First, the Smartphone Changed. Then, Over a Decade, It Changed Us.
Traveling back to the beginning of the decade isn’t only possible, it’s easy. All you need are a few accessories—all available, in a fresh coat of dust, in a basement near you.
I suggest starting with a Garmin GPS unit and its points of interest, which are no longer interesting. Then I suggest trying to share a photo from an old point-and-shoot camera in less than 700 steps.
Nothing will quite do it, though, like a 10-year-old BlackBerry. Need to take a selfie? Flip the phone around, hold it out and hope for the best. Need an Uber? In 2010, that was a three-star German restaurant. Netflix ? Check the mailbox—the actual mailbox.
The modern-day smartphone in all its rectangular touch screen beauty wasn’t invented in 2010. (The iPhone arrived in 2007.) But it was the year that so many of us began to ditch those aforementioned gadgets, and trade our phones—made for calls and the occasional text or email—for that single computer now in our pocket. It was also the year the biggest apps currently lining our homescreens began to arrive.
What we got was a device that changed what it means to be human. A gadget that as it gained functionality, fundamentally altered the way we navigate the world, our relationships, ourselves. But it also began to navigate us—in ways we sometimes didn’t even realize and probably shouldn’t have welcomed.
To see just how much the smartphone has changed the way we function in the world, I challenged myself to go on a trip to the past for 24 hours—using just 2010 technology, including my old BlackBerry. (Watch my video to see how well I survived my day in Hell, Mich.)
At times I felt totally and completely lost—probably because, with a malfunctioning GPS, I actually was. I missed not being able to do so many things I now take for granted. And yet it was also strangely exhilarating. I felt more in control, more present and, maybe, more like myself.
How we got here
To see how this new world began, we need to go back to the start of the decade, when all the pieces were falling into place.
Finally available on Verizon and on more cellular carriers around the world, Apple’s iPhone 4 was the first mainstream iPhone. It was also the first iPhone with a front-facing camera and the ability to record HD video. Samsung’s first Android-powered Galaxy S hit that year, too.
Simultaneously, the cellular carriers were improving their networks, and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were throwing app ideas at the wall—er, I mean investors.
“When one piece of technology changes, it’s a big deal, but when two or three things change that are complementary at the same time, it’s really disruptive,” says former AT&T vice chairman Ralph de la Vega, who worked closely with Steve Jobs to bring the first iPhone to market on AT&T.
The ultimate triple play? Around 2011, under Mr. de la Vega’s direction, AT&T struck a deal with Uber. “When Travis Kalanick was looking for a way to connect his drivers, he came to AT&T. We connected his drivers, which at the time were using iPhones. The rest is history,” he told me.
In some ways, Apple foresaw the power of this all-in-one device. In 2009, an Apple employee told his boss, vice president of iPhone, iPod and iOS marketing, Greg Joswiak, that he was going to leave the company to work on the Flip Video camera. (In case you’ve forgotten, those were those stand-alone, juice-box-size digital video camcorders with a pop-out USB port.)
“I said, ‘Are you kidding? That would be the dumbest thing. We’re building that capability into our iPhones. We’re going to sell many, many, many, many more times iPhones than they can sell of those. There is no reason for someone to buy one of those,’ ” Mr. Joswiak recalls. “How can we get the iPhone to do more and more things? That was our goal.”
Yet even Apple didn’t know the scale of the change ahead. “We started a fire, but you never know how big the flames are going to get,” Mr. Joswiak says. “I remember the day Instagram sold to Facebook, we were like, ‘Wow! That’s just one iPhone app, that just sold for a billion dollars.’”
Instagram became far more than an app, that’s for sure. Kevin Systrom, the co-founder and former CEO of Instagram, says it was all but inevitable when powerful computers with cameras left our desks and hit the real world.
“Up until then, people were sharing links. Now that you’re in the real world, you’re going to be sharing what you’re doing,” he says. “When phones with good cameras came along, we realized what people are going to want to share will be wildly different.”
How we changed
One of the revelations in my journey back to the world of 2010 technology was how much the smartphone changed not just what we do and think, but also how we feel.
I was overwhelmed by the urge to photograph so much of what I was seeing with my old Canon camera, but also extremely frustrated that I couldn’t instantly share it on my family’s group text chain or to my Instagram. I’m not one to share every sunset or hangnail, but when you can’t share even the smallest moments of your travels, you feel a bit more alone—as if those moments didn’t mean quite as much without some reaction from someone somewhere else.
And then there was the disappointment and anxiety when I wanted to FaceTime with my 2-year-old son but couldn’t. It seems the smartphone has in many ways eliminated the human emotion of missing people. It wasn’t fun, yet I have to admit that there was also something sweet, something poignant, something human about missing somebody you love. Not missed: Hearing a 2-year old scream about sitting on the potty.
The most striking thing? How much the smartphone has changed the way we navigate the world itself. I felt literally lost without being able to quickly search Google Maps for my location, or pull up my airplane ticket, or know to order the meat pie lunch special at a local restaurant before I even arrive.
I ended up using a paper map and directions given to me by actual humans to get where I wanted to go. Sure, it took me 30 minutes longer to get to my destination than if I had used Google Maps. But I was thrilled to see that the part of my brain that had to link together different highways, cardinal directions and instructions from gas station attendants still worked.
More than that, it allowed me to better visualize where I was in the physical world because I knew how I had gotten from there to here. You feel strangely grounded in a way you can’t be when you’re vacantly making turn after turn dictated by a computer. Again, it has only been a decade, but I had forgotten what that felt like.
Where we are
The best part of my only-tech-from-2010 challenge? No never-ending social-media feeds.
Instead of mindlessly scrolling through Twitter or tapping through Instagram Stories when I had a down moment, I’d look out the window of the car or strike up a conversation with the hotel concierge. Not once during my trip to the Detroit area did I have ads targeting me to eat Detroit-style pizza or to visit the local outlet shopping mall to buy a scarf. It was nice to be back in control of my information, my time and my brain.
“The smartphone made it so each person could always be hooked to an individualized information stream maximized for attention and engagement,” says Aza Raskin, a co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology. Mr. Raskin is credited with inventing the “infinite scroll,” the feature that serves up bottomless social media feeds. He now regrets not considering what the consequences might have been.
Still, Jaron Lanier, author of “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” and an outspoken critic of the advertising-led business models of Facebook and Google, remains optimistic.
“Just because the smartphone was the conduit for a bunch of manipulative, bad, sneaky, ill-intended activity, doesn’t mean the smartphone couldn’t exist without the bad stuff,” he says.
Where we are going
We can only hope Mr. Lanier is right as the next era begins. Because if we think the smartphone has changed everything this past decade, just imagine what happens when there’s a three-dimensional internet that lives all around us and comes to life when we put on a pair of glasses or contact lenses.
“Look at the devices that iPhone has enabled—Apple Watch and AirPods. People thought we were crazy when we pulled the headphone jack. Why should there be a wire between you and it? We believe wireless is the future,” Apple’s Mr. Joswiak says.
Apple doesn’t talk about future products, so I wasn’t able to get him to say that the company is working on a pair of wireless augmented-reality glasses. (There have been reports that it is.) But future smartphone technology is less likely to live in our hand, and a lot more likely to stick to our face or other parts of our body.
Have we learned from our experience with the smartphone over the past decade? Will we be more prepared and better able to guide how the gadgets of tomorrow will change us? Or will we be just as buffeted about by the coming decade’s big technological leaps, surprised yet again by how little control we have over these inanimate objects that have so much control over us?
I like to think we’ve learned something, but at least I know one thing for sure: When the 2030 ball drops, I’ll blow the dust off my iPhone 11, and be shocked by the things it can’t do—and by the things I no longer think or feel.
Here are the applications that changed the game:
App launch year: 2010
World-wide downloads: 800 million
Need a cab? Call a car service? Please, that’s exhausting. Uber took advantage of faster cellular networks and improved location services so all it would take was a tap.
App launch year: 2010
World-wide downloads: 2.77 billion
Your meals, sunsets and pets have never been the same. Instagram’s greatest contribution was making your
photos very easy to share with various filters to your content.
App launch year: 2010
World-wide downloads: N/A
Sure, there was Skype, but Apple’s pairing of the front-facing camera and simple FaceTime interface made video calling as easy as a phone call.
App launch year: 2012
World-wide downloads: over 340 million
Tinder wasn’t the first location-based dating app but it was the first to catch on and gamify meeting the love of your life…or at least of the night. Swipe right!
App launch year: 2008
World-wide downloads: 470 million
To fight traffic, Waze leveraged the biggest smartphone change of all: their runaway popularity. By crowdsourcing car locations, the app could gauge traffic and offer alternative routes.
App launch year: 2010
World-wide downloads: 860 million
Was Netflix the reason our phone screens got bigger? Or did the bigger phone screens help Netflix to become so popular? We may never know.
App launch year: 2009
World-wide downloads: 950 million
With on-demand streaming options, Spotify turned our phones into the ultimate mobile jukeboxes—and led yet another disruption of the music industry.