Not Just for Calling Anymore: The Social Impact of the iPhone Revolution

Journalist and CHM historian John Markoff discusses the impact of the iPhone on society with Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Jean-Louis Gassée, venture partner at Allegis Capital, and Judy Wajcman, Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and a 2017-18 Mellon Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, October 18, 2017. Produced by the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum.

Journalist and CHM historian John Markoff discusses the impact of the iPhone on society with Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Jean-Louis Gassée, venture partner at Allegis Capital; and Judy Wajcman, Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and a 2017-18 Mellon Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University during “Putting a New World in Your Hands,” October 18, 2017. Produced by the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum.

It will ruin your eyes, turn your brain to mush, and kids will see things they shouldn’t. The content is all just designed to sell stuff. It will destroy relationships—people won’t interact with family and friends in person anymore. What innovation prompted these dire predictions? The television when it came on the scene in the 1950s. And we’re raising the same questions and concerns about the smartphone today. New technologies tend to have that effect on people, who are hardwired to fear new things and worry about unintended consequences. They need time to learn how to understand and integrate new technologies into their daily lives. One of the most iconic smartphones—the iPhone—is only 10 years old. Humans are still learning to adapt to the new world it has brought.

This CHM Live talk explores the impact of the iPhone on society. Moderated by Pulitzer Prize−winning tech writer and Museum historian John Markoff, panelists Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Jean-Louis Gassée, venture partner at Allegis Capital; and Judy Wajcman, Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and a 2017−18 Mellon Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, are optimistic about humans’ ability to adapt. The discussion is part of a series of four live programming events that took place at the Museum throughout 2017. Earlier panels explored the prehistory of the iPhone and the design and development of its hardware and software as well as its impact on the economy.

Judy Wajcman explains the sociological context for the smartphone.

In 2007, when the iPhone debuted, people eagerly welcomed it, says sociologist Judy Wajcman. In a world in which longer work hours, dual family earners, and a 24/7 economy had been eating into personal time for years, it was viewed, like mobile phones before it, as another helpful way to synchronize with family, friends, and community. But, has that line between work time and personal time eroded even more because of the device? And has it become a poor substitute for “real” relationships? As with any new technology, the reviews are mixed. The panel laid out the arguments pros and cons.

Jean-Louis Gassée explains how the smartphone helps him do his job as a human being.

An iPhone or a smartphone in your pocket means you have constant access to a wide range of enriching and empowering activities. An infinite universe of knowledge is available through the internet. Innovative ways to connect and communicate can open up a new world, providing exposure to different people and ideas. Ease of communication can free people who now don’t have to be physically present to be involved. The ability to take photographs and participate in social media can be empowering, allowing one person to share his or her perspective with millions. In fact, of the over one trillion digital photos taken every year, 85 percent are snapped on smartphones. History shows that the human race has learned to adapt to many innovations and it is likely it can adapt to this one, too. But is multi-tasking with a smartphone really just like learning to iron while watching the television?

Cindy Cohn and Jean-Luis Gassée discuss the battle for users’ attention created by smartphones.

While it offers many opportunities for positive and rewarding uses, there are also clear negatives to the smartphone. People can become addicted to constant connection and feel powerless and depressed without it. There is endless pressure on kids to participate in social media at the same time that bullying has spread from the playground to this new arena. The business model of smartphone apps, with rare exceptions, is to constantly pull on your attention. Cindy Cohn believes that more transparency must be brought to the motives of those who market these apps and that tech must serve people rather than the other way around. Concerns about surveillance, security, and privacy are paramount now that a smartphone can pinpoint a user’s location at any point in time and personal data can be accessed from the devices. However, she believes that the next generation of users will better handle the technology in ways that suit their needs.

Cindy Cohn makes the case that next-gen smartphone users will handle their smartphones better.

Ten years is not very long for people to learn how to integrate a new technology into their daily lives and into the fabric of society. Individuals and institutions are still adjusting to changes that seem to come at the speed of light. People must make conscious choices about both the advantages and dangers of using their devices. Ethical and legal issues related to privacy and security should inform public policy that still needs to catch up. But Jean-Louis Gassée reminds us that there’s a simple solution if it all gets to be too much: just turn the phone off.

Related iPhone 360 Events

Watch the Full Conversation

“Putting A New World In Your Hands: The Impact Of The iPhone on Our Economy and Society,” October 18, 2017. Produced by the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum.

About iPhone 360

The iPhone 360 explores the story of iPhone, from its prehistory, inception, and launch, to its evolution and impact. Coinciding with the 10th anniversary year of the iPhone launch in 2007, iPhone 360 includes integrated initiatives across the Computer History Museum to create new collections of artifacts and oral histories, scholarly research and insights, dynamic events, and educational content and curriculum.

The iPhone 360 Project is part of the Exponential Center 360 series focused on transformational companies and products that have changed the world through technology innovation, economic value creation and social impact. This series supports the Museum’s overall interpretive strategy to explain computing’s history and its transformational impact on our world.

ABOUT HEIDI HACKFORD

Read all posts by Heidi Hackford

Heidi Hackford is the content and curriculum director for the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum. She is responsible for leading the development of educational materials focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Heidi previously worked at Monticello, where she edited Thomas Jefferson’s family letters. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she established a digital archive ...

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