‘Always On’: is the iPhone making us or breaking us?

It is so early in the history of hand-held, Internet-connected devices such as the iPhone that only a seer can tell what the implications of this new way of life will be 10 or 15 years down the road.

Are we all becoming hopelesssly addicted to checking email and social networking sites and all of the other iPhone goodies to the point that it is interfering with our “real” life?

Or are we learning more and staying in touch with people (and things) we care about on a level that could not have been dreamed of a generation ago?

Those are two of the questions wired.com columnist Brian X. Chen looks at in his very entertaining and thought-provoking book “Always On” (Da Capo) which is subtitled “How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In.”

For many of us, the societal impact of the iPhone has been pushed to the back of our minds by the amazement of having a combination phone, computer and recording device that fits neatly into a pocket.

“Always On” gives us a sharp and funny journalist/guide who shows us how the Apple phone (and the iPad that followed) and its easily used apps are reaching into nearly aspect of modern life, from finding a movie to see tonight to performing life-saving miracles in the middle of a disaster (Chen illustrates the latter notion in an account of a man who saved his own life by following the medical instructions on an iPhone app).

Chen does not generalize or draw sweeping conclusions — he makes it clear that we are still in the early stages of a phenomenon caused by the introduction of a great tool whose uses are a long way from being fully explored.

“Always On” shows us that studies into the way that an easily accessed Internet might be hurting us are inconclusive. One study shows students gaining knowledge from the use of iPhones/iPads in the classroom, another implies that kids are distracting themselves from their studies with handheld devices.

The text messaging capabilities of phones have led many easily distracted people — especially young people — into behaviors that they know are dangerous (i.e. responding to a text message while driving). But should we blame a device or the person who uses it? 

Chen illustrates the confusion over our current technological state of affairs through a section of the book on President Obama’s ambivalent (some would say wishy washy) view of the impact of the Internet on American life. Obama used social networking and other Internet tools to win the presidency, but after getting elected he seemed to turned slightly Luddite: “And with iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations — none of which I know how to work — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.”

Near the end of the book, Chen reminds us of how every advance in communication technology has faced skepticism and fear — going all the way back to Socrates’ belief that preserving the spoken word by writing it down would destroy the very notion of memory.

Joe Meyers