Friday, April 12, 2013

Brian Chen: Always On

Got a cell phone? (I know you do. Even THB has one.) Got a smart phone? You probably do, even if THB doesn't have one. Got a tablet? Take it everywhere? Use it all the time? Use one of these things more than a computer? Yes, if you're honest, probably. Brian Chen knows all about it. He's not critical of it, he just knows about it and in his short "Always On," he shares a bit about what the iPhone has done to create the "anything-anytime-anywhere" world we now live in. The book, written in 2010 and published in 2013 is, amazingly but not surprisingly, out of date already, thanks to the very phenomena he writes about. The book is uneven and at times Chen seems giddy about technology, but you can't really blame him- he writes for Wired; it's his job to love this stuff.

"Always On" is iPhone-centric because Steve Jobs (still alive at the time of writing) and Apple were at the forefront of creating anything-anytime-anywhere phenomena with their iPhone and other phones had to hurry to catch up. Also, Chen explains, the vertical integration that Jobs, the control freak, built into the phone was key to its success. Other smartphone companies couldn't initially compete (and now are way behind in market share) due to the fact that they didn't control the whole process. Apple built the whole physical phone and the whole ecosystem including iTunes and the App store. Other companies like Google and Microsoft figured this out later. In the meantime, customers both benefited and suffered from Apple's invention. The App store has a bajillion apps which can do everything and will be able to do more. They've made some people extremely rich and saved people's lives. On the other hand, they're subject to Apple's rigorous screening that borders on censorship: when we depend on one company for so much of our content and assume that that is all that is out there, our world becomes limited by their whims. Further, Apple is very careful about what kinds of coding can go into the apps because the company is terrified that something will get in there and "break" or modify the phone. This means that creativity is stifled; hacking for good is often a way of making new and cool stuff. No hacking allowed on the iPhone.

My main quibble with this book- besides that it's not very well written (it's fine for what it is)- is that Chen can't seem to decide which side he's on and doesn't acknowledge that. The book opens with a heartwarming story about a guy who saves his own life while trapped in a building thanks to his iPhone. He chuckles at the idea of technology making us stupider, and later in the book talks at length (for a short book) about the idea that our brains have been changed by technology. Although he gives both sides on both of these issues, it's clear that he favors the "no, we're not stupider" and "no, we're not changed" arguments. We get a personal anecdote about how he tried to unplug with disastrous results for both him and his people. Then comes the chapter about privacy. Chen pretty clearly is worried that the "always on" culture is dangerous. "We should ask," he writes, "How can we use these technologies so that data can benefit us rather than cause harm?" This is the smartest thing he says in the whole book, but it comes on page 189, 3/4 of the way through the book, and should probably come before all of the other stuff, if it's what Chen believes. Instead, it comes later, and I can't figure out if it's what he thinks, or if it's what he thinks about privacy issues. Bottom line, this is a decent, fast read with some interesting history on our new smartphone appendage.


thb said...

So, THB was threatened with a smart phone and was smart enough to refuse it. Or, not smart enough and too shaky in the hand/finger controls to warrant one. Who knows?