“The iPhone is hundreds of thousands of things and counting,” claims Brian X. Chen in the opening chapter of his new book, Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future—and Locked Us In. The same might be said for Chen’s book, which sets out to describe what might be dubbed The Way Things Are. To do that, he needs to discuss technology, literacy, business development, health, and more. Like the iPhone, which Apple introduced as a three-in-one product and turned out to have over 200,000 functions, the implications of an “always on” society are unimaginably numerous.
If Chen’s writing turned out to be a bit scattered or ADD, it would be almost fitting for the topic he’s covering. But despite the information overload, his prose is sharp. The irony of his medium isn’t lost on him; he’s writing an old-fashioned print book about the device that’s catalyzing the demise of its format. Still, he manages to write at a pace fast enough for the Internet-addicted masses while packing in chunks of valid, valuable information.
Taken as a whole, the book reads rather like an article on a website where one has the option to click on “related” stories. For example, Chen extends beyond the consumer perspective to cover the history of Apple, from the days of its early computers to its current mobile wars with Microsoft and Google. It’s not exactly clear why this section is essential, but like the rest of the chapters in Always On, it reveals how intertwined we are with mobile culture.
It also proves that former tech giants like Microsoft suffered when they couldn’t keep up in the smartphone sphere. At the same time, current tech giants like Google have realized that if they don’t jump in on the smartphone band wagon, they’ll lose their relevance. In other words, the smartphone is where it’s at, and things aren’t likely to change (well, much) anytime soon.
Given that, Chen sets out to investigate every way that smartphones and technology impact our world, whether it’s an earthquake victim saving himself with his first aid app or a Korean couple starving their baby to death because they couldn’t tear themselves away from a video game. He explores how hackers will suffer if computers give way to iPads, since they are far more difficult to crack. He presents studies on the effects of multi-tasking on our brains. Throughout it all, Chen remains stunningly optimistic, an attitude that might evoke suspicion of his motives, if his presentation of data and information wasn’t so spot on.
We get all the information; despite the sense that Chen is leaning one way, we never feel deceived. For example, when he writes about multitasking and how it generally hinders productivity, he notes that some studies have found that are a very small number of “supertaskers” who thrive while multitasking. Given that these people appear to represent only 2.5 percent of the population, it doesn’t seem like a great argument in support of multitasking. But it’s there, and Chen is fair about including all data.
He refuses to surrender to the generally accepted theory that technology comes at a cost to our brains. If you’re still not convinced by some of the counter arguments he provides, he includes a study that proves (at the very least) that the brain is elastic. Even if Google is making us stupid, we could regain our smarts by simply powering down.
Of course, that is not what Chen is recommending. He does a remarkable job of weaving together a missive of facts about mobile technology and his own clear passion for being “always on”. In one chapter, he writes unabashedly about his own addiction to email, instant messaging, and social networking, describing how, when he tried to give these things up for the sake of a girl he liked, he eventually realized that by unplugging, he was pretending to be someone he was not.
At first read, the chapter seems like an odd, anecdotal addition. In a book filled with hard numbers, clearly presented data, and largely objective arguments on subjects ranging from augmented reality to privacy, this story fills a bit flippant, and almost like an over-share. In reality, it’s powerful evidence that this lifestyle actually works.
If Chen’s book is representative of his brain power, clearly his smartphone hasn’t done him any damage. He’s brave enough to take a side and share the truth of his own existence, and knowledgeable enough to get the rest of the world up to speed, whether they’re using the iPhone 4 or dial-up.