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The iPhone doesn't have the power to ruin (or rescue) everything

TJ Luoma, @tjluoma

In five short years, the iPhone has managed to go from being a complete failure with no chance of making a significant impact on the cell phone market to literally ruining our lives.

That final conclusion comes via Kevin Roose in a New York Magazine story with the completely un-linkbaitish headline Happy Birthday, iPhone: You're Ruining Everything. Now, I'm usually good at word puzzles, but no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to rearrange the letters "KEVIN ROOSE" to spell "Andy Rooney."

Kevin seems to be channeling the late, legendarily curmudgeonly 60 Minutes correspondent. His article amounts to little more than the same arguments that have been made about the Internet, television, the telephone, airline travel, and these darn kids with the baggy pants and their rock & roll music. Roose seems to want the iPhone to get off his lawn.

Roose claims that people in his social circle used to read books and had long, meaningful conversations, but now they are "a bunch of panicky, overstimulated, screen-fixated automatons." This is definitely good news to anyone who considers Roose a friend. It's not often you get to know the full, unvarnished truth about what someone thinks of you, but Roose thinks his friends are idiots. So that's nice.

Roose asks, "Has [the iPhone] made us happier, more productive, and more creative, like Steve Jobs seemed to promise back in 2007?"

You'll notice that Roose said "seemed to promise" rather than "promised" -- probably because he knows that Steve Jobs never promised those things, but he wants to hold Steve Jobs accountable for his own inferences. Apparently Roose has never been exposed to marketing before, so this has taken him completely by surprise. But let's assume that Steve Jobs had made such a promise, either explicitly or implicitly.

Has the iPhone made me happier? No. Has the iPhone made me sadder? No. Has the iPhone made me more productive? No. Has the iPhone made me less productive? No. Has the iPhone made me more creative? No. Has the iPhone made me less creative? No.

Know why? Because the iPhone is made of glass and plastic and electronics.

Am I happier because of my iPhone? Actually, yes. Because I had the iPhone, I joined Twitter. Because I was on Twitter, I met some incredibly cool people, some of whom became really good friends. When I got my 3GS, my wife got my original iPhone, and she started on Twitter too, and she met them too. In fact, at a gathering of Twitter friends in 2009, my wife met someone who worked as a veterinary technician, and decided that she wanted to go back to school.

For the past two years, she's been away from home 4-5 days a week for her studies. We kept in contact on our iPhones (thank you, iMessage). She wrote papers on her iPhone. She has apps for looking up drug combinations and treatment guides. She just graduated, with honors. We iMessaged during the ceremony. I took a video of her getting her diploma on my iPhone. I posted pictures to Tumblr to share with our friends. I emailed them to her mom, who viewed them on her iPad. (Her mom, by the way, has always felt intimidated and overwhelmed by computers, but loves her iPad.)

This weekend I officiated at a wedding of two friends who met through Tumblr. The wedding was held in the backyard of other friends they had met through Twitter and Tumblr. 99% of those in attendance first knew each other through Twitter or Tumblr. There were a few Droid users (including the bride and groom!) but the rest of us were primarily iPhone users.

I put the entire service together on my iPad, and read it off my iPad. The wedding was live-streamed over the Internet via another iPad, which meant that people across the country and indeed the world could watch in real time as their friends got married. Some friends watched on their phones in the car, another watched from an airplane. One watched from her bed because she came down with a fever and didn't want to risk getting anyone sick, but she didn't have to miss the ceremony.

Afterwards we had cake, we talked, we danced, we laughed, and yes, sometimes we checked Tumblr and Twitter too. There was a hashtag for wedding related posts. During the reception, I received a text from a friend back in Ohio who told me he had been admitted to the hospital, and was able to exchange a few messages with him. I also heard from some other friends who told us about some weather-related storm damage. I sent off a quick message to my mom (who read it on her iPad) to remind her we were out of town for the weekend so she wouldn't worry about us being without electricity.

The iPhone is a tool, like a hammer or a car or a paintbrush or a pen and paper. It won't make you creative. But if you decide that you want to be creative, there are plenty of opportunities be creative with an iPhone. It won't make you happy, but it can help keep you connected to family and friends. It might even help you meet new ones.

That's not marketing; that's reporting, because that's exactly what it has done for me. Has it made me "more productive"? Well, let's assume for a minute that we could actually come up with some way to measure that. In the 5 years since I've had an iPhone, there have been countless times when I found myself suddenly "waiting" with unexpected minutes to fill.

With my iPhone, I could decide what to do with that time. When talking about the wonderfully awesome Instapaper, Merlin Mann once wrote that when you find yourself with an iPhone and free time, you can "decide to throw birds at pigs" or check Facebook or whatever other fad app is popular. But then he added "Thing is, you could also decide to read. Just for a couple minutes. Maybe more. Maybe less. Who knows. It's your decision."

Sometimes when I have those free minutes, I decide to kill zombies with plants. Sometimes I check my email. Sometimes I check Tumblr or Twitter. And sometimes I read Instapaper, or a Kindle book. Each of those options makes me happier than just sitting there waiting for whatever I'm waiting for. reminds me to take medication every day. I know for a fact that without that reminder, I'll forget to take it. Before I started using, I was taking both my medications at the same time, because I was afraid I'd forget. Turns out that taking them both at the same time caused some bad side effects which are completely mitigated if I take them at least two hours apart. Now I have two reminders which go off each day, and which keep going off until I take my medication. So my iPhone is helping make me healthier as well. (Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who have used it to track weight loss and food intake.)

Roose's argument basically boils down to not liking the way his friends use their iPhones. The problem is that Roose blames this on the iPhone, rather than on his friends. Even worse, he considers his experience and his friends' behavior as normative. So if his friends are mindless drones, then everyone with an iPhone is a mindless drone, and the problem is the iPhone.

The end result is pretty much a pile of ridiculous linkbait, which misses the fact that the iPhone has just as much potential to make life better as it does potential to make it worse. The telephone didn't ruin society, nor did recorded music, or the airplane, or any of the other technological advances that have been made.

I imagine that if Roose had been friends with the first primitive Homo sapiens who tamed fire, he would have complained that "back before we had fire, everyone used to sleep in a giant pile to keep warm at night. Fire is tearing us apart!" Once you stop blaming technology for people's actions and decisions, you'll probably be able to see a lot more of the positive possibilities.

Photo by Alex Proimos | flickr cc

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