The Pocket Supercomputer

I don’t have many regrets in life but a professional one is that I opted not to cover the unveiling of the original iPhone [pictured from my archives] for my journalism clientele despite being in the area. My wife and I were new Apple devotees and wanted to visit San Francisco, so to celebrate my birthday that year we flew from Florida to California to attend the annual MacWorld convention, where then Apple chief Steve Jobs was doing the honors.

There were actually a couple of good reasons I didn't attend the festivities that historic morning. For starters, I wasn’t keen on waiting outside for hours in the pre-dawn chilly weather [a record cold snap hit the area] and I didn’t want to leave Linda back at the hotel to navigate the several blocks to the convention center by herself. But had I realized how historic an event it was I might have been more motivated. The iPhone is the biggest selling electronic device in history, with better than 700 MILLION sold to date, or more than twice the population of America, and it has revolutionized life as we know it.

Venture into public almost anywhere across America, or the world for that matter, and you are likely to find a multitude, if not a majority, of people using the almost ubiquitous smartphone. The iPhone has become so popular that people forget the sophisticated technological breakthroughs it introduced, including touchscreen navigation among others that we now take for granted. It is no exaggeration to consider it the original pocket supercomputer.

No less than renowned venture capitalist Marc Andreessen is quoted as saying so in the recently released book Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. “That iPhone sitting in your pocket is the exact equivalent of a Cray XMP supercomputer from twenty years ago that used to cost ten million dollars. It’s got the same operating system software, the same processing speed, the same data storage, compressed down to a six-hundred-dollar device. That is the breakthrough Steve achieved. That’s what these phones really are!”

According to an article by Joshua Brustein in a recent issue of Bloomburg Business titled “Inside RadioShack’s Slow-Motion Collapse,” “The cell phone also helped kill the rest of the retailer’s business by destroying the market for so many of the gadgets RadioShack used to sell, such as voice recorders, GPS devices, answering machines, and camcorders. Early last year, Steve Cichon, a writer for the website Trending Buffalo, sifted through a RadioShack ad from 1991 and found that his iPhone had negated any need for 13 of the 15 products being sold. The listed price on those items: $3,054.82.” Supercomputer indeed.

Phones, Drones and Automobiles

A summary of trends from the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that I read in USA Today identified the very issues I planned to blog about so I thought I’d share some of them here. Trend Five is “Don’t Ever Lose Your Smartphone” because so much other tech is tethered to it. Trend Three is “Drones Are Kind of a Big Deal” because like it or not flying robots are here to stay. And Trend One is “Cars Drive You” because self-driving cars are moving ever closer to reality.

In a play off the popular holiday movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” I am titling this post “Phones, Drones and Automobiles.” Each of these technologies offers not only a promising upside but also a pernicious downside that we need to reckon with before we all plunge headlong into using them without exercising due diligence. Some personal exposure to the downside of each of these technologies has caused me to pause and reflect about their respective uses.

I must admit that I love my smartphone but thoughtless use by people so addicted to the device’s charms that they can’t keep themselves from abusing it is downright scary. From distracted driving to sexting selfies, many people apparently think they are the center of the cosmos and act accordingly. For example, selfish people have so spoiled the theatre experience for my wife and I that we have all but quit going to movies and other public gatherings. Even church has become a chore.

As for drones, Linda and I encountered one at, of all places, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin, the site of some of the Civil War’s bloodiest fighting. The event featured a grand illumination of 10,000 lights to remember the fallen and yet hovering overhead during much of the evening was, you guessed it, an annoyingly buzzing drone. It was ostensibly there to document the event but it had the effect of dampening the experience for us.

And when it comes to self-driving cars, I can’t help thinking of the law of unintended consequences and the resulting chaos that such vehicles are likely to cause on our roadways. Personally, I am hoping that they receive as unwelcome a reception as Google glasses and Segway transporters, both of which may have been promising in theory but unpopular in reality. Technology is only as intelligent as its users and unless we can harness our humanity to serve the greater good it is an exercise in futility.

Intentional Technology

Writer Pico Iyer, author of the new book The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, has this advice for all those who think they are too busy to tame their use of technology: “It’s precisely those who are busiest who most need to give themselves a break.” According to Iyer, the World Health Organization has stated that “stress will be the health epidemic of the twenty-first century.” And he adds that a third of American companies now have “stress-reduction programs” to help alleviate it.

Iyer, who does not use a cellphone or social media, also shares the story of how his friend, technologist Kevin Kelly, “had written his latest book about how technology can ‘expand our individual potential’ while living without a smartphone, a laptop, or a television in his home. Kevin still takes off on months-long trips…without a computer, so as to be rooted in the nonvirtual world. ‘I continue to keep the cornucopia of technology at arm’s length,’ [Kelly] writes, ‘so that I can more easily remember who I am.’”

It is remembrance of the essential that people frequently forget. So easily distracted by digital devices, people ignore those present in the name of being connected to ones absent. It grieves me to observe groups of people together in public yet glued to their screens instead of paying attention to one another. The saddest occasions are the ones involving families oblivious to the obvious: that each individual is neglecting their loved ones for the fleeting attention of so-called friends, fans or followers.

Digital distraction has grown to the point that it has gotten difficult to enjoy simple pleasures like going to a movie or concert due to other people’s rudeness ruining the community experience. And the deadly driving of texting twits endangers all of us on a daily basis. All of which reminds my wife and I to be even more intentional about our own use of electronic devices, including not using them on weekends, or at least on the Sabbath. Gadgets are designed as useful tools but are not meant to be our gods.

The Screen Age

I enjoy gadgets as much as the next guy but a series of events this past weekend convinced me the incivility of others misusing them threatens our pursuit of happiness, our liberties, and our very lives; in other words, all the things our society was founded upon, if I may be so dramatic.

Because my wife had Good Friday off we headed out to view a matinee showing of the uplifting movie Heaven Is For Real, a faith-based film focused on high-minded themes like uh, heaven and eternal life, for instance. Such topics surely would bring out the best in one’s fellow men, or at least fellow moviegoers, wouldn’t you think? Well, think again!

Before we even entered the theatre complex itself a “screenager” fixated on his smartphone acted anything but smart by walking right into me, so I suggested he watch what he was doing, which he summarily sloughed off without so much as an apology.

Once inside the theatre, the one where they play repeated reminders to turn OFF all devices, a woman sitting in front of us insisted upon checking her smartphone several times during the movie until I politely asked her to stop, at which point she reluctantly did so. Suffice it to say that smartphones and stupid people do not mix.

I once heard a clever turn of phrase suggesting that an “ipodectomy” be administered to people dependent on iPods and other such devices. Either that or a lobotomy, I think. The thing I’ve come to realize is that technology simply amplifies who we are as people. If one acts rudely without an iPhone, one is likely to act more so with one. And movie going is the least of our issues when so many distracted drivers threaten our safety with their thoughtlessness. Heaven IS for real and we need to act like it here on earth by not being so selfish using our devices.