Be­fore the next tech rev­o­lu­tion

In only 10 years, smart­phones changed our lives. Maybe we should think a bit be­fore invit­ing the ro­bots in?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY CHRIS­TINE EMBA Chris­tine Emba ed­its The Post’s In The­ory blog.

This year marks the 10th an­niver­sary of the iPhone’s de­but, the start of a so­ci­etal rev­o­lu­tion that no one quite ex­pected and a chance, per­haps, to re­flect on the im­pact of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­nolo­gies to come.

The de­vice was first pre­sented at the Jan­uary 2007 Mac­world con­fer­ence by the late Steve Jobs, who de­scribed it as a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mo­bile phone and a break­through In­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vice.” He wasn’t ex­ag­ger­at­ing. Smart­phones were al­ready on the scene — email-ca­pa­ble Black Ber­rys had emerged around 2003 — but the iPhone’s con­sumer fo­cus brought into the or­di­nary Amer­i­can’s ev­ery­day life a level of con­nec­tiv­ity pre­vi­ously ex­pected only of high-level cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives.

Since Jobs’s an­nounce­ment and the iPhone’s sub­se­quent re­lease a few months later, its rapid takeover of our ev­ery­day lives has been noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing. Roughly three-quar­ters of Amer­i­cans now own a smart­phone. We rely on these de­vices to nav­i­gate al­most ev­ery as­pect of our lives.

It’s prob­a­bly too late to peel our­selves away from our screens: Who, af­ter all, wants to give up in­stan­ta­neous con­tact, the In­ter­net at our fin­ger­tips, a GPS in ev­ery pocket and self­por­traits on de­mand? But it might be the right mo­ment to pause, rec­og­nize just how quickly and thor­oughly smart­phones up­ended our ways of be­ing, and con­sider whether a more in­ten­tional ap­proach might be mer­ited when the next “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” tool ar­rives.

Af­ter all, while we could have an­tic­i­pated that the iPhone would trans­form our abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate, we didn’t con­sider its im­pli­ca­tions for our work­force and so­ci­ety at large. Smart­phone-en­abled tech­nolo­gies such as Uber have flat­tened in­dus­tries and helped usher in a pre­car­i­ous new “gig econ­omy” in which rates, hours and em­ploy­ment al­to­gether are con­tin­gent on the whims of oth­ers. Con­stant con­nec­tiv­ity has made leav­ing the of­fice a thing of the past, to the point of nor­mal­iz­ing a work­week of 72 hours or more. The easy ac­ces­si­bil­ity of so­cial me­dia means that our pres­i­dent can ca­su­ally spark an in­ter­na­tional cri­sis at any hour of the day or night.

No, we couldn’t have pre­pared for all the even­tu­al­i­ties, but it also seems as though we never thought to try. And to­day we’re on the brink of mak­ing the same mis­take with the next wave of tech­no­log­i­cal change.

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ma­chine learn­ing are poised to take over not only deep com­put­ing but also many of the jobs that un­der­pin our econ­omy. The im­pend­ing era of self-driv­ing cars could make travel cheaper and safer but could also af­fect mil­lions of jobs. Vir­tual re­al­ity is lauded as the next fron­tier — al­though what we’ll do there is still any­one’s guess. These are tech­nolo­gies whose use may be more un­pre­dictable and more rev­o­lu­tion­ary than what, at its heart, is still a souped-up tele­com de­vice.

A year or two ago, hav­ing be­gun to rec­og­nize the havoc my iPhone wreaked on my own habits, I at­tempted to cur­tail my us­age in var­i­ous mi­nor ways. No phones at shared meals, for in­stance, or aim­less scrolling when in com­pany. But it will be harder to walk back these im­pend­ing in­no­va­tions. A small amount of anti-smart­phone sen­ti­ment still aligns with our so­cial norms of po­lite­ness, of valu­ing men­tal fo­cus and the time of oth­ers. But in a growth-ob­sessed econ­omy that val­ues cost sav­ings and ef­fi­ciency as the high­est goods and cel­e­brates in­no­va­tion for in­no­va­tion’s sake, there’s un­likely to be sup­port for a “no ro­bots on week­ends” rule or for a reg­u­la­tion deem­ing that new forms of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence be cur­tailed to leave space for hu­man work.

I’m not a Lud­dite: I don’t sug­gest that we go back in time, halt change or at­tempt to pre­serve in am­ber an eco­nomic struc­ture that al­ready suf­fers from myr­iad flaws. But we might con­sider paus­ing be­fore our head­long em­brace of the next ex­cit­ing new things al­ready bear­ing down on us. Have we an­tic­i­pated the changes they might bring? And are there ways to mit­i­gate the neg­a­tive ef­fects that might come with the next tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion?

While var­i­ous an­a­lysts have be­gun to ring alarm bells about how au­to­ma­tion-led job loss could cre­ate a mas­sive un­der­class, nei­ther gov­ern­ment nor so­ci­ety seems ready to of­fer more than to­ken so­lu­tions: “re­train­ing,” per­haps, or, from fringier ad­vis­ers, a univer­sal ba­sic in­come to cush­ion the blow of lost in­come. There has been even less of the larger dis­cus­sion, of defin­ing what we value most as a so­ci­ety and how to pre­serve it.

We may have time to pre­pare for the fu­ture, but so far it seems that we’ve pre­ferred to wait and see. Yet if the iPhone has taught us any­thing, it should be that change comes quickly. The In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion spanned cen­turies and still left so­ci­ety reel­ing. The smart­phone rev­o­lu­tion took less than a decade. The next ma­jor shift? We should try to get ahead of the curve.


In 2007, Ap­ple chief ex­ec­u­tive Steve Jobs in­tro­duces the iPhone at the Mac­world con­fer­ence in San Fran­cisco.

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