Brian X. Chen
Brian X. Chen, a reporter and editor for Wired.com, is the author of a new book, “Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future â€" and Locked Us In.” Mr. Chen discussed with me whether smartphones are good or bad for society and if we will all look like cyborgs in the near future.
Why is your book called Always On?
It looks at the implications of a device that you carry around everywhere, has a constant connection to the Internet and has access to hundreds of thousands of applications. I ask questions such as how does this phenomenon change the way we do policing and how will it affect our health. I really look at the implications of an always on society.
Do you think always being on is good or bad for society?
With any technology there are good and bad sides. It doesnâ€™t mean that itâ€™s just one or the other. There are a lot of questions about how this technology is affecting our social interactions. I urge readers to be cautious about how this is affecting us, whether it is good or bad and whether we should draw hasty conclusions.
What made you decide to write this book?
My main reason is that I was writing about the iPhone so much for Wired, where I work, and these were the type of articles that people cared about most. It seemed that every week a new application was coming out that had a number of new implications on our everyday lives, such as education, health and our hobbies. I realized there was enough happening in this area to write a book about it.
Do you have an optimistic view of this always on society?
I lean towards optimism, mainly because so many people are doing incredible things with this technology.
Can you share some examples?
For example, a blind man who is able to use an iPhone app that has helped him see again. He is now able to see colors through his phone and take photos. I also write about a police application where officers can identify suspects by scanning their eyeball with an iPhone rather than have to take them back to the station to do this. And there is the man who survived the Haiti earthquake with the help of an application on his iPhone.
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Is being connected 24/7 separating us from the people who are close to us?
I think right now people with smartphones are going through a honeymoon phase. We tend to pull out our smartphones every minute when we are with people, but I donâ€™t think social etiquette has changed. We still see this as rude behavior. When we are more familiar with the fact that a lot of us are socially addicted to these devices, we will be able to have a healthier lifestyle with them.
Whatâ€™s the solution for being on our phones too much?
I think that people need to recognize that they do have a problem. They need to take control of their digital lifestyle. For example, I have started to turn my phone off when Iâ€™m at dinner or a bar with friends so that I can be courteous to them.
Do smartphone makers have a responsibly to solve this problem too?
In the book, I do urge manufacturers to be sensitive to the behavior they have enabled with these devices. I ask that these companies make tools that can help people regulate themselves and curb those addictive tendencies. An example: parents should have the ability to disable their kids’ cell phones at dinnertime.
How long do you think it will be before society comes up with digital boundaries?
Iâ€™m optimistic. I give it maybe two more years before we find the right balance. Weâ€™ll start to see more studies about addictions and digital devices in that time too. Right now smartphones are sort of like the new cigarettes, or as I call it, the digital crack pipe in your pocket, because itâ€™s so tempting to pull out and use.
Where does privacy play a role in our new world?
I think part of plugging in inherently implies that weâ€™re sacrificing privacy. We are now occupying someone elseâ€™s space with our personal information by posting data to companiesâ€™ servers.
So is privacy dead?
The definition of privacy has been thrown out the window, and we have a new definition of privacy, which is whether we have control of what companies are doing with this information and if we have knowledge of how it’s being used. For example, a music service, like Pandora, should not be tracking where I am, because they are not providing me a location service. They have no business knowing my location. A service like Foursquare is different because I give them the permission to know where I am.
Is the smartphone the most important technology of our age?
I think the smartphone revolution is unprecedented. It enables the opportunity to have an Internet connection with you all the time in your pocket. What is significant about this is that software has finally entered the mainstream. We call them apps now. We didnâ€™t call them that before.
Will we be wearing computers soon in addition to carrying smartphones?
I think itâ€™s already happening, although itâ€™s kind of subtle. Thereâ€™s a device called Up that is made by Jawbone. It is a bracelet that basically has a combination of sensors inside to track your sleeping patterns, your movements and other activities. It then gives you some suggestions about how to improve different aspects of your health.
It seems that health monitoring is a big driver for wearable computing?
The advancements are going to be more significant in the future. One example in the book is a digital contact lens that is collecting information from the surface of your eye including glucose levels, blood pressure and cholesterol. It has wireless transmitters to output this data to your smartphone.
Will we all look like robots in the future?
With wearable computing, in order for it to hit the mainstream, manufacturers are going to have to make this stuff unnoticeable, or at least fashionable. I donâ€™t see a future where we are wearing big goggles everywhere we go. Maybe more like a bracelet or a pair of sunglasses with a screen embedded inside the lens or frame. So weâ€™d be like cyborgs, but we wouldnâ€™t look like freaks.