A Decade Later, The Omnipresent iPhone Shapes Lives, Families, And Even Souls
Terry Mattingly's weekly column OnReligion
The late Steve Jobs loved surprises and, at the 2007 MacWorld conference, he knew he was going to make history.
"Every once and awhile, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything," said Apple's prophet-in-chief. This product – on sale at the end of June 2007 – combined entertainment programs with a telephone, while also putting the "Internet in your pocket." His punch line a decade ago: "We are calling it iPhone."
At one point in that first demonstration, Jobs began jumping from one iPhone delight to another. He wryly confessed: "I could play with this thing a long time."
To which millions of parents, clergy and educators can now say: "#REALLY. Tell us something we don't know."
One key iPhone creator has had doubts, as well, especially when he watches families in restaurants, with parents and children plugged into their omnipresent smartphones.
"It terms of whether it's net positive or net negative, I don't think we know yet," said Greg Christie, a former Apple leader who helped create the iPhone's touch interface. He spoke at a Silicon Valley event covered by The Verge, a tech website.
"I don't feel good about the distraction. It's certainly an unintended consequence," said Christie. "The fact that it is so portable so it's always with you … and it provides so much for you that the addiction actually, in retrospect, is not surprising."
There is more to this puzzle that mere addiction, according to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. In a recent podcast – yes, he noted many people listen on iPhones – he tried to summarize the cultural, moral and even theological trends seen during the first decade in which the iPhone and related devices shaped the lives of millions and millions of people worldwide.
Rather than being a luxury for elites, he said, this device "has become something considered a necessity, and in this world, if we're playing by the world's terms, of course it is. … The question the iPhone represents to us is: Who owns whom? Do we own the iPhone, or, increasingly, immorally, does the iPhone own us?"
A basic smartphone, he noted, now has more power than computers that drove the Apollo moon missions. For each consumer, this "cold, glass and metal object" appears to "offer mastery" of the whole world, he said.
But there's more to the iPhone than that.
"In retrospect, we understand that it represented something else, and that was the ultimate privatization in terms of this hyper individualistic world," said Mohler. "Now individuals, not just adults but adolescents and children, would inhabit their very own world in terms of access through the portal of this small rectangular device.
"We were already becoming a people marked by increasing social isolation. The iPhone – that came with the promise of connecting us to others – actually has had more the exact opposite effect. It has isolated us even further into our own technological and digital domains."
For example, in his rapturous reveal of the first iPhone, Jobs did not anticipate the potential impact on children of waves of private texts, bullies using social-media sites, programs that slice attention spans and easy access to online pornography.
Looking back, the "rise of the smartphone specifically … has more than anything else removed parents as the ultimate authorities and sources of truth in the lives of their own children," argued Mohler.
This leads directly to a painful question that parents and pastors no longer have the option of ducking: At what age should children be exposed to the realities of smartphone life? Many modern parents would never dare to discuss a smartphone-free existence with their teens.
There may be moral imperatives on both sides, Mohler noted. Many adults argue that smartphones provide safety and security for children when they're away from home. How can parents deny such a device to their kids?
"On the other hand," noted Mohler, "there's the case to be made that it's irresponsible in extreme to put a smartphone – with all of its connectivity, with all of its vulnerabilities, with all of its instant access – into the hands of those who are certainly by a parental responsibility to be guarded from many of the very things that that iPhone makes instantaneously and anonymously and privately accessible."