Life on The Internet, Aiding and Abetting with an iPhone

" “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” "

--Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

Life on the Internet can be great. Apple gives us magnificent tools and apps. Others jump in with their apps and services like Twitter and Facebook. However, with all things human, balance, not excess, is vital for a great life with Apple products.  Unfortunately, there are so many sources of information and so many people competing for our attention and dollars that sometimes balance is hard to achieve. it's good to sit back and reflect once in awhile about how we interact with the Internet, or the balance can be elusive. 

Some Internet Observations

While the Internet is a great way to learn a few things and make some money, it also has some issues that I like to ponder.

  1. The knowledge, education and judgment required to assess what one finds on the Internet is not to be found on the Internet itself.
  2. There are dangers associated with the momentum of thinking on the Internet. Social fabrics, magnified by technology, can become so tightly wound that mob psychology can often gain traction.
  3. Not every endeavor on the Internet is a substitute for real life. That's where life balance comes in.

Let me tell you a story.

Years ago I was counseling a young friend. He had a bachelors degree. He was raving about a particular flight simulator on the Mac, and the conversation went something like this:

John: If you're that interested in flying, you know, with your B.S. degree, you could probably work you way into a flight program. Maybe even the U.S. Navy.

Friend: What I really liked about the simulator was ...

John: Have you ever thought what it would be like to really land on an aircraft carrier?

Friend: Yeah this simulator can do that too...

John: But that's not the same as the real thing. You're the right age to launch a career in flying.

Friend: Pauses. Nose wrinkles. You know, what I really liked about the flight simulator was....

You get my drift.

The Fuuuutcha

Observation #3 above gives me pause about the 65,000 apps on the Apple App Store in terms of the affect on consumers, not the developers. It's not that there isn't an app for everyone. What one person hates or finds useless is another person's gem. So don't get me wrong. People are succeeding in a free enterprise. 

What I'm thinking is that we have a lot of technology at our finger tips, and it's an honorable pursuit to do something with those tools. In the past, developers built tools for the Mac that allowed us to manage our lives, but also achieve and create. The craze now is an endless succession of, frankly, silly apps driven by a different business model.  On the Mac we pay for creative tools. On the iPhone we hoard free apps that appear to provide some kind of service, but are really front ends for driving us to products and services. Of course, one can argue that that's all one can do on a small, hand held device. The iPhone isn't exactly a supercomputer.  Even so, as we move to future mobile products, it's likely that the iPhone momentum will sway the design. Is it a farfetched science fiction scenario in which we'll all forget how to create? Just consume? Some already do stupid things like texting while driving, so I'm not pushing the bounds of the bizarre too far. And remember, Sturgeon's Law still applies as much as it ever did, so not only could we fall down the rabbit hole of mindless consumerism in the App Store, but we'll do it with crappy apps.

Apple built its reputation on tools for artists, movie makers, screen play and novel writers. That's why I'm spending some time reviewing the novel writing software on the Mac. I like to think that there will always be the dreamers, rabble rousers, misfits that Apple has always celebrated. Sitting at my Mac, sometimes, I feel like I can touch the world. I don't feel that way when I use the iPhone - unless I'm tweeting a photo of a great sunset. And the iPhone is the platform that has the growth and momentum. 

All That Jazz

What I'm beginning to sense is that the Gold Rush in the Apple app store is producing a fever that can, if not recognized, lead to too much focus on spending and wealth and not what can be done with the technology. Never in the history of the planet has there been so much work to do. The other night I was watching a Discovery/Project Earth about aerial reforestation. It caught my attention because scientists were working hard on testing an aerial delivery system for seedlings on a massive scale that will help offset our massive losses in forrests. The effort involved flight, aerodynamics, impact physics, and botany. Of course, not everyone agrees with using that aerial technique, but that's the point. There's so much work to be done to save the planet, so much to learn.

For the iPhone enthusiast, it's a question of balance. It's good that Apple and some developers are succeeding. However, what we don't hear, amidst the jingle of iTunes dollars, is what we should be doing with those tools besides spending money. That remains for the thoughtful user to figure out. How do we obtain values like that? Not by being immersed in the Internet itself. The siren call of games and entertainment apps is hard to resist, and their marketers are experts.  To be sure, finding the best rated restaurant when on vacation in San Francisco is nice. Using G-Park to help us remember where we parked is even better. But we have to work to remind ourselves, by the other things we do in life, that there are beneficial things to do with such a great device. That's why I review, for example, Chess and astronomy apps and not MasterCard's "Priceless Picks."

In addition, having ideas derived from a good education and hanging around with the right crowd can keep one from being unduly influenced by advertising that targets behavior. After all, if behavior can be exploited or modified to encourage certain kinds of spending, then the same techniques can be used to influence beliefs. Commoditized social thought, driven by insidious or misleading marketing, diminishes our capacity for sharp, seasoned reasoning. The science fiction writer Arthur Clarke observed that, "For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, attractive ... and wrong." I see a lot of that.  We live in complicated times, with voices drowning each other out, everyone seeking to have an opinion heard, but few are armed with the deepest knowledge we need to plot our course as a species.

For example, I mentioned in my blog last Friday that it can become all to easy to forsake RSS and let our friends on Facebook and Twitter supply us with our daily dose of technical news. That can become a dangerous way to live -- homogenized thought patterns are lethal. That's a clear example of how technology, even with good intentions, can rob us of independent thought.

Vacation is part of life's balance, and it's all the more fun with an iPhone.  Work is another other part. I mostly find myself always asking, What can I actually do, in my line of work, with these tools? I suspect, and hope, it will eventually lead to writing novels as a sideline. Writing and science are what I'm good at, and I hope, someday, I can write something that both inspires and entertains.

Making an Impact

In summary, I would say, it's not how many apps we have on our iPhone or Mac that distinguishes us. It's what we do with the technology given to us by Apple. Steve Jobs has dedicated his life to giving us the very best tools on the planet. Excellence is on our mind when we think about iPhone and Macintosh.

Some Mac users are accessing climate models to understand how the planet is changing. Some are designing batteries to help us get away from fossil fuels. Some are writing novels to inspire us. A few are making movies that move us. Some are using Macs to teach physics to undergraduates. Some have their Macs or iPhones connected to amateur telescopes, scanning the skies for dangerous asteroids or comets that might strike the Earth. Some physicians with iPhones are using them to provide better health care. Some iPhone users are using some terrific, inexpensive astronomy apps, like SkyGazer, to learn about the universe.

There's a time for fun, a time for recreation, and a time for friendly tweets. But, in the end, I propose that we should always be asking ourselves what we're doing to make a difference with these great tools we've chosen. How about you? Comments are welcome from those who are using their Macs (and iPhones) to make an impact. Tell us your story.