What’s next, iPhone?

Published Jul 7, 2017 at 4:00pm

Ten years ago, we were hearing about a new high-tech device that transfixed us even before it reached the market: the iPhone. Skeptics predicted that the iPhone would flop because it wasn’t really necessary. They already had flip cellphones for calls, BlackBerrys for emails, digital or film cameras for snapping photos, Garmin or MapQuest printouts for street navigation and iPods for music. Why, they reasoned smugly, did they need an iPhone?

A billion phones, and all those selfies and texts and adorable guinea pig videos later, we all know why. No one then could fathom or predict how profoundly the iPhone and its competitors would shape everyday life -- and demolish industries. What’s even more fascinating than celebrating the 10th anniversary of the iPhone’s release on June 29, 2007? Anticipating its eventual demise and the tech marvels that will take its place. Wall Street Journal writer Christopher Mims predicts that by the iPhone’s 20th anniversary, the phone will have morphed into something else. It could be thin and foldable. Or completely irrelevant.

All those apps and services that make it a vital umbilical link to the world may have migrated to other devices or venues. He writes: “There’s a voice in your ear giving you turn-by-turn directions and, in between, prepping you for this meeting. Oh, right, you’re supposed to be interviewing a dog whisperer for your pet-psychiatry business. You arrive at the coffee shop, look around quizzically, and a woman you don’t recognize approaches. A display only you can see highlights her face and prints her name next to it in crisp block lettering, Terminator-style. Afterward, you’ll get an automatically generated transcript of everything the two of you said.”

If that’s a glimpse of the future, it is frightening. The purpose of our brains is to retain important information and forget everything else, including awkward encounters with various people throughout the day. The purpose of Google is to fish out errant facts that have been inadvertently erased from the mind’s hard drive. Who wants all the stupid stuff you say every day immortalized for future generations? A future in which every move you make is tracked, every experience annotated, is a future that never leaves you alone with your thoughts.

Remember the 2000 nonfiction book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” by Harvard University professor Robert Putnam? His points then: People don’t make connections like they used to. They don’t get to know their neighbors or join social clubs or professional organizations. They neglect to vote and skip church. Putnam’s likely culprit: television, “which seems to emit a sort of irresistible tractor beam dragging people into chairs and pinning them there, hour after hour, night after night,” then-Chicago Tribune critic Julia Keller wrote in a book review.

“With our every action mapped to every outdoor and indoor space we inhabit -- combined with the predictive power of artificial intelligence and distributed across a suite of devices for which Siri has become the default interface -- the result could be a life directed by our gadgets,” Mims writes. If you’re on a diet, your refrigerator could chide you every time you reach for the moose tracks ice cream.

Your iScold, with its annoying psychological expertise, could patiently explain how you just mishandled that conversation with your daughter’s teacher. And, gulp, what might your scale or your mirror say? Maybe that is our future, and we’ll have the iPhone to blame or thank. We’ll see. Until then, though, we remain in charge of our phones. We can use them 24/7, or if we dare, turn them off.