Sunday, March 18, 2007

The iPhone & BlackBerry revolution: necessary technology or an electronic leash?

The iPhone & BlackBerry revolution: necessary technology or an electronic leash?
University of Waterloo CS 492 Article
Written by: Mike Jutan

“Have you seen it?!”

I instantly knew what my friend Joel was referring to. Our conversation took place last week, on the morning following Steve Jobs’ announcement of the Apple iPhone. It was on the minds of Waterloo Computer Science students along with user-interface gurus and businessmen all across North America. Steve Jobs had once again skillfully presented and marketed an invention that is meant to irrevocably change our lives for the better. And we were all sold on it before he even told us the price.

This brief essay will discuss the negative social implications of devices like the iPhone and BlackBerry, why these problems are a result of computerization, and why these issues are non-trivial to solve.

I have had many conversations about these mobile devices with friends and colleagues, and as a young student, I am easily sucked in by their marketing. They are sleek, beautifully well-designed and so very tempting. They merge together my email, instant messaging, phone, movies, music, internet browser, map software, stock quotes, weather and more. They are technological masterpieces. As a Computer Science student with a keen interest in technological advancement, I am so excited and infatuated by this device that I’d wait at the end of the Apple production line for it to drop into my eager hands.

The Apple website notes that: “iPhone is fully multi-tasking, so you can read a webpage while downloading your email in the background over Wi-Fi or EDGE.”[1] Have we ever wondered why it needs to do two things at once? I feel that one of the purposes of CS 492 is for us to stand back from all the new “life-changing” devices in this non-stop world we have built, and pause for just a moment. This moment of reflection will give us the time to ask a very important question of ourselves, “Do we really need these things? Do we even really want them?”

The social implications of such devices are quite clear. These are incredibly intrusive on the owner’s personal life outside of work. I can just picture an advertisement now, “Imagine an era where you can be reachable, at any time!” How could we possibly want this? When I sit down for dinner with my family or friends, I usually let the answering machine handle any phone calls we get at dinnertime. As my Father always says, “If it’s so important, they’ll just call back later.” In this non-stop age of computerization that we live in, managers ask employees for incredible amounts of work to be done at a breakneck pace. Everything is expected to be done yesterday. Long gone are the days where people can simply wait for your response. Buying an iPhone or BlackBerry is like inviting a loud, unwelcome, obnoxious guest into your home, and asking them if they would kindly make it their intent and sole purpose to interrupt your family as much as possible at dinnertime.

Another big issue is that of techno-addiction. The BlackBerry has been given the clever nickname “CrackBerry” for a very good reason - it's highly addictive and users of the device are losing self-restraint. This problem is two-fold, the first area of concern being health risk. Immense eye strain occurs when staring intently at a small LCD screen for hours and hours on end, every single day. It is plausible that mobile phone radiation could be dangerous, but it will take years of studies to determine what the long-term effects of daily usage may be. The second problem caused by techno-addiction is a social issue. As with other addicts, techno-addicts find themselves rejected from society. I read a story about a woman who was traveling to Mexico on vacation with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend relentlessly tapped away at his BlackBerry all day as they were waiting at the airport. While waiting for their connecting flight, he was frantically writing emails in case there was no BlackBerry coverage in Mexico. The trip did not go well for the woman, “I might as well have been by myself… We were dating, and we stopped dating as soon as we got back from that trip. It's just so disrespectful for other people.”[2]

By applying computerization to personal communication, we open a Pandora’s box of intrusion. The “always-on” attitude of computerization applied to our personal life can be incredibly dangerous to our health and well-being. In many cases, computers connect us to each other through fast, improved methods. But our expanding need as a society to be always “plugged-in” is not good. We need time away from the hustle and bustle of the workplace to sit back, relax, take a walk outside, and enjoy the gift of life we have been blessed with.

As I have implicitly mentioned in the previous paragraphs, this problem is not easily solvable. Each technological advancement in mobile communication breeds waves of new improvements to be made and then quickly adopted by society. As society gets more and more dependant on these devices, we will feel as if we can’t live without them. I recently purchased a cell phone on my Co-op term in the United States. It is amazing, albeit frightening, to see how the cell phone has transformed social organization between friends. Instead of the tried-and-true method of planning social events in advance, my friends in the USA would plan like so, “Mike, if you get to San Francisco today and you want to go somewhere, call me.” This disorganization and lack of planning is now commonplace in the young adult social realm, and you are forced to buy a cell phone and join the revolution, or suffer the consequences and, literally, be left behind.

I certainly do not feel that the iPhone or the BlackBerry is the end of society as we know it. But, I do believe that a walk in the park with people I care about is worth more than its weight in emails and instant messages. I hope that the majority of the business world agrees with me, though I am doubtful of this. To these techno-addicts I say, “Those emails will still be there in the morning. Turn off your phone and spend some time with your family. They are much more important that whatever will come through your BlackBerry tonight.”

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