It feels like a cliché to even ask, but has any piece of technology since the television transformed our lives more quickly and more severely than the iPhone? On paper, Steve Jobs's "three revolutions in one" seemed like a mere refinement of several other products out there: a step-up from Blackberry, a mini-laptop, the sexy Apple version of a Nokia with WAP capability. But in practice, it's become the defining gadget of our era, one that landed harder and faster than even the internet, which took well over a decade to become more than just Quicktime porno video and the IMDb on a beige dalek in the corner of your living room.
The iPhone has changed not only the way we communicate, as Jobs stated was his intention at the original 2007 launch, but also our behavior, our way of thinking, our way of looking at the world. In less than ten years, iPhones have increasingly become the portals to our exterior: work, fun, sex, and culture. To consume any one of these things, you have to go through them. To live in the world of 2016, you have to have one. People with Blackberrys have become the new people with Netscape or those bikes you lay down on that always look like they're about to go under a bus. iPhones are the millennial Model T-Ford, the standard and the constant. The only.
But I don't have one. And it's a decision I'm glad of just about every day of my life. It started with an unfortunate encounter about two years ago (two of them, one of me, not a have-a-go hero in sight, an easy-to-shift $300 item in my hand in the midst of an economic downturn), and I'm pretty certain I know which way it's going to stay. It wasn't ideology that started it, more laziness and a fear of bureaucracy: having to go into a shop to sort it out, the indignity of refusing various upgrades and taxes and asking for just what I had before, being treated like the person who orders off the "American menu" at a Chinese restaurant. So I put it off, and the next day became the next week, and the next week became never.
I felt like I'd cheated the system. By refusing to get an iPhone, I had become exempt from everyone else's bullshit.
At first it was difficult and annoying and I suffered a few fair moments of being stood up, locked out, and sometimes quite simply forgotten about. But soon, I began to notice a shift in the way I looked at the world. I stopped waking up with somebody else's problem chipping away at my psyche. I started being able to separate day from night, life from work, important from trivial. There were no more "hey guys, we really need to get on this one-pager today." There were no requests to get anything in first thing. People started making more of an effort to accommodate me, and in return I started to live by the actual time, rather than my own time. I started looking out of bus windows, reading and watching more, and thinking about myself less.
I felt like I'd somehow cheated the system. By refusing to get an iPhone, by not being around at everyone's beck and call, I had become exempt from everyone else's bullshit. Sometimes I see people having email conversations at ungodly hours and I can't help but feel like I'm watching some strange tradition that I'll never understand, like some weird religious festival in a small town that I'm only passing through. It simply doesn't feel like my shit anymore.
Before it gets twisted, I am not a luddite, a time lord, or anyone who would consider themselves "retro." My work and understanding of culture is almost entirely rooted in the internet. Like most of my generation, I like sneakers, techno and Twitter, WorldStar fight videos, and illegal streams. I believe in the power of technology.
And for a long time I found it hard to justify this contradiction: How can you spend most of your time on a laptop, immersed in internet capitalism, yet make a stance about not having an iPhone? It seemed absurd, hypocritical, highly pretentious. Yet instinctively I knew that I just didn't want one, and that my life had vastly improved since I ceased to have one.
Then came an interview with Aphex Twin at Noyzelab, which has now been deleted. There's a section where the interviewer reveals that despite Richard D. James's vast technology collection and his fascination and knowledge about synthesizers, computers, and all sorts of hard and software, he doesn't own a phone. "They just don't make people's lives better," he said.
Look around and you'll see that people are horribly, pathetically obsessed with their phones.
It struck a chord with me. I started researching more into people who didn't own them. Kanye claims to have not had one for three years (although Google Images suggests otherwise), Werner Herzog doesn't really use one, and writer Mark Fisher described them as "individualized command centers." And perhaps even more legitimately, there's been a wealth of worrying studies and statistics detailing the impact that they can have on us. A recent survey suggests that 58 percent of Brits feel unhappy or stressed when separated from their phones, for fuck 's sake.
These phones have had a fundamental effect on our concentration levels. Look around you when a train is late, or when you're on a journey of any kind, or even in the pub, and you'll see that people are horribly, pathetically obsessed with them. Staring into them for the answers but getting no real insight, some even thinking its OK to hold entire conversations while looking at the screen. We've become reliant on them for everything, to the point where we don't learn directions, where we don't need to know how to talk to people, where we simply can't be without one. Where the very threat of losing one makes us feel a bit weird.
The old cliché of human beings as slaves to computers has never been realized. Nobody is really that in love with his or her laptop. They're just the things we do our work on, the things we watch half-entertaining sitcoms on. But iPhones are different. They're very much tools of the system, the fingers on the long arms of capitalism, reaching into our lives and tapping us on the shoulder to remind us that there's always more work to do.
Because despite his propensity for weed, tennis shoes, and Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs was essentially an arch-capitalist, one who knew that making an item for play alone was never going to set the world alight. For an invention to really dominate our culture, it would—like the combustible engine or the airplane or the television—have to become part of industry as well. Otherwise it would just be a Tamagotchi with Facebook.
iPhones are money-making machines, and they exist in a totally free market. You can spend your money on them, and you can make your money through them. Even the fun bits of a iPhones can be monetized. They are apps you can buy, they are things you can sell, and advertise, and invest in. They aren't Snake or some pixelated version of Tetris. They're an industry, one like us, totally reliant on the totemic figure of Jobs 's rectangle.
Now, don't get me wrong. There are a lot of exciting things you can do with an iPhone, such as shooting a film like Tangerine. And in a way, I admire the utilitarian, easy-to-use ideal of them. But I wonder what will happen if we are ever plunged into the darkness without them. I worry about what is already happening to our visions of ourselves, and I wonder if the boy who became addicted to selfies is really just the start. I worry about a culture where people can't bother to watch anything longer than a Vine, and a mental health epidemic, when people are too stuck within their own selves.
It also saddens me, that for all the wonder of science, all the incredible things that technology has done for the world, all those dreams that were realized before me, and the ones I grew up thinking that may one day exist in my time, the bulk of the tech industry these days is dedicated to helping you get your work emails easier. That flying skateboard seems further away every day, but the idea of your boss using an iPhone to find out where you've been and why you're late on that report you were supposed to do seems much nearer.
Partly because it allows me to opt of a nu-capitalism that I can't get along with, partly because I just feel better, and partly because they just don't really excite me, I'm glad I still don't have an iPhone. Soon I might even cancel the contract I'm still paying for.
Follow Clive on Twitter.