I wonder: Has the iPhone made the world a better place, or a worse one?
Always a popular subject and more in vogue this month now that the iPhone has turned 10. (Any anniversary that’s a multiple of five is red meat to pundits caught in the dog days of summer.) And so Timothy Egan and David Brooks both have nice columns on the subject in the New York Times.
Both regard smartphones in general as a mixed blessing at best. Tim Egan compares it to the printing press, if the printing press had only been used to disseminate total bullshit (hashtag #thatfuckingtrump). Brooks says the iPhone has made it too easy to cancel engagements, or bail on commitments of any kind. He wonders if that doesn’t dissolve the social glue that keeps us civilized.
Both are valid points. When you have a device that “does everything,” “everything” presumably includes the bad as well as the good. Personally, I like the maps, the reviews, and being able to reliably coordinate an airport pickup. The rest of it I could probably do without. And yet it’s hard to describe the anxiety and sense of loss I feel when I’ve misplaced the damned thing. Hate to admit it, but sometimes it seems to own me more than I own it.
So that’s one bad thing. Another: Every time you get a call from someone and you don’t feel like talking, the caller knows if you simply decide not to answer. They know you’re lying when you say you were away from the phone, because it’s 2017 and nobody is ever away from the phone. Who knows how many relationships I’ve harmed by letting calls go to voicemail. I’m just not a phone guy.
Another thing I’ve grown to hate is the great camera these things have. Not the camera itself; that’s pretty amazing. But it’s so easy and ubiquitous that it encourages people to mindlessly record everything in sight.
That time we toured the palace at Versailles: the only memory I have of it now is the forest of smartphones and selfie sticks held aloft all around me. Same at the Louvre, the permanent scrum of people jostling to get blurry shots of the most famous pieces. No one wants to see the piece so much as prove they’ve seen it. It’s like: You ain’t viewed the Mona Lisa until you’ve viewed it on Instagram, partially obscured by someone else’s phone.
Think of all the stupid, destructive things people have done in the last decade, mostly because they had a camera phone to record it and thus earn the fleeting fame afforded by Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat. Smartphones have created a whole new class of criminal: performance asshole. On the flip side, I guess they’ve also brought justice to a few jackasses — exposing all sorts racist rants and bad behavior for our viewing enjoyment.
I used to think the worst thing you could do with an iPhone was photograph your restaurant meal. The good news is that fewer people seem to be photographing their restaurant meals. Instead we’re ignoring each other to keep up with Twitter, or any of a thousand other apps that insist on keeping in touch every 12 seconds or so.
I’m as bad as anybody. Sometimes the wife and I will sit in the living room, or in a restaurant, not saying a word, just studying our small screens and caressing them with our index fingers. In a public place, you look around and everybody else is doing it too. They’re all bent over that screen, attentive to some answer that is never quite revealed.
Seems like there’s something wrong with that, something vaguely dystopian. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s no different than reading a magazine, leafing through a photo album. I guess it doesn’t matter. We may be getting dumber, but the phones keep getting smarter. After 10 years, I don’t think we can call this a fad.