The Physical and Digital Worlds are Coalescing
Indeed, for months following that night I spent hours and hours conversing with friends and technologists about what we gain and what we lose in the iPhone future. As a technology news reporter for Wired’s website, every day I write a story about how the iPhone and the technologies it inspires are changing our world. But why stop there? What the iPhone and always-on gadgets can do today is fairly obvious; the far more fascinating question is, going forward, what does it all mean? How will this phenomenon change society and business? What will our world look like in a few years? And perhaps even more importantly, how is this revolution reshaping each of us individually?
I realized the pros are about as fascinating as the cons are disturbing. The iPhone introduced the App Store, an experience in which you can instantly download and use new apps that add to the device’s capabilities. With the tap of a download button, your iPhone can become a flute, a medical device, a high-definition radio, a guitar tuner, a police radio scanner, and 400,000 other “things.” With the iPhone and the App Store, Apple unlocked what I call the anything-anytime-anywhere future, which has far-reaching implications for everything. If we have accessible data everywhere, then the way we learn in classrooms, treat medicine, fight crime, report the news, and do business are all going to have to transform.
The application of basic civil rights is not keeping up with the rapid pace of high technology: police officers, for example, have the legal right to snatch our phones and look through all our personal information with “reasonable suspicion.”
For individuals, the iPhone is turning humans into always-on, all-knowing beings. Even without medical training, a person with an iPhone can use a first aid app to learn to treat a victim’s injuries in an urgent situation. (In fact, a near-death earthquake victim in Haiti, used a medical iPhone app to treat his wounds and, ultimately, survive.) With the same device he can use a real-time traffic monitoring app to find the quickest route to a destination. Data has become so intimately woven into our lives that it’s enhancing the way we engage with physical reality. Thus, the physical and digital worlds are coalescing to turn us into the all-knowing, always-connected beings we’ve always dreamed of being—and it took just one “phone” to push the industry in this direction.
Further, in the world of business, the benefits for consumers are fairly obvious. The iPhone changed our standards for what we expect from technology, and as a result, businesses are being forced to give us more for our money. We don’t want seven pieces of hardware to perform seven different tasks; we want a single gadget capable of doing anything-anytime-anywhere. Soon, manufacturers will no longer be able to sell single-function gadgets lacking an internet connection because those gadgets will soon be obsolete. Consequently, a large number of companies and industries find themselves threatened because a downloadable app can easily replace nearly any dedicated, single-use product.
But as ideal as it may sound to have anything-anytime-any-where, the fact that Apple—a company famously obsessed with control—is leading this revolution is particularly concerning. Apple not only controls the manufacturing of the iPhone hardware, but it also oversees everything that appears in its App Store. Apple approves, rejects, or retroactively pulls any apps it pleases. This is comparable to if Microsoft not only sold you Windows but also owned every computer and every store in which it was sold and controlled every developer that wished to sell software for the computer. This sets a troubling precedent of censorship, which can stifle innovation and fosters conformity. As technology becomes more intimately woven into our lives, the implications of this single point of control over our digital experiences are threatening creative freedom.
On top of that we must also consider what we give up as individuals in exchange for the incredible perks of anything-anytime-anywhere. Inevitably, the more we immerse our personal lives into digital media, the more privacy we give up. Businesses making apps have more information about our personal lives than ever before. Also, the application of basic civil rights is not keeping up with the rapid pace of high technology: police officers, for example, have the legal right to snatch our phones and look through all our personal information with “reasonable suspicion.”
Furthermore, after repeatedly sending text messages and e-mails in between checking Facebook and hopping on phone calls, looking in the mirror to ask ourselves, “What is the ‘i’ in iPhone?” is worthwhile; that is, how am I changing as a result of being bombarded with all this data? (I actually found myself asking this question a lot while writing this book as I was holed up in my office in front of a computer for a year.) Are we really getting stupider, like Raj suggests? The answer turns out to be much more complicated than Raj thinks.
Make no mistake: all the aforementioned implications go far above and beyond the iPhone. Everybody is copying Apple’s closed, vertical business model in hopes of replicating the iPhone’s success. Every major smartphone maker has rolled out iPhone clones and app store alternatives of their own, and their fundamentals (i.e., vertical control) are mostly the same. Apple’s influence is even seeping outside the smartphone market. TV makers are already selling web-connected televisions, including app stores, and Ford will soon ship cars with app stores too—all with the common goal of trapping consumers inside their product lines. Thanks to the iPhone, the future of business is looking shockingly vertical. Our products will enable us to do more than they ever have before, as their capabilities will be expandable with the tap of a download button. But there are consequences, such as censorship, digital conformity, and loss of freedom and privacy.
Clearly, because it’s impacting every facet of our lives, the future of anything-anytime-anywhere is unavoidable, making this a terrifyingly beautiful and exciting time to live.