Wrapping up the year with our reviews of Business Insider's Best Business Books of 2017, I (Dr. Hinson) am sharing my 3 takeaways from Brian Merchant's book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. Chances are pretty high that if you're reading this blog, you are either doing it on an iPhone (or other smartphone) or have one in your presence. The once unheard of devices have now become ubiquitous, for many people transforming into a "precious" part of their daily lives. As the resident historian/anthropologist on staff at Abbey Research, I set out on an epic literary adventure to discover the true origins of the of the most powerful object outside Middle-Earth (warning, more Lord of the Rings/Hobbit references ahead).
“The concept of the iPhone wasn’t the product of Steve Jobs imagination - though he would fiercely oversee, refine, and curate its features and designs -- but of an open-ended conversation, curiosity, and collaboration. It was a product born of technologies nurtured by other companies and then ingeniously refined by some of Apple’s brightest minds -- people who were then kept out of its public history.”
1. Myth-busting the mythology of Apple: Throughout American history we tend to expend a good deal of energy perpetuating the inventor's myth. Within industrial mythology Alexander Graham Bell and Benjamin Franklin, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are the Gandalf's to our lowly Hobbits, the radical geniuses behind some of the worlds greatest inventions. The truth of the iPhone is that thousands of people around the world are responsible for making the device. From the Purple Project team at Apple to the child miners in Bolivia and twenty-something factory workers in China - scores of humans are involved in the innovation, collaboration, experimentation and assembly necessary to create the one device. In light of this, we need to rethink how we approach innovation and creativity in these spaces and others - emphasizing the collective approach and the pooling of intellect, rather than focusing on spotlighting the lone creative genius.
“Which is why it’s absolutely necessary to interrupt the regularly scheduled story of collaboration, progress, and innovation with a reminder that it all comes at a cost, that the infrastructure that makes wireless technology possible is physically built out by human labor and high-risk work, and that people have died to grow and maintain that network.”
2. Advancement has a (high) price: With any passing knowledge of Tolkien lore, most people could identify Frodo Baggins (and his bumbling uncle Bilbo) as the heroes and protagonists of the Middle-Earth sagas. Yet, those of us who know and love the series recognize the great sacrifice of countless others, members of the fellowship and allies alike. Merchant's own saga includes travels to every area of the globe that supports the Apple behemoth. Tracing the sourcing of materials and production, we learn that injury, disease, and death are common bi-products of technological advancement. Low wages, poor work conditions, and lack of regulation drive the mass production of Apple (and other tech giants) parts from the mountains of Bolivia to the factory cities of Shanghai. With these armies of workers driving the machine of industry forward, there are now ethical considerations to be made - can we continue to claim ignorance of these conditions so long as we benefit from them?
“For all the talk about new innovative apps revolutionizing the economy, just bear in mind that when we actually put our money where our mouth is, 85 percent of the time, it’s paying for distractions.”
3. That would be a philosophical question: With each revelation about the history of its design and scale of its production, the iPhone gains a heftier philosophical weight. Much like Sauron's One Ring, the power and control wielded by the iPhone is a potent drug. Merchant uncovers an uneasiness with the original developers about the consequences of the systemic use of smartphones. We rely on them primarily for entertainment and navigation, replacing in-person conversations with games and streaming services. Though using it's features is fast becoming innate, they were toiled over for close to a decade by Apple employees who sacrificed physical and mental health, in order to answer the call of innovation. The cost of innovative technology goes well beyond those whose lives are negatively impacted. The iPhone has changed how we view the world and relate to each other. It's perils and implications (for distraction, education, development, and security) require careful consideration and cautious exploration as we navigate this new virtual territory.
Merchant's expansive and detailed history is a gripping (and disturbing) read, and one that is probably necessary for any of us that continue to rely on our smartphones to manage day-to-day life. A bit big for a stocking stuffer, but a great gift, especially during this season of spending and consuming!