There’s a paradox in technology. For something new to become widespread, familiar, and mass-market, it must create enough novelty and curiosity to draw people’s attention. But novelty alone is not enough to reach saturation. To permeate life, a technology must elicit more than novelty and curiosity in its users. It must become ordinary. It must recede into the background, where it continues to run but ceases to be noticed by the humans who made it pervasive.
This is the story of all successful technologies. The locomotive, airplane, and automobile. The electric light, the telephone, the washing machine, the personal computer. So humdrum are these once-revolutionary machines that no one gives them a second thought, unless they break down.
Ten years after its introduction, the iPhone—and the smartphone category it created—is starting to recede into the background. Apple has sold a billion of the things alone. Android devices account for a billion and a half smartphone users. Glass-and-metal rectangles fill hands, lounge on tables, tuck in pockets, illuminate faces. Like toasters and gas stations, like bus ads and Starbucks, anywhere you look you’ll see an iPhone.
Now that the iPhone is everywhere, it can finally disappear.
As it quickly replaced its predecessors, the iPhone challenged people to make sense of it, and to integrate it into their lives. At first, it was a gadget. I remember my first encounter with it, in 2007: A friend had bought one early, and he eagerly brushed and pinched it to show me how the multi-touch screen worked. Those were new once, and merely operating one was exciting on its own. It helped that the iPhone didn’t quite work right yet. It was slow, it stuttered, it froze. Almost like it was getting used to its owners as much as they were getting used to it.
Within a year or two, it became a compulsion. First for work on the run, as emails and texts and reminders, previously available only to executives and bureaucrats on BlackBerries and Palm Treos, became a staple of the everyperson’s information diet. Then for play, when games, apps, and social media lured people back to the device just to see if anything new had happened while they were away from it.
Several years in, that compulsion became a ritual. All the bad, deleterious urges to warm one’s face in front of the iPhone transformed into a mode of living. A way of being. This is just what life was like: Scrolling vigorously while standing in line for coffee. Retreating into the device during lulls in dinner conversation. Operating it unwisely, and knowingly so, while driving. Smartphones began replacing computers and laptops for some, and televisions and movie theaters for many. People began acquiring devices for their children, and even for their toddlers, and even for their babies.
For me, each of these phases suggested its own analogy to make sense of the novelty. For the gadget period, the iPhone was like a toy dog—a thing to hold and carry and stroke and dote on. A device that could be cared for, and conspicuously so.
For the compulsive era, the iPhone was like a cigarette. A nervous tic, facilitated by a handheld apparatus that releases relief when operated. Along with it comes dependence, and an awareness of that dependence. A shame in it, even, and an attendant vow to stop, if only stopping was possible. And yet, as with the cigarette, the iPhone also conferred an air of cool. It gave people something to do with their hands. Though compulsive, it offered a compulsion everyone shared.
For the ritual phase, the iPhone was like a rosary. In the secular age, industry in general and the computer in particular has taken the place of the church. Instead of God, technology has become the ultimate means of understanding and changing the world. Algorithms became mystical, delivering truths. What can be thought and what should be done is equal to what the computer allows and makes possible. Its toy-dog quirks having been tamed, its compulsive nature having been accepted, the iPhone became the magic wand by which all worldly actions could be performed, all possible information acquired. There’s a reason an ancestor of the iPhone was code-named “Pocket Crystal” inside Apple.
What the iPhone isn’t, anymore, is a phone, in the traditional sense. A smartphone, yes, although that’s a product category for industrialists and business writers. And yet, people still call it a “phone” colloquially: I can’t find my phone! or Let me just check my phone or Sorry, I was on my phone. The last one condenses much of the reality of iPhone use. Where once one might have been “on the phone”—speaking into the singular telephony device in a home—now everyone is engaged with, and transmitting information by means of, their own private device. All the time.
The metaphor for this phase of the iPhone’s life has long eluded me. But recently I fell upon it, thanks to the writer Claire Donato. “From the rectangle, she downloads instructions for preparing a slick coat for the green beans and potatoes,” I heard Donato read from an in-progress novel late this spring.
The rectangle. Abstract, as a shape. Flat, as a surface. But suggestive of so much. A table for community. A door for entry, or for exit. A window for looking out of, or a picture for looking into. A movie screen for distraction, or a cradle for comfort, or a bed for seduction. A hole of infinite depth, yet also a veil whose blackness covers up that chasm.
The rectangle cuts to the truth of the iPhone as a widely adopted, mass-market device. When Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone, he described it as “a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device.”
“Three things,” he called it, before lingering on the reveal. “These are not separate devices. This is one device.”
This reality seems so obvious today that it’s quaint to recall when things could have been otherwise. Convergence didn’t collapse all media into a single format, as some had predicted. Instead it channeled both old and new ways of working, living, and playing through a common opening. It flattened it. “A rectangle is a flat shape,” Donato tells me when I ask how she arrived at the metaphor. “I can’t stop thinking about how the internet is such a flat surface. We’re compressed here.”
There’s obvious sorrow in Donato’s words. It doesn’t always feel good, this rectangle flatland. The MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle has lamented it from the vantage point of a social critic. To her, the era of the rectangle is one of lost conversation, of the masses “alone together.” But it has also become the basis for ordinary life. Perhaps some can withdraw from it into Charles Riverside salons or art-gala afterparties, but for most, life is now conducted by rectangle. It is technological populism.
And in that respect, the abstract, flat image of the rectangle disarms the curiosity and novelty of the iPhone. As its first decade ends, the rectangle can finally become a technology of ordinary life. Drop the “ordinary,” even. Just life, without the novelty and curiosity interrupting it with new diversions—even as the device itself persists in delivering constant distraction.
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The irony of the iPhone’s ubiquity is that nobody seems content with it. Voice-activated artificial intelligences, virtual reality, augmented reality, robots, and more futurist interlopers all press at the gates, eager to unleash their novelties and disrupt the iPhone. Apple’s investors are impatient that the company hasn’t yet done so itself, dissatisfied with a single company selling a billion rectangles to turn the round Earth into its private flatland.
It’s a bittersweet victory when a technology achieves ubiquity. On the one hand, it makes universal experience possible. Huge swaths of people share a common means for socializing, learning, working, and playing. But on the other hand, pervasiveness domesticates technology. What was once wild and exciting becomes ordinary and routine. Its wings clipped, its paws declawed, the rectangle poses no threat—and thereby appears to offer no further promise, either.
When faced with technology’s paradox, I often think of Star Trek. The crew of the Enterprise doesn’t think much of the computer. It doesn’t have a name, like Siri or Alexa or Cortana, even though it also speaks in the disembodied voice of a woman. It’s just “Computer.” Despite playing a central role in the operation of the starship, nobody thinks much about the computer. It’s just there, like always. No big deal.
It’s a science-fictional future too few acknowledge, let alone pine for. One in which technology becomes advanced by becoming ordinary. When all the cheers and wails cease, they leave behind a changed world, but one its human residents must nevertheless occupy. That’s us, now: Billions of people, their hands clutched to rectangles both dark and emissive, learning to live with it.