Obsessed with your Smartphone?

So is everyone else. Here’s why.

Unwrapping an iPhone is like opening the door to a better life. Not only does the iPhone connect you, but it knows you. It starts small, learning your reading and exercise habits. After a few weeks, however, it begins to understand how the language you speak exists and emerges from your own mind — both verbally and non-verbally. After a few months, with the user’s help, it knows where you return to at night after work, as well as the fastest way to get there, or the route with fewest stops. After a few years, the iPhone contains memories of moments that exist beyond its physical constraints, and evoke emotions it cannot understand, even as it acts as a medium to relay them. And like an elder, or a grandparent, before it passes on, it relays what it knows so that the next generation can digest, process, and improve upon what came before. The iPhone is more than a phone— it is a device that understands and organizes the framework of the user’s life, and packages it in a sleek combination of power and elegance.

As devices like the iPhone become ever more intuitive and human-like, our need for and dependence on them will increase. Soon, we will be interacting with these devices in the same way we interact with one another. We will speak to them and address them as individuals, rather than “things”. Our iPhones will be at the center of our lives in a tangible way, as will devices like the Apple Watch, and the Air Pods. Each is specialized for certain activities (watch for health, pods for always on voice interaction, and the iPhone as the hub that the ecosystem is built around), but the far broader point is that although for now, there are some activities that have yet to be meaningfully dominated by technology, at some point, every activity will be.

Therefore, when parents and family point out that I am “obsessed” with my iPhone, I do not get defensive, because I am. The next question they ask is the obvious one: “Why?” The better question, however, is this: How could I not be?

To those reading, consider your life twenty years ago. If you’re my age (22), consider your parents’ lives twenty years ago. Consider every consumer electronic device or physical possession that meant something to them, or you. Here is an incomplete list of my parents’, in no particular order.

  • Watch
  • Music
  • Alarm clock
  • DVDs
  • Television
  • Radio
  • Books
  • Wallet
  • Keys
  • Sunglasses (fashion statement)
  • Clothes (fashion sense)
  • Photographs
  • Camera
  • Kitchenware (cooking)
  • Household appliances
  • Car (transportation)
  • House
  • News

I could continue, but these are the basics. The question I’m getting at is this: which item on this list has not been supplanted either entirely or in some form by the iPhone? Not one.

Some examples are obvious, like the watch. In today’s world, there is no practical need for a watch that tells exclusively date and time — the iPhone tells both of those things on the lock screen. Many people still wear “dumb” watches, like a Rolex, or other luxury brand watch, but in most cases, the ability to view the time on their wrist isn’t the only, or even the primary reason for wearing one. The Rolex, specifically, is a status symbol, and it is notable that I know many who continue to wear broken ones — often family heirlooms — that they were given as gifts. This is proof that the reason for watch usage has evolved beyond its basic function. Knowing the time on your wrist used to be a symbol of status. Now, iPhones display it as an afterthought — and watches exist solely as a relic of a bygone era.

While watches are an obvious example, some, like the car, are less obvious. My iPhone could not control a car, were I to own one (I don’t). And yet, the reason I don’t own a car (or feel the need to) is precisely because of my iPhone. With it, I can do several things. First, if need to get somewhere, I can hail a ride from a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft. If I don’t feel like doing that, I can use my iPhone to get transit directions. If I don’t feel like doing that, I can rent a car from a service like Zipcar or Turo using my iPhone. Owning a car used to be a fundamental part of growing up, but now, with rides, transit info, and cars at our fingertips, cars do not hold the same importance in our society as they used to. People still own them, but especially in cities such as New York or Chicago, the inconvenience of owning your own car far outweighs the benefits.

Every other item on the list has in some way been captured within the Apple ecosystem. Phone, music and internet came first. Movies came around the same time, and so did TV, though the advent of Netflix on mobile came well after the release of the first iPhone. Radio, too, now exists on the iPhone, and in a much more robust way than it does on local radio stations. Books are there in both audio and visual formats, and so too are payment options — I use Apple Pay dozens of times every week to pay for everything from groceries to books (admittedly, I still prefer the experience of shopping and buying actual books in a physical store), and though Apple has not offered support for adding my driver’s license to my Apple wallet, I imagine that is not far off. Keys are an example of something not yet taken over by the iPhone, but the rising popularity of tracking devices like Tile, which allows users to know the exact geographical location of easily lost possessions (from their iPhone) signifies just how central the iPhone is to everything we own. It is not a stretch to say that eventually, the iPhone or the Apple Watch will replace physical keys, especially given the popularity of the smart home, and Apple’s interest in it.

The iPhone offers us everything that was ever important to us in one place. It starts my morning as my alarm, gets me going with a workout (check out Sworkit — highly recommended), then gives me the recipe for the Bulletproof Coffee I make post-workout. As I dress, I am reminded that the clothes I am putting on are from a subscription clothing service that I manage from my iPhone, which will also offer me suggestions on how to dress with those clothes through the subscription company’s website. After dressing, I’ll sit and read the morning news briefing I get from Quartz, which is delivered in an iMessage-like format through their iPhone app. If I have some extra time, I might scroll through Twitter and see if anything catches my eye. Assuming both that it isn’t absolutely freezing outside, and that I’m not running late, I’ll walk to work, bundled in multiple layers against the frigid Chicago wind. Dropping either one or both of those assumptions, I’ll use my iPhone to call an Uber. Whether I’m driving or walking, however, I’ll be plugged into my iPhone, listening to a podcast, a song, or an audio book, depending on how motivated I’m feeling. And how did I figure out whether it was too cold to walk? You guessed it.

Once at work, I take a break from my iPhone, but check it intermittently throughout the day to make sure there’s nothing I’m missing. In the bathroom, too, I’m on it, reading about Trump’s new appointee for Attorney General, checking the performance of my investments, or setting my fantasy lineup for next week. Sometimes, I’ll simply grasp it in my hand because I like holding it. That so much of my life is captured within a device that is as powerful as it is beautiful — and that I can hold that device in my hand — is empowering. No generation has ever had this level of access to their own life in a device.

I again plug into it on the way home from work, and oftentimes will use that walk home as time to call family and friends. It continually amuses me that the iPhone still has “phone” as part of the name — 99% of the things I use it for have nothing to do with the phone aspect — but the conversations I have with family and friends on these walks home remind me why, and bring me back to a time when all phones could do was dial other people who also had phones — slightly astounding, but I’m old enough to remember.

I’ll swing by the supermarket on the way home to get food for dinner, and will pay with nothing more than a touch of my fingerprint to the Touch ID sensor on my iPhone. Once home, I use it to check Facebook and Twitter for news that broke throughout the day. Most of the articles I find are different renditions of the same headline, but some of them aren’t, and I’ll read those. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll pick an article from a publication whose name isn’t an acronym. In the kitchen, I again use my iPhone to find a recipe, but if I don’t feel like cooking, I’ll order food from a delivery service like Eat24 or Uber Eats, and then wait for the notification on my iPhone that my delivery is in the hands of a human being outside my apartment door. Payment is again handled with nothing more than my fingerprint, and I need not say even one word to the person delivering my food — such is the power of the iPhone as a method of resource allocation.

Sometimes, before bed, I’ll get on FaceTime to talk with a friend, though those conversations are typically reserved for Sundays. The last thing I do before bed is check my phone for any last notifications — Facebook, iMessage, and Twitter are all reliable culprits. Once I’m confident that nothing requires my attention, I’ll open my Sleep Cycle app, set my alarm, and place my iPhone next to me in bed so that it can track when best to wake me up based on the REM cycles it tracks with my iPhone’s gyroscope.


If this sounds dystopian, it’s because in many ways, it is. This is the reality for how many use their iPhones and other mobile phones in today’s world. These devices harbor everything. They manage our music, fashion, shopping, travel, photographs, family, and friends. From the simple pleasure of knowing what time it is over the course of the day to the more important ability to wake in time to get to work every morning, our devices contain almost everything that means something to us. It is no wonder that we are reliant on them — truly, how could we not be? No other generation has ever had something like the iPhone. Fifty years ago, there was no one thing that managed every part of each of our lives. Now, there is.

The iPhone’s dominance is more than mildly unsettling. It is nerve-wracking to see, when a network goes out, or an update screws up, just how much people freak out. I include myself in that camp — ESPN’s Fantasy Football app stopped working on day one of the 2016 season, and I was in a state about it. I still remember just how many threads and links there were on Google when I searched “ESPN fantasy outage”, and all this for fantasy football! It seems ridiculous, but extrapolate this to the alarm app, and you’re looking at the potential for thousands of people to lose their jobs in one day.¹ Imagine having a person who answers all of your questions and handles your entire life in the background, without you having to do much more than tell it your basic needs. Then imagine that this person suddenly disappeared. How would you react?

Our love for our devices stems from our human desire for control over our lives. That is why, when our iPhone dies, or the network goes down, we react so viscerally. Suddenly, our lives, as defined by and packaged within this beautiful device, are no longer accessible, and are therefore incomplete. We don’t have access to the newest information about the world, or the ability to contact a close friend in a different country. We’ve lost the power to know if anyone needs us, and so everyone else has lost the power to know if we need them. We go from being completely connected to being completely disconnected in a nanosecond. That is not an adjustment, because it is not gradual. That is an immediate and affecting change — and we are never ready for it.

Is there more to life than what sits within our iPhones? Yes — far more. There is the outdoors, and the feeling of rain on our skin, or wind in our hair. There are relationships that exist independent of technology, or if they do utilize it, don’t depend on it. There is physical intimacy, which is, after all, our basic function. But technology, and our iPhones, specifically, are permeating even there, places we thought were reserved for us, and us alone. There are apps that connect us with others looking for physical intimacy, and there have even been apps that allow one party to prove they got consent from the other in sexual encounters.³ Though the intent of these apps is good, it is not difficult to see why these ideas are unsettling.

Despite all of this, I remain obsessed with my iPhone. I love looking at it, holding it, and using it, but beyond that, I require it for almost everything in my life. I am convinced that one of the main reasons that many see the iPhone as an obsession is because they fundamentally do not understand that all the different tasks people used to need different devices or mediums for can now all be done on one device. And it is true that there is no way to know exactly what someone is using the iPhone for at any given time, so if someone is constantly on their phone, they can appear to be “obsessed”, when in reality they are simply managing their lives from one device, instead of many. Below is a brief list showing some of the tasks that can now be handled by the iPhone.

Activities as correlated with devices commonly used for them, by year:

1990:

  • Telling time: watch, clock
  • Listening to music: walkman, CD disc changer, cassette tapes
  • Waking up in the morning: alarm clock
  • Watching a movie: DVD/DVD player/TV
  • Listening to music in the car: radio, cassette tapes
  • Reading: books, journals, magazines
  • Reading news: magazines/newspapers
  • Payment: wallet/credit and debit cards, cash, check, money wire
  • Photography: camera (digital or film) and print shop
  • Cooking food: recipe books and general experience
  • Transportation: cars and public transit

2016

  • Telling time: iPhone, Apple Watch, watch, clock
  • Listening to music: iPhone, iPod
  • Waking up in the morning: iPhone, alarm clock
  • Watching a movie: iPhone, TV
  • Listening to music in the car: iPhone, CDs, radio
  • Reading for pleasure: iPhone, books, journals, magazines
  • Reading news: iPhone, journals, newspapers, magazines
  • Payment: iPhone, credit/debit cards, cash, check, money wire
  • Photography: iPhone, other phone cameras, digital cameras
  • Cooking food: iPhone (recipes combined with video tutorials), cookbooks
  • Transportation: Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, Turo, or public transit — all via iPhone, cars, public transit via other means, cabs

The point is not that iPhones have taken over completely — they haven’t. The point is that the iPhone is capable of performing thousands of different tasks that all used to require a single device or medium to perform. If you had told my mom when she graduated college that in thirty years, she’d be able to use the same device to tell time, read the news, and hail a cab, she would’ve called you insane. And yet, she would have been curious, because people then were inspired by the same things that inspire people now, and one of those is finding better and more efficient ways to do things. In our time-crunched world, where, ironically so much time is dedicated to finding faster and more optimal ways to spend our time (it is, after all, the ultimate scarce resource), the question is not why we are obsessed with our phones — that much is evident. Instead, the question is this: How can we not be obsessed with our phones?


Originally published on my blog.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to David Perell for constantly teaching me about the tech industry, and improving pieces like this immensely.

Footnotes:

¹ In an auto-update fiasco in October of 2015, Apple inadvertently turned off all alarms on phones that users set to auto-update while connected to power and WiFi overnight. The result was catastrophic.

² To be clear, these are all things that can be done with the iPhone, not that necessarily always will be done with it.

³ This app, called “Good2Go”, was taken off of the App Store by Apple in 2014.

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