Gates was right and wrong. Content, from e-commerce to social media, did drive huge profits in the two decades since. But equipment also produced enormous wealth—just look at Apple. With the rise of Facebook, Google, Uber, Microsoft, Amazon, and others, content stopped being a name for ideas alone and started signifying a confluence of machines, services, media, and ideas. This is the phenomenon some nickname #content (as a hashtag), implying that the purpose of ideas is to fill every moment with computational engagement. Technology’s effect on ordinary life is always more important than the ideas its content carries.
Marshall McLuhan was the best theorist of media as mechanisms for behavior rather than channels for ideas. His famous quip “the medium is the message” was meant to deemphasize content in favor of the media forms that make it possible. For McLuhan, the meaning of individual books, television programs, newspaper articles, movies, and software programs is just a distraction. More important: how those media change the way people think and behave in aggregate. The book, for example, creates a society for which knowledge is singular, certain, and authoritative thanks to the uniformity of print.
The smartphone’s effects have evolved and changed. When I wrote about the iPhone shortly after its launch, I called it the geek’s Chihuahua: a glass-and-metal companion that people could hold, stroke, and pet—a toy dog for the tech set. Some years later, after games, apps, and social media made smartphone use compulsive, I dubbed the device the cigarette of this century: a source of obsessive attention that, like smoking, brings people together in a shared dependency whose indulgence also produces the calming relief of new data.
It doesn’t make sense to talk about the meaning of cigarettes or Chihuahuas. Their meaning is the pattern of their use. That’s the thing about content: Its form and meaning matters less than how it changes people’s behavior. And when it comes to smartphones, seeing and touching them is far more important than processing the meaning they deliver.
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Binky eviscerates meaning by design. Every bink on Binky is a labeled image, chosen randomly and generated endlessly. Liking a bink does nothing. Swiping or re-binking sends binks nowhere. The comments are my favorite: A keyboard appears on which to type them, but each key-tap reveals a whole word in a pre-generated comment. Words, tags, or emoji continue appending until I stop typing. “This looks amazing! #harlemshake #wordsToLiveBy #rofl,” or “I dunno, I like this but it’s problematic 😹😜😁👾😱🎃😣😡.”
Binky is a social network app with no network and no socializing. And yet, Binky is not just as satisfying as “real” social apps like Twitter or Instagram, but even more satisfying than those services. Its posts are innocuous: competent but aesthetically unambitious photos of ordinary things and people. Should binkers feel the urge to express disgust at Linus Paulding or Lederhosen, they can swipe left, and Binky accommodates without consequence. And the app doesn’t court obsession by counting followers or likes or re-binks.