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The iPhone Perspective

February 22, 2013

I got an iPhone two months ago, after years of pretending that I would never own one. Before the iPhone I had a Blackberry (from my employer) that I used infrequently, as well as a regular old cell phone that I took everywhere. I knew I’d eventually get an iPhone whether I wanted to or not because the world around me would eventually orient itself entirely toward smartphones, at which point not having one would qualify me as “that guy.”

I bring any new technology into my life with caution. The more potent and life-changing the technology, the more caution I use. An iPhone, of course, is among the most powerful and invasive devices one could ever integrate into his sensory experience, something that can truly affect the way you think, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I was frightened by what owning an iPhone might do to me. Marshall McLuhan said that technological extensions are also amputations—which faculties was I about to lose?


   Perugino’s perspective, before we had iPhones

Whether it’s true or not—and it probably is—America’s narrative about itself is that the iPhone represents the greatest height we are capable of reaching as a society, like the moon landing for a different generation. So why not participate? I saw the purchase as an experiment. By using an iPhone, I’d find out exactly how it affects the human sensorium: what gets better, what gets worse, and how the device redirects perception. No matter how much discipline you have, a smartphone is going to have some nontrivial impact on your relationship to the world around you. I knew it was important to think about this early, before I adjusted to the iPhone and stopped noticing its effects.

The most interesting quality of smartphones, to me, is their redefinition of individual perspective. Again, Marshall McLuhan’s observation helps here: The iPhone is a kind of eye, although it doesn’t fully replace (“amputate”) the human eye. It augments or extends it. More than just visually, the iPhone is something we look into and through to see the world around us. Each app presents a different kinds of vision—a different Umwelt. Yelp, for example, lets the user “see” resturants, bars, and other places of business, but leaves everything else invisible.

Media in the previous technological era, during which McLuhan wrote and lived, revolved around the television, radio, novel, and newspaper. Each required a centralized infrastructure that delivered standardized content to mass audiences. Everyone read the same paper and watched the same shows and movies. The economics of publishing, printing, and producing all encouraged this. Every living room’s TV presented the same channels in the same static form, with slight regional variations and the ability to switch from channel to channel.

When I started using my own iPhone, I kept thinking about the Bat-Signal - the searchlight that projected Batman’s logo into the night sky as a distress call - and how such a signal makes no sense in the iPhone era. My broader question was this: How do you send a message when you want to be certain it’s received? Fifty years ago, everyone was looking in the same directions. If you needed Batman, you shined an image into the sky that everyone saw, so to speak. Similarly, important messages appeared in the newspapers that everyone read and on the TV channels that everyone watched.

The Bat-Signal is no longer how you communicate. The algorithmic personalization of the smartphone and internet, combined with the long tail of choices they make possible, ensure that no two people see the same version of the same thing. Facebook and Twitter are read more widely than the most circulated newspaper ever was, but the Facebook you see and the one I see are almost completely different because the content comes from our own lives, not a producer or publisher. Even the media of the last century—movies, TV, and recorded music, all still as popular as ever—are chopped up and repackaged via a multitude of digital channels, ensuring that everyone receives them somewhat differently.

An iPhone is simply hardware that reinforces this solipsistic mode. Your phone has different apps than mine, so you can see things that I can’t see, and vice versa. If Batman got a distress text message instead of a Bat-Signal, nobody else would know. Each smartphone is a unique repository of its owner’s memory, attention, and sensory capacity. We still have eyes and a sky to look up at, but important messages are no longer projected onto that sky because the bulk of attention is directed inward, and the smartphone is how we receive as well as transmit messages in that new interior space. These messages are like Bat-Signals projected in ultraviolet light, invisible to the human eye without special tools to help it see.