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Putting the “I” in Iphone.

September 29, 2010

I think it’s safe to say that cultural sea changes start with a fundamental shift of attitude or technology – and perspective while shifting is pretty problematic.  Since the advent of the IPhone a scant two years ago (and the subsequent flood of imitators) our lives are morphing in odd ways.   It’s not just about texting while driving deaths or “sexting” by teens or even the now obligatory angry finger wagging to turn off the instrument before every public gathering – all those indicators are so millennial. 

 The hand-held, affordable, high speed link to every database in the world known as the IPhone is a game-changer. It has eliminated a central denominator of our lives and privacy – down time is dead. The IPhone panders to our latent narcissistic desire for personal expression – and that pathetic need for 15 minutes of fame can be simulated by a simple stream of typed ego while riding the bus to our cubicles. Our pathetic whines to “be somebody” now explode on a stage that was not possible before its presence.

I’m not talking about cell phones – those devices that are now virtually integral to our children’s lives as underwear and have had a pervasive impact (very few high school athletes ever shower after practice anymore since all cell phones now have a camera).  And obviously I’m not talking about phone accessed email as that 24/7/365 reality has been an abiding presence for well over a decade. 

The  Me, Myself and IPhone phenomenon has exploded via its instant web-based personal expression independent of location, meaning or reason.   This of course involves emails and telephone calls and texting but now spirals out into the ether with things like Face Book, UTube, Twitter, et al, – and not just for people who use these platforms as part of their career path, but for almost anyone who has an electric outlet to charge a device that fits into a pocket that can access the world for the cost of what most people pay for Diet Coke in any given month.

Over the last century the sub-30 year old demographic’s jump into obsessional trends have had a limited half life of permanent cultural impact. The extreme drinking of my parent’s generation seen on Mad Men, the extreme drug-friendliness of the 60’s celebrated in Cheech and Chong movies, the extreme “free-love” of my own youth have all self regulated over time, mostly because our elders didn’t  buy into its transformative nature.

“Back in the day” before the IPhone, I could only access the outside world by checking on my Treo’s email account – and that was something perhaps 5% of the population did on a daily basis.  Now Face Book, Twitter, texting, and the three to ten different websites that I deal with for business can “dialog” with me at any given moment of any given day.

My wife used to mock me about this.  Although she knew as an architect who writes and “does” media I had clients in Europe, Saudi Arabia, Asia (and even Minnesota!) she was more amused by the fact that I would actually keep in touch with oblique and ancient friends on Face Book.  But after a school snow day where an offspring opened a Face Book account for her, she (and most of her friends) now spend more time on Face Book than our children do. 

The universal availability of all these instruments has turned personal distraction into a cultural shift.  I have virtually no game apps on my IPhone, but probably use it several hours a day.  The majority of things I do on Face Book are optional and even trivial, but the have morphed themselves into an automatic pattern that used to be reserved for things like eating, sleeping and taking care of personal hygiene. 

Just like overnight delivery changed communication in the 1970’s, the fax machine imposed a 24/7 ethic on business in the 80’s and email upped that ante in the 90’s, having the world beside your bed powered by a battery with no limits on accessing any of the millions and millions of websites around the world has permanently changed our culture.   At a dinner party, church, board meeting, or in the bathroom at 3:00 am, people check who has been contacting them and perhaps who they “should” be contacting. 

The IPhone universe is so interactive and yet distortionally indirect.  There is virtually nothing human about it and yet the need it fulfills is exquisitely human.  Humans are perhaps the only species that gathers not for self preservation but for psychic nourishment.  We need food and water to survive but we also need the human touch.  The IPhone world isn’t a physical touch, it is the perverse extension of AT&T’s 1980’s marketing slogan “Reach out and touch someone” in extremis, where voices are never actually heard and there is no physical touch. 

This emerging re-patterning is different from any similar transition in many ways. Previously extreme rushes into self-destructive behavior mellow into fairly soft social adjustments over time. Although the extreme inebriation of the real Mad Men has gone, obsessional wine, scotch, and bourbon connoisseurship remains. 

Although the “love the one you’re with” ethic of free sexual activity with any casual acquaintance has abated in an AIDS conscious world, the vast majority of people who get married have lived together before marriage and weddings have become celebrations of existing conditions.

Although you don’t smell marijuana as you walk through the halls of any given dorm in America, you do when you walk in the streets of Manhattan and in many others places where recreational use has been decriminalized. 

Although the sweeping changes born of the IPhone flood and its imitators have facilitated may soon have abated intensity, my sense is that its impact on our lives will be far deeper, more resonant and permanent than these previous super sized fads.

It might be said that there are ominous signs that the IPhone explosion might be approaching a “jump the shark” status when the next level of its mobile mania, the exquisitely popular IPad  is actually more like an quintupled IPhone (easing Boomer aged eye strain and fat finger errors that accompany a hand-held device). 

But if, as Marshall McLuhan, noted the “medium is the message” (or was it the massage?). IPhone integration will mean humans will have a permanently different rhythm in our day-to-day lives. 

Morning, midday, evening and night will have more to do with natural light levels and meals, and less with attitudes.  Vacation will be about changing scenery more than outlook.  Getting fired means a loss of hundreds if not thousands of contacts (as well as money).  Thinking about a loved one becomes typing to them.

Right now, the beloved of those fighting and dying in the military connect with them almost every day – until tragedy happens. 

These changes are not superficial, they resonate.

How we can communicate has completely changed what we communicate and when.  It is a seminal transformation that has qualities that are so powerful that trying to assess them in mid-stream is dangerous (but fun).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Janice Gruendel permalink
    September 29, 2010 9:26 am

    This is richly provocative (but who would expect anything less?!). A couple of thoughts.

    First, this whole new age of immediate responsiveness (or the search for responsiveness) brings with it the risk of becoming the “I say/I type/I tweet, therefore I am (what ever I type or tweet). Not going from a tweet-er to a twit will be challege, I fear.

    Second, it also means that people are less and less comfortable to go deep inside of themselves — which requires time, quiet and alone-ness. That is not the same as saying we must become more “lonely” (a correlate of the first thought), but that we need to stop running away from “time with me, myself and I.” In some ways, the tweeting generation is the antithesis of the mediation generation. And tweeting is richly seductive.

    Third, there are also adaptive changes going on in our brains that we are only beginning to learn about. Will the neural firing that comes with a state of “always on” burn out our circuits? We use such a small fraction of our brain’s capacity that it’s not likely. On the other hand, it is not unimaginable that we create a mental state of heightened need for always open circuits — kind of an upward rising spiral with no top and thus no way to ever be sated.

    Love this blog. JMG


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