Misunderstood or Double-edged?

A lot of people are writing about Apple's latest commercial for the iPhone. Gruber thinks it's their best ad of the year, Kottke calls it one of their best ever. Nick Heer compares it to Don Draper's carousel pitch for the slide projector. But Ben Thompson's take is my favorite because he responds to the ad's critics, who say that Apple is "promoting recording your family over actually spending time with your family."

This criticism is indicative of the recent conventional wisdom that these devices are making us stupid, lonely, and disconnected from the real world. Thompson sees the ad as an attempt to bridge the technological/generational divide, to say the reason we're so obsessed with our gadgets is that they can actually do amazing things.

On the flipside, how many young people – including, I’d wager, many reading this blog – have parents who just don’t get us, who see technology as a threat, best represented by that “can-you-put-that-damn-thing-down-and-join-us-in-the-real-world!?” smartphone in our hands, without any appreciation that it’s that phone and the world it represents that has allowed us to find ourselves and become the person we know they wanted us to be?

In the first half of the ad, the kid is portrayed as self-absorbed, antisocial, even rude in his attention to his iPhone. But why? Would we have seen him in such a negative light if he had been reading a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, or writing in a journal, or drawing in a sketchpad, or noodling on a guitar? The magical, revolutionary thing about an iPhone (and I say this unironically) is that it can become a novel, a journal, a sketchbook, a musical instrument, or a video camera/video editor (with apps like iBooks, Day One, Paper, Garageband, and iMovie among many others).

And yet, we've all seen people ignoring the real world in favor of their device, and they were not involved in a heartwarming creative pursuit. I have looked at Twitter more than once while my children were trying to have a conversation with me. I have even checked Facebook, surreptitiously, while my son, who'd just learned to read, struggled to read a new book to me (not the first book he read to me, but still). I'm not proud of this. And I worry that my kids, who love these devices as much (if not more) than I do, with soon be acting just like the teenager in this ad. And instead of making a beautiful home video during family gatherings, they'll be sexting with Russian oligarchs, selling their non-essential organs, and ordering designer brain implants on some future version of the Silk Road.

That's the double edge of the technology we now have in our pockets. It gives us access to boundless information, and enables all kinds of interactions with that information, but it doesn't distinguish between empty and nourishing information, or help us determine the right uses of that information. We have to make those distinctions and those choices.

One of my favorite pictures of my kids was taken with, edited on, and sent to me from my wife's iPhone. It shows my son and daughter, cuddled together in the dark, their radiant, smiling faces lit from beneath by an unearthly glow. You can't see the object making the glow in the picture, but it's the screen of an iPad. It's also the source of the joy on their faces.

That screen is not going away anytime soon, but we don't have to be passive viewers of it, merely consuming and feeling vaguely guilty about what we consume from it. There's immense creative power behind the screen. Instead of worrying about it, lamenting it, and disparaging it, we should focus on learning how best to use it --- to gather, understand, shape, and share the information around us.