Excerpted from the Prologue of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future—And Locked Us In by Brian X. Chen (footnotes omitted). Available from Da Capo Press, Copyright © 2011. Reprinted with permission of the Da Capo Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
It’s Friday evening, and as usual I’m meeting some friends, John and Rana, for dinner at 6. In a text message John suggests Alborz, a Persian place I’ve never been to, located in Pac Heights, San Francisco. The clock strikes 5:45 as I step into the elevator and launch the app Magic Taxi. I tap the “Book ride” button, and the app says to expect a cab to pick me up at Wired headquarters in about three minutes. It tells me the driver’s name is “Raj S.” and the estimated cost of the fare is $12.
Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future—and Locked Us In
(Da Capo; US: Jun 2011)
While I wait on the sidewalk for Raj to arrive, I launch the Yelp app to look up the address of Alborz. “1245 Van Ness Ave (between Sutter and Hemlock).” It’s now 5:48, and I look up as a cab pulls in front of me. That really is pretty damn magical, I think to myself.
“Hey, Raj,” I say as I open the car door. He looks mildly disturbed. “Can you take me to Van Ness and Sutter please?”
“Sure thing, boss,” he says, with just a hint of an Indian accent.
My phone buzzes. Rana texts, saying she’ll be a few minutes late (typical Rana). “No worries,” I type in response.
“So where do you work?” Raj asks. “Oh, I write for Wired, the technology publication,” I chirp. “Wired!” he says. “I love Wired! So that means you get to play with a lot of cool gadgets, huh?”
“Sometimes. I mostly cover Apple, actually, so I write lots of stuff about the iPhone. It’s lots of fun—documenting how this technology is impacting us on a big-picture level.”
Raj’s tone of voice changes. “Okay—so bear with me for a second—you’re a good guy to talk to about this.”
I hit the power button on my iPhone to put it to sleep. “Uh huh?”
“So I think it’s incredible that the iPhone has changed everything, and technology has done some pretty amazing things for us. But consider this: It’s making us stupider than ever before.”
I laugh. “Go on.”
“No, really! It’s making us idiotic. We rely on all this technology to tell us where things are, what to eat. We don’t really know how to do anything on our own anymore. We’re becoming anti-social, self-absorbed. We have all these problems that we create for ourselves. Bad reception, expensive phone bills. None of it is real!” He continues, “Now consider this: the Amish are the smartest people on the planet.”
I laugh again, harder. “What?”
Raj goes on to explain that he’s currently working to become an assistant professor in social science at San Francisco State, and for years he’s studied the Amish. At the age of sixteen, Amish teenagers, he says, are given the freedom to leave their community to experience our “modern world” of sex, drugs, alcohol, and high technology. This experience is part of a tradition called “rumspringa,” in which Amish teens can decide whether they wish to be baptized into the Amish church or to abandon the Amish life for our society.
“Ninety-five percent of them go back to their Amish life,” Raj says. “You know why?”
“Well, I think it’s natural to gravitate toward what you’re used to,” I retort.
“Sure, but what they’re used to is a more wholesome lifestyle than what we have,” he says. “These people have real human skills and real knowledge because they rely so little on technology. And they have real connections, real love, and even real problems because they’re not communicating through all these digital barricades.”
The light turns green, and we reach Van Ness and Sutter. On my iPhone, after I punch in a $3 tip for Raj and press the “Pay” button, I hear my receipt printing from the cab’s machine. “Well, hey, I can’t say I agree with you for the most part—and I’d argue with you if we had more time—but what you say about what we lose is pretty intriguing. I just need to think about it some more.”
“The Amish,” Raj repeats. “Really, look into it.”
I thank Raj as I shut the car door behind me. It’s six o’clock sharp, and I greet John inside Alborz. While we wait for Rana, I order a cabernet and reiterate the conversation I had with Raj.
“That’s absurd bullshit,” he says. John, a forty-one-year-old iPhone software developer, has never been gentle with his words. “There are plenty of Amish who use cell phones, so they’re fucking hypocrites.”
I chuckle. “Clearly he’s generalizing, and if the cab ride were thirty minutes longer, the conversation would’ve been less silly. But what we lose—that other side of the coin—is certainly worth pondering on more, isn’t it?”