Thoughts on the smartphone revolution

I was sitting on the bus the other day, watching at least two people around me playing with their iPhones, and I got to thinking. Those of us alive today are lucky enough to be witnessing a pretty major shift in the development of human civilization. No, no, I'm serious. Hear me out.

I think we're getting close to the point where we can stop thinking of personal computing and the Internet—be they delivered on a smartphone or a PC—as discrete tools and start thinking of them as an extension of our brains. Almost like early precursors to sci-fi brain upgrades, really. I think smartphones in particular have crystallized that notion, providing near-universal access to information and extra thinking power with previously unequaled convenience.

Think about it: if you have a modern consumer smartphone, you can know exactly where you are, where your friends are, and look up almost anything about anything with a few taps and swipes, anywhere, anytime. You can find out instantly what stars you're looking at in the sky or what music is playing over the loudspeakers at the drug store. You can solve an equation for x or swipe a bar code to see if you're getting the best deal on a product. You can buy a book off Amazon and read it right there or find out what news is being reported all over the world at that instant. Even 10 years ago, having that kind of power, not just in a tiny handheld device, but in a tiny handheld device that everyday people feel compelled to carry in their pockets, would have sounded like science fiction. Yet here we are.

I think this is just the beginning, though. In a few years, I expect people will begin to recognize that having and using these proto-brain-upgrades is becoming quintessential to our ability to function in society, kind of like the ability to read and write. Being lettered, by the way, wasn't always viewed as a necessity, either.

Consider a high-school student being quizzed. Today, not knowing an answer off the top of his head would result in lost points and a potential F. Tomorrow? I reckon looking up the answers on the Internet, either with a smartphone or some more advanced device, will be seen as perfectly normal. The previously unequaled proximity of our minds to the pool of collective human knowledge means using a networked computing device to make up for gaps in personal knowledge will be no more "cheating" than, say, using language to exchange information with another human being or building a fire to keep warm.

In other words, I think we're headed toward a future where communication is so accelerated and our thinking abilities are so expanded by technology that humanity ends up with a sort of hive mind. Our personal knowledge might become not unlike cache memory, a mere stepping stone to the multi-terabyte RAID of available knowledge—and getting from one to the other might become nearly as quick. Similarly, our thinking and reasoning power might become comparable to the slow ARM processors in today's smartphones, which can talk to server farms full of powerful multi-core CPUs over the airwaves. Rather than being assimilated like the Borg, I think we'll be augmented with the collective pool of human knowledge and the capabilities of our best machines at all times.

I've experienced the hive mind phenomenon in its early stages countless times, using Wikipedia, IMDB, Wolfram Alpha, and random Google searches to supplement conversations, be they over instant messages or in real life, without really thinking about it. With fast Internet access anywhere I happen to be, the frustration of, say, having the name of an actor or a word on the tip of my tongue has become an eerily antiquated notion. It's a bit like that Seinfeld episode where George tries and fails to find Jerry, Elaine, and Susan at the movies—a situation that would be easily resolved by a couple of quick text messages today. Over a little more than a decade, we've completely taken ubiquitous communication via cell phones for granted. I don't think what I propose is a great leap from that.

This all brings me to another, interesting observation: the unlikely facilitator of this monumental transition is Apple. No, really, think about it: this company has been there at every turn. The Apple II and Mac precipitated the arrival of easy-to-use home computers, and in recent years, the iPhone has precipitated the rise of smartphones—which, as I've said, are crystallizing the notion that information technology is becoming an extension of ourselves.

Before January 9, 2007, the devices people called smartphones were mostly business-oriented, not nearly as easy to use, as desirable, as convenient, or as affordable. Today, you can get an Android phone with a big, comfortable touch screen and a fast web browser for free with a two-year contract from some carriers. That phone, incidentally, will offer speedy web browsing courtesy of the WebKit engine, which is Apple's baby. Would Android, Windows Phone 7, or webOS function the way they do and have such a reach among consumers, let alone exist, if the iPhone hadn't come along? I don't think so.

Some of you might now point out that Apple didn't invent big touch screens and that WebKit is actually based off of KHTML, which was coded up by some Linux geeks in Germany. That's true, and it's actually a pretty good example of Apple's MO: taking good, promising technology, polishing it to the point where it's consumer-friendly, and bringing it into the mainstream, usually with expertly devised marketing. It's not necessarily about innovating, more like being in the right place at the right time with the right goals. Somehow, though, that formula has made Apple a trailblazer in the industry.

Apple is clearly reaping the rewards of its huge influence, too. Despite failing to cash in during the late 80s and 90s, Apple now makes more money than Microsoft and briefly became the second most-valued company on the planet in September... right after PetroChina, an oil company. How fitting.

For all its downsides, I think it'd be foolish to argue that oil hasn't provided man with a previously unimaginable ability to move and shape the world around him (if my math is right, a single gallon of gas contains the same amount of energy as about 29 hours' worth of continuous physical work by an Olympic athlete). Meanwhile, for all its errors and flaws, Apple has put itself at the helm of an industry that can change our thinking and reasoning abilities just as radically. Today, taking motorized transport to work is the norm. Tomorrow, I think unintended ignorance will be the exception.

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