Christine Emba edits The Post’s In Theory blog.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the iPhone’s debut, the start of a societal revolution that no one quite expected and a chance, perhaps, to reflect on the impact of the revolutionary technologies to come.
The device was first presented at the January 2007 Macworld conference by the late Steve Jobs, who described it as a “revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough Internet communications device.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Smartphones were already on the scene — email-capable BlackBerrys had emerged around 2003 — but the iPhone’s consumer focus brought into the ordinary American’s everyday life a level of connectivity previously expected only of high-level corporate executives.
Since Jobs’s announcement and the iPhone’s subsequent release a few months later, its rapid takeover of our everyday lives has been nothing short of astonishing. Roughly three-quarters of Americans now own a smartphone. We rely on these devices to navigate almost every aspect of our lives.
It’s probably too late to peel ourselves away from our screens: Who, after all, wants to give up instantaneous contact, the Internet at our fingertips, a GPS in every pocket and self-portraits on demand? But it might be the right moment to pause, recognize just how quickly and thoroughly smartphones upended our ways of being, and consider whether a more intentional approach might be merited when the next “revolutionary” tool arrives.
After all, while we could have anticipated that the iPhone would transform our ability to communicate, we didn’t consider its implications for our workforce and society at large. Smartphone-enabled technologies such as Uber have flattened industries and helped usher in a precarious new “gig economy” in which rates, hours and employment altogether are contingent on the whims of others. Constant connectivity has made leaving the office a thing of the past, to the point of normalizing a workweek of 72 hours or more. The easy accessibility of social media means that our president can casually spark an international crisis at any hour of the day or night.
No, we couldn’t have prepared for all the eventualities, but it also seems as though we never thought to try. And today we’re on the brink of making the same mistake with the next wave of technological change.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are poised to take over not only deep computing but also many of the jobs that underpin our economy. The impending era of self-driving cars could make travel cheaper and safer but could also affect millions of jobs. Virtual reality is lauded as the next frontier — although what we’ll do there is still anyone’s guess. These are technologies whose use may be more unpredictable and more revolutionary than what, at its heart, is still a souped-up telecom device.
A year or two ago, having begun to recognize the havoc my iPhone wreaked on my own habits, I attempted to curtail my usage in various minor ways. No phones at shared meals, for instance, or aimless scrolling when in company. But it will be harder to walk back these impending innovations. A small amount of anti-smartphone sentiment still aligns with our social norms of politeness, of valuing mental focus and the time of others. But in a growth-obsessed economy that values cost savings and efficiency as the highest goods and celebrates innovation for innovation’s sake, there’s unlikely to be support for a “no robots on weekends” rule or for a regulation deeming that new forms of artificial intelligence be curtailed to leave space for human work.
I’m not a Luddite: I don’t suggest that we go back in time, halt change or attempt to preserve in amber an economic structure that already suffers from myriad flaws. But we might consider pausing before our headlong embrace of the next exciting new things already bearing down on us. Have we anticipated the changes they might bring? And are there ways to mitigate the negative effects that might come with the next technological revolution?
While various analysts have begun to ring alarm bells about how automation-led job loss could create a massive underclass, neither government nor society seems ready to offer more than token solutions: “retraining,” perhaps, or, from fringier advisers, a universal basic income to cushion the blow of lost income. There has been even less of the larger discussion, of defining what we value most as a society and how to preserve it.
We may have time to prepare for the future, but so far it seems that we’ve preferred to wait and see. Yet if the iPhone has taught us anything, it should be that change comes quickly. The Industrial Revolution spanned centuries and still left society reeling. The smartphone revolution took less than a decade. The next major shift? We should try to get ahead of the curve.