Ten years ago, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. It was slick, beautiful, and elegant—unlike anything we’d ever seen. Who knew then that a pocket-sized slab of plastic and glass would soon become our favorite companion? Now, here we are, ten years later, wishing the iPhone a happy birthday.
Welcome to Version X
The newest incarnation, the X, which Apple HQ rolled out this week to frenzied fanfare, boasts a color-rich screen and a facial mapping technology that can recognize and animate our faces into monkeys or piles of poop.
The reviews are mixed: Some wax poetic about simpler days. Others pile aboard the X bandwagon. Still others lay siege on technology or Apple or both. Most, though, tread water somewhere in the middle, prone to occasional self-examination, but mostly content to believe that the upside of ten years with the iPhone has far outweighed the downside.
This much, at least, is clear: The decennial anniversary of the iPhone is a reminder that we are swimming in the murky waters of a cultural shift. How we work, how we communicate, even how we think is being shaped by the every-swelling sea of phones, apps, and electronic gadgets.
Our president is tweeting. So is the Pope. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has more than eight million Twitter followers. Like many people, I’m trying to figure out where I stand. Cultural shifts, after all, are confusing.
So, as the iPhone turns ten this week, I’ve been wrestling with the facts and doing a little thinking.
At present, I own an iPhone 6, which now suddenly seems embarrassingly Jurassic. Can I resist the siren song of the X’s lucid screen and its velvety thousand-dollar curves? And should I? But, like you, I’ve heard the warnings: Spending too much time on a phone is unhealthy. It will make me envious. It will make me lonely. It will make me unstable and anti-social. It will wreak havoc on my sleep.
"Can I resist the siren song of the X’s lucid screen and its velvety thousand- dollar curves?"
But who listens to warnings anymore? Besides, I’ve never been a big believer in the idea that technology is to blame for societal shortcomings. The more we condemn smartphones for our shortcomings the more we ignore the dirty secret that no one wants to talk about: Phones aren’t to blame. We are.
So let’s let the iPhone X enjoy a guilt-free birthday week, but let’s not get carried away. It’s easy to get lost in the remarkable triumphs of the iPhone. We love to tell ourselves how amazing we are; we do the same when it comes to our prized possessions. We’re incredible and so is the iPhone X. "We can do anything." It's what helicopter parents incessantly tell their kids. It’s what all the classroom posters say. It’s the topic du jour of Ted Talks and self-help books.
The Fine Line between Love and Obsession
As a society, we’re so accustomed to perpetual praise and the iPhone is so monumentally successful that we seem unable to accept the possibility that our relationship with our beautiful phones may not be as perfect as we think. Did you know on average we check our mobile devices about 80 times per day? That's once every 11 minutes. Yes, we love our phones, but there’s a fine line between love and unhealthy obsession.
Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “habit energy”—that irresistible compulsion we feel when we look repeatedly at our screens. It’s “strong energy,” he warns. “If we are not aware of it, it can be stronger than we are.”
When I was a boy, my mother preached her own sermon on “habit energy” by reading me a poem about a kid who watches too much TV:
The poem was published in 1974, 30 year before the advent of Facebook, 33 years before the first iPhone was released, and 37 years before Snapchat.
When I reread the poem again today, it stirred memories of a time when phones where connected to walls and TVs only had three channels. It was a simpler age, no doubt, but the dilemma was the same—unplugging isn't easy and technology isn't going away.
Like most people, though, I’ve never been a good at heeding warnings. I suspect that I’ll eventually own an iPhone X. I’m not a minimalist or a luddite. I have a job that requires me to use technology. I have a busy life. I use my phone to organize, navigate, and communicate. You probably do, too.
If we do finally hold the X, with all its splendor, in our hands, we need to remind ourselves that it’s easy to succumb to the facile seduction of our phones. If we aren't careful, they can encourage narcissism, shallowness, and self-promotion. Mr. Hanh and my mother were right: We need to figure out how to find a balance with technology or our bottoms will grow into our chairs.
"We need to remind ourselves that it’s easy to succumb to the facile seduction of our phones."
Emojis and Inner-peace
The Dalai Lama, weekly tweeter that he is, has mindfully reflected on this dilemma. Digital devices, he says, are “wonderful” but he warns that we can “become slaves” to them if we aren’t careful.
I doubt that the Dalai Lama is as mesmerized as I am by the marvels of the X, for he is a man of great fortitude and character. But if he plans to keep tweeting at this current rate, His Holiness is eventually going to have to upgrade his current phone. When he does, who knows, maybe he’ll opt for the sexy iPhone X and its magical assortment of emojis.
But we are not the Dalai Lama. We need to remind ourselves that we lack his self-control and resilience.
When we conjure emojis of our grinning faces, and snap luminous wide-angle photos, and chat, and tweet, and hail Uber with abandon, we need to remind ourselves that we are not blessed with the perspective born of reincarnation and inner-peace.
For this reason, the birthday of the iPhone might also be a reminder that we need to wage a campaign against our weaker tendencies.
"We need to wage a campaign against our weaker tendencies."
We need to remind ourselves that technology is just a tool, and nothing more. We need to remind ourselves that, like lady Macbeth, smartphones have a way of teasing out the worst in us and distracting us from things that matter.
When we press the “ON” button for the first time on our new iPhone X, we should remind ourselves that the same button that turns the phone on also turns it off. We need to remember that when we power down our phones powerful things happen: We talk. We listen. We think.
Experience is the best teacher but experiences doesn’t arise while we are scrolling or swiping; balance, fortitude, and humility can’t be nurtured on Facebook; the inspiration of solitude and daydream isn’t found on Instagram; there is no emoji that can fully capture the soft mist of a mountain waterfall.
"There is no emoji that can fully capture the soft mist of a mountain waterfall."
Many years ago, in my pre-iPhone life, I was riding a bike in Japan. I came upon a construction site. A man in a blue uniform jumped in front of me and crossed his arms in an X—he was warning me that there was danger ahead. In Japan, an X is cautionary. The larger the X the firmer the warning.
It’s funny how memory works. When apple announced that they were using an X for their new phone my mind instantly returned to that narrow road in Japan and that gaping trench that I nearly pedaled into.
Apple tells us that the X on the new iPhone is supposed to stand for 10. It’s clever, I admit, but I think the X might be more accurately understood if it meant “warning,” the way it does in Japan. After all, warnings can sometimes be helpful and timely. They prevent us from crashing our bicycles. They save us from ourselves.
"Warnings can sometimes be helpful and timely. They prevent us from crashing our bicycles. They save us from ourselves."
In the spirit of brotherly love that comes with birthdays and in the spirt of extending an olive branch to those—like me—who are still a little uncomfortable at the party, perhaps the geniuses at Apple might consider affixing a warning label to the box that the iPhone X arrives in. This is what it should say:
“BEFORE OPENING THIS BOX, YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT THE DEVICE INSIDE HAS AN APPLE ON IT BECAUSE, LIKE A SLIGHTLY MORE FAMOUS APPLE, THIS APPLE IS BOTH POWERFUL AND TEMPTING, BOTH BEAUTIFUL AND WICKED, BUT OH SO DELICIOUS."