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The pocket revolution

Martin Muno
Martin Muno
January 9, 2017

It's become our umbilical cord: The introduction of the iPhone 10 years ago has revolutionized the way we think and behave, writes DW's Martin Muno.

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Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Warnecke

There was once a time when, if we found ourselves in an unfamiliar part of town, we had to stop and ask the way. We had to go to the train station or the bus stop and check the schedules to find out when our next connection was. And we were always carrying several devices: a cellphone to make calls or send text messages, an MP3 player (or, before that, a Walkman) to listen to music on the go, and a camera to take photos. Back then, it was unimaginable that we might exchange this data for something else.

Later, there were cell phones that managed to integrate some of these functions. Among managers, a Blackberry was a real status symbol, because its (typewriter) keypad enabled people who couldn't cope with ordinary cell phones' T9 function to write texts at last. But all of these devices had keypads and a more or less cumbersome menu structure. Cell phones could do more, but the instruction manuals kept on getting thicker.

The revolution came on January 9, 2007. Apple boss Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at the Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco. It had a multi-touch screen on which you could type, swipe, and magnify the image. This device could do a great deal, and at the same time it was easy and intuitive to use. Or, in Job's words: "Simple can be harder than complex." The cellphone had become a mini-computer so easy to operate that a child could use it.

Changed lives

And these clever little phones have continued their triumphal march ever since. Not only did Apple rise to become the most valuable brand in the world; in the wake of the iPhone, other companies came up with equivalent products. In 2007, 122 million smartphones were sold. In 2016, it was around 1.5 billion. It's impossible to imagine our daily lives now without smartphones, whether the iPhone or one of its competitors.

And because it's always there, it's changed our lives in ways that were also previously unimaginable. In the pre-iPhone era, someone looking at their cellphone and just quickly sending a WhatsApp message in the middle of a conversation would have been considered just as rude as half the participants in a meeting blatantly reading while someone is giving a presentation. We look at our cell phones as soon as we get up, then around 200 times during the day before we finally put it down just before going to sleep. The American sociologist Sherry Turkle believes that smartphones are effectively turning us into machine-people. And this is just the first step. Many people have already made the second: They have so-called wearables, like the iWatch. And a few have already had microchips implanted that do things like open the lock on the door. From here it's but a short step to becoming a cyborg.

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DW's Martin MunoImage: DW

We've long since grown accustomed to the fact that almost everyone on the street or the bus is staring at their cellphone instead of taking in their surroundings or communicating with their fellow human beings. Last summer, this acquired a new dimension: We saw crowds of people running around, sometimes frantically, sometimes cheerfully excited, holding their cell phones right in front of their noses as they did so. It soon turned out that this was the new Pokémon Go app. Hunting these virtual monsters became the new national sport.

In many places there is no longer any separation of work and leisure time. A YouGov survey last summer found that in Germany almost one in two working people check their work e-mails after the end of the working day. Around one in three looked at their work e-mails at least once during their last holiday. At the same time, around 40 percent are bothered if their companion reads work emails while on holiday, and one in three find it stressful to be constantly reachable. Individual companies have already responded by prohibiting the sending of e-mails outside working hours.

We have become predictable

And with all the things we do on our cell phones, all the apps we use, we leave behind a huge data trail. We have become predictable. Algorithms are already starting to be able to gauge our future intentions. Shades of 1984.

We have subjugated ourselves to these little things. They provide services no one wants to do without anymore. They bring people together when they live far apart. But all this comes at a price. Many people can't live without their smartphone for so much as a minute anymore. If it's not at hand, they become paralyzed with anxiety. Terms have even been coined to describe this: "nomophobia" or "iDisorder." Some people even start sensing phantom vibrations.

And so we cling on to our devices - but that isn't good for us, either. Someone who is constantly staring at their phone runs the risk of stress-related conditions like high blood pressure, insomnia, or, in a worst-case scenario, burnout or depression. Paracelsus already knew in the 16th century that "the dose alone makes a thing not poison."

Like every other revolutionary invention, the introduction of the iPhone took us by surprise in our everyday lives. Perhaps subsequent generations will view our behavior with the same derision we feel when we see films of the first automobile drivers shouting "Whoa" and "Stop" to get the car to come to a standstill. We'd be well advised to prepare ourselves better for the digital future if we're not to be enslaved by our little helpers, but remain their masters.

There are things we could be doing even now. There are many exciting things for us to explore and discover beyond the limits of our cell phones. Things we can smell and taste, and feel on our skin. From time to time we should concentrate wholly on experiences like these. From time to time we should turn our smartphones off.

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Martin Muno
Martin Muno Digital immigrant, interested in questions of populism and political power