The second day of my post-college internship at Wired was January 9, 2007. I was deeply hungover and being shown how to use the postal scale so I could send out contributor copies in shiny, silver foil envelopes. From the mail-room bull pen, you could look out into Wired’s San Francisco office, a large industrial space with huge Wired covers hung on walls, and row after row of gleaming new iMacs. Many of the staffers were staring into them, watching as Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. There was a hum of excitement in the room — an excitement I didn’t share. (Like the enthusiasm for Battlestar Galactica, the love of the idea of “hyperlocalism,” or some of the staff’s disdain for the truly excellent and cheap cafeteria food, there a was lot about my time at Wired that I just didn’t get.) Looking at the iPhone, it seemed like a prettier and more expensive BlackBerry. I thought it was, frankly, kinda lame — a nerdy bit of conspicuous consumption.
The last day of my internship at Wired was June 29, 2007 — ten years ago today. As I walked to catch my bus home, I walked by a line stretching for blocks from the Apple Store in San Francisco’s Union Square. Hundreds of people, just waiting for a chance to maybe pay $500 plus a contract for a phone. Someone was selling bottles of water. There were tents and the wet-potato funk of a lot of people who hadn’t bathed in a bit. I still didn’t get it, but it was obvious that there were plenty who did. Soon, the bars and buses of San Francisco were filled with people curved over their iPhone. Friends got them. My girlfriend got one. You should get one. You’ll love it, they promised. I finally went in for my AT&T upgrade and decided to go with the iPhone 3GS in mid-2009.
Like everyone else, I quickly fell into it. A promise made between me and my girlfriend that we’d never be one of those couples at the movies, sitting in silence next to each other and staring at our phones, was broken with astonishing quickness once we both had smartphones. Pictures of people taking pictures with their smartphone are a genre unto themselves. Where I once noticed all of these people staring down into that cool, blue light, they’ve now just faded into the background, barely noticeable. (And, of course, I’m staring at my phone as well.)
Much like I can’t really conceive of how an office worked without email and internet access (typing pools apparently played a part in it), I’m already starting to forget what life was like before the smartphone. How did I get through visits to the DMV? Or find my way around in a new city? Or exist in an elevator with other people? I’m sometimes troubled by my smartphone use — it’s far too easy to use it as an easy escape hatch from wherever I am or whatever I’m doing. I’m not the only one to have doubts; screeds against smartphones have proliferated nearly as fast as the smartphone itself.
There have been times when I’ve lost or broken my phone, or spent time somewhere without any data connection. The first few days are bad. I keep reaching for my nonexistent phone, or imagining I’m feeling the buzz of a notification, a self-induced phantom limb. With no map app, navigation requires preparation and planning. Then I remember that books and magazines are also pretty decent at distracting me. I make up dumb mnemonics to remember how to get somewhere. If I do happen to look at Twitter, I have no idea what the fuck is going on. It’s a pretty pleasant feeling. Then I get a new phone or get back to a data connection and remember that I hate being bored or lost.
That feeling — the sense of the phone as an inextricable part of minute-to-minute life, rather than as a nice but separate convenience — is what defines the smartphone to its billions of users, rather than any one of its individual features or design choices. Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, but it did turn it from a show-offy gadget into something nearly as fundamental to the day-to-day lives of millions as an organ or a limb.
And it did it in under a decade. It’s hard to notice history when it’s happening, but the smartphone has seen an incredibly fast rate of adoption. Today, ten years after the iPhone’s release, nearly 80 percent of Americans own a smartphone — either iPhones, or devices modeled on them. No other technology has been adopted as quickly or as thoroughly. What looked to me like a rich person’s gaudy bauble was, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, a great equalizer — a device that would reshape the world, creating whole continents that would skip owning personal computers for the smartphone. When I finally broke down and got one for myself, I didn’t realize exactly what I was getting until far later, when I’d lose my phone and suddenly feel like I was living out the sad part of Flowers for Algernon. What Steve Jobs introduced wasn’t just a computer disguised as a cell phone; it was, for better and for worse, an auxiliary brain.