead?  I mean obviously we’ll still talk about stuff like that as we catch up but we’ve lost some of the excitement of discovery I guess.  It’s not better or worse, just different.

We communicate differently than ever before

Back in college (waaay back when Pluto was a planet) I learned the distinction between low-context and high-context forms of communication.  Talking to someone face-to-face was high-context, since you have nonverbal cues like the tone of their voice and their facial expressions.  Texting or instant messenging were low-context, since you only had the words they used to go on.

The iPhone has gradually changed that.  A buddy of mine told me recently about a fight he got into with his wife because “his texts sounded different than usual”.  We have things like emojis now, which are basically what hieroglyphics were for the Egyptians, that convey meaning and can even completely tell a story through nothing but pictures.  What used to be low-context is now being accepted culturally as having a lot more context.  The first couple of texts a guy sends a girl he’s interested in, for example, are as thoroughly analyzed as the first couple of things he said to her a decade ago.  Our written text now has non-verbals.  This is great and all but it’s replaced face-to-face communication for many of us.  We now connect through machines instead.

The biggest change: living vicariously through others has never been easier

This is what I call the “if onlys”, which I know looks grammatically horrid.  And I need to tread carefully here, since this is something I hear a lot from people.  “We live vicariously through you and your travels!”  I always have mixed reactions to this, because truth be told I’d rather be married with a couple of kids at this point in my life.  So really I’m living vicariously through friends who have that life as well.

It’s easy to get stuck living vicariously through others especially because there are so many reminders about their life that we can put in front of ourselves.  If you like someone’s pictures on Facebook, it’s no surprise you’ll start seeing almost everything they post, because you’ve given them signs that you’ll interact with that person’s content.  There is research out there that says that daydreaming about the “if onlys” can be incredibly detrimental to our mental state.  “If only I could travel like Andy, then I’d be happy” or, in my case, “if only I were married and had a couple of little ones to yell at and have them bring me food” are examples of what I mean.  It’s ok to enjoy what people are up to, it just can’t be the only thing you do.  The iPhone changed this for us because you now have multi-billion dollar companies trying to get you to focus on exactly that.  I get it, it doesn’t really sound that different from marketing, but we’ve given those companies access to more information about our preferences and our habits than ever before.

Wait, so is this all bad?  Why are you lamenting the loss of the analog world?

It isn’t all bad, not in the least.  Looking back through human history, there are a few enormous moments which changed the course of history: controlled fire, the wheel, wheat domestication of humans, the birth and death of Jesus Christ (depending on your beliefs about Jesus Christ), the Gutenberg printing press, and the foundation of Texas A&M University.  I believe the introduction of the iPhone is as significant as the rest, if not moreso.

The iPhone has changed our humanity.  The other things I mentioned aided things and revolutionized the lives that were possible for extant humans, but the iPhone brought forth a change that has actually rewired our brains.  We now perceive pleasure and pain differently.  We now talk to devices like we talk to humans (“Hey Siri…”) and they respond more humanly than ever before.

People talk about “computers taking over the world” in movies like the Terminator series, but I think the reality is it’s already happened and took place in our hands, pockets, and purses.  Much like the claims of Yuval Harari in Sapiens about the Agricultural Revolution, I think we’re seeing the second time in recorded history where humans have been domesticated.  Our phones have trained us.

I know this is a travel blog and this post doesn’t really touch on travel that much, but I think it’s important to look at the world around us as we travel through it, and the world changed ten years ago and in such a bigger way than any of us probably imagined at the time.  It’s also important to remember that any part of ourselves that we don’t use will atrophy.  Now is the perfect time to challenge each other to focus on things like face-to-face communication, phone calls, or even writing letters to each other once again.  There are certain benefits to the analog world just like there are benefits of the digital world.  Let’s make sure we’re taking the best of both worlds.

3 Comments

  1. Great post – looking at my iPhone in a whole different light now 🙂

    Reply
  2. Wrong on so many levels.
    1. Human settled down, to get better life in a protected/sheltered area with source of water. Then comes food source which domisticated, evolved from hunting and foraging. Its not the other way around.
    2. Saving phone number along with contact credentials and details goes a long way before iphone, nokia, ericsson, motorolla, etc did it before iphone.
    3. You can access internet and world wide web on nokia’s symbian, long before iphone existed. Prior to that, you can send and receive fax in nokia communicator. Nokia have phones dedicated on making video, while ericsson have submersible phone.
    4. Emoji goes back to era of yahoo! Messenger, even mIrc. It appeared on iphone since there’s messaging apps using emojis like line, whatsapp, etc.
    5. “…given those companies access to more information about our preferences and our habits than ever before.” I’m not sure you are writing about iphone or google here.

    Just because your reading materials interest you, doesn’t mean its right. Get your fact straight, Andy.

    Reply
    • I agree, Andy. Get that fact right. The concept behind this blog entry has no value without that fact.

      Reply

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