Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 10 years, you’ve probably noticed that if you go for a walk outside and take the time to look around, people have their attention focused in one direction: down, at their phones. Headphones on, blocking out the world around them.
It all started back in 1992, when IBM released the Simon Personal Communicator, the first actual ‘smartphone’, although the term would not become mainstream for another 3 years. You’ve probably never heard of the ‘Simon’, even though IBM sold 50,000 of them to early adopter tech geeks. It was the start of an unstoppable trend, a central location for all your communication needs. It paved the way for Apple’s launch of the iPhone on June 29, 2007. Our world has never been the same. When the iPhone 5S was released in 2013, it had more computing power than the computer that landed Neil Armstrong on the Moon in 1969.
Ten years later, the iPhone’s impact on society is undeniable. But has it fulfilled the original promise of more freedom? From a connectivity viewpoint, there’s no question: everything you need to navigate your way through the day is now in the palm of your hand. Email, GPS, messaging that has developed a new ‘language’, and thousands of apps that do everything from tracking your fitness and getting your horoscope, to offering turn-by-turn directions to the latest restaurant.
In fact, the phone function is no longer the primary use of smartphones – it’s messaging. Phone calls are now in second place, followed closely by social media and gaming. The smartphone has become the center of the universe for the generation that is now the engine of our economy.
In fact, “smartphone addiction” is now a recognized condition, with people experiencing high levels of anxiety if they don’t feel connected at all times. We can blame our limbic brain for this. It’s all about emotion and the hits of dopamine and serotonin that come with instant gratification. Who can forget the instant rush from seeing the flag go up on your AOL mailbox icon? It was reinforcement that you mattered – the smartphone provides that feeling multiple times a day, regardless of your surroundings.
Just a short time ago, people walked down the street taking everything in using all their senses. Sights, sounds, smells: it all arrived at once. We would absorb all that information, then apply our filters and select what would get our attention. That was also the goal of marketers – how to get their message through the sensory buffet. Messaging formats were configured to cut through the clutter and grab your attention.
When using a smartphone, however, the filters are already applied. Sight is focused on the screen, the sounds coming through the headphones are pre-chosen, and touch is occupied by navigating the phone interface. People choose what they want to interact with in advance. This poses an entirely different challenge for the marketer: how to position your message in the right digital location and proper format to get your message through and have it resonate with your desired audience?
So, on the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone, has it fulfilled the promise of more freedom?
The answer is both yes and no.
Every disruptive technology comes with trade-offs; personal interactions are now briefer and less personal, with an emoji identifying the mood intent of the message or limited to 140 characters. We are losing some of our basic personal interaction skills, much like spell check has diminished our capacity to write properly. Addiction, by definition, is a loss of control and freedom. So, no, the iPhone hasn’t fulfilled its promise, if the smartphone is now the center of your universe.
At the same time, you can now video chat with your kids when on a business trip, and check your email and the web from anywhere, rather than being stuck in the office. If used intelligently and in balance, so that other aspects of your life are enhanced, then the iPhone has fulfilled its promise.
Perhaps a new line should be added to the Dalai Lama’s ‘Paradox of our Times’:
“We are more connected, but less in touch.”