tech rants

Happy Birthday, iPhone: You’re Ruining Everything

Today, as you may have heard, is the iPhone’s fifth birthday. Five years ago today, eager fanboys lined up for miles outside of Apple stores, fawning and frothing and damn near trampling each other in order to get their hands on the product Steve Jobs promised was “revolutionary.” Since then, the iPhone has become a behemoth, a $100 billion annual revenue generator that has made Apple the world’s largest and most profitable tech company and enlisted hundreds of millions of people in the smartphone army.

It has also, quite possibly, ruined all of our lives.

Henry Blodget is crowing about the iPhone on its anniversary, calling it “the most radically successful and disruptive product in history.” He means “disruptive” in the way Silicon Valley types use it to describe anything that is cool and innovative, but he could just as easily be describing the innumerable ways in which the iPhone has distorted, disabled, and otherwise blown a Grand Canyon–size hole in our social fabric.

I’ve owned an iPhone since 2008, and, as with most owners, it has become a fifth limb. I am one of those hollow souls whose insular cortex lights up like fireworks every time I get a new e-mail or text, whose anxiety levels spike every time my battery dips below 15 percent. Everywhere I’ve gone in the past four years, my iPhone has tugged me away from the real world. I’ve spent vacations with my eyes on Instagram, played Words With Friends during movies, and treated my Twitter feed with the deference usually reserved for royalty.

I am, in short, an iPhone addict. And so, very likely, are you.

Here’s the chart Blodget used to describe the iPhone’s impact:

Photo: Business Insider

And here are some other, also true charts I made:

It’s true that the iPhone is a wonderful and unique device, one that deserves to make billions upon billions of dollars for Apple. It’s also true that it has turned my social circle from a group of reasonable human beings — ones who read books, had long, meaningful conversations, and were occasionally filled with the milk of human kindness — into a bunch of panicky, overstimulated, screen-fixated automatons.

Reasonable people have argued against the iPhone on economic and political grounds. It has permanently enshrined Apple’s supply chain model (read: Foxconn) in the consumer tech economy, and the massive profits it has generated have enabled one of the most lucrative corporate tax-avoidance strategies in history.

But there are more than enough purely social reasons to mourn its existence.

Just today, a friend sent out a party invitation that came with instructions for attendees: “Don’t be afraid to use airplane mode or even turn your damn phone off and interact like a human being.”

How sad is that? I’ll answer that: It’s pathetic. But it’s true that without warnings about smartphone use, and without relying on invented games like “phone stack” (in which everyone sitting at a dinner puts their phones in the middle of the table — first one to touch the stack picks up the check), our parties, dinners, and social gatherings are nothing more than a mass of inveterate touchscreen junkies all struggling not to tune each other out. We are helpless, humanist rowboats navigating the iPhone’s incessant dopamine waves.

I love my iPhone. It has, it must be said, brought goodness to my life. It has saved me at work, helped me navigate foreign cities, and kept me busy during boring meetings and subway rides. (It has also gotten me into arguments with friends, required at least ten Genius Bar trips, and been stolen out of my hand on the streets of Brooklyn.)

But is the iPhone’s technological prowess enough to compensate for the social disaster it has enabled? Has it made us happier, more productive, and more creative, like Steve Jobs seemed to promise back in 2007? If Leonardo da Vinci had had an iPhone, would his biggest accomplishment have been unlocking all six Temple Run characters?

Yes, there are other phones. Androids and the few thousand BlackBerrys left in circulation share some of the blame. But the iPhone, as the dominant device in the demographic that is responsible for the bulk of the planet’s creative output, is the most culpable of all. Its destructiveness is potentiated by its ubiquity.

So, when you’re celebrating the iPhone’s fifth birthday, take a moment and look at yours. It’s a beautiful succubus, crafted out of four and nine-tenths ounces of stainless steel and aluminosilicate glass, brilliantly marketed and viciously efficient in monopolizing your attention. But it is no substitute for life itself.

Put it down, go outside, and take a damn walk.

iPhone, You’re Ruining Everything