Brain Pickings

Brian X. Chen on How the iPhone Changed Everything

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Business advice from Steve Jobs, or why everything you knew about multitasking might be wrong.

Last month, we took a look at how Shakespeare changed everything. It turns out, the great bard may have some stiff competition in the face of another cultural agent: the iPhone. At least that’s the premise of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In, a fascinating new addition to this list of essential books on the future of the internet by Wired contributor Brian X. Chen that explores how the “Jesus phone” transcended its status as a mere gadget to become a powerful force of cultural change.

Today, I sit down with Brian to chat about the secret to Apple’s success, open experiences amidst closed platforms, and what we can do to be smart information omnivores.

q1

What was it about the iPhone that transformed it from a personal technology to a conduit of cultural change?

There are two pieces to the iPhone zeitgeist: the product itself and the App Store business platform. Somehow, Steve Jobs negotiated with AT&T to carry the iPhone without even allowing the carrier to touch or see the device; the handset’s hardware and software were designed entirely by Apple. This was a significant turning point in the wireless industry, because previously carriers told the manufacturers what features to put in their handsets.

The second piece is just as significant: the App Store, which opened in 2008. The App Store allowed any programmer put up an app for sale in the App Store. And for the customer, the App Store was an extremely simple way to purchase apps with the tap of a button. The store opened the floodgates for hundreds of thousands of “apps” — 400,000 to date.

Now the iPhone isn’t just a smartphone, but also a medical device, a musical instrument, an education tool and thousands of other apps. A single app has potential to compete with an entire industry and impact our culture.

q2

How has Apple managed to find and retain success in a vertical, closed business model in the age of sharing, open-source and collaborative consumption?

It’s interesting that Apple is the most valuable corporation in the world today thanks largely to its vertically integrated business model, whereas in the past it was a niche player in the PC industry with the same approach. One broad reason is that times have changed, and now that computers have become a mainstream staple, the iPhone entered the picture to offer something fresh, new and more convenient for customers than ever before.

The fundamental reason the iPhone is so convenient is because its design and app ecosystem are tightly controlled by one company, Apple.

Furthermore, despite being closed and exclusive to Apple hardware, the iPhone, and now the iPad, are succeeding thanks to the gigantic army of developers providing apps. Many of these apps do enable people to share and collaborate (e.g., we still have Twitter apps, a Dropbox app, Facebook, etc.) Even though this is a “closed” platform, we still get more from the iPhone experience than we do other platforms, because there are more programmers contributing to the App Store compared to competing stores.

q3

A lot has been said about how social technology is changing the way we think. Where do you stand on this, as it pertains to the iPhone?

Many journalists have already concluded that the “multitasking” we do in this always-on lifestyle is bad for the brain. However, little research backs these claims. One study on “media multitasking” by Stanford found that people who juggled around a lot of media (e-mail, videos, music) were poor at concentrating compared to those who didn’t consume much media. But a study by University of Utah found that a small number of people are incredibly good at multitasking, which challenges the theory that multitasking is bad for the brain. I urge people to be cautious about drawing hasty conclusions.

I’d say rather than live in fear of smartphones, we can be more productive by asking ourselves what we can do NOW with this technology to make ourselves more powerful individuals.

What apps can I download to be better at my job, or help improve my health, or contribute to a community? In my book I tell stories about people using always-on technology in incredible ways, like a blind man who is able to use apps to “see” and take pictures, and scientists using smartphones to diagnose malaria in Africa. This is the future at our fingertips.

Ed. note: Always On is out today this month and a must-read for smartphone-slingers and cultural scholars alike.

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Green Porno: Isabella Rossellini Celebrates Animal Biology

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How dolphins do it, or what the first rule of advertising has to do with expanding the market for biology.

This Saturday, the great Isabella Rossellini — actor, filmmaker, author, philanthropist and one of the very few people in the world I’d qualify as a “role model” — is turning 59. I’ve been a longtime fan of her Green Porno series for Sundance Channel and her birthday is lovely invitation to revisit Green Porno: A Book and Short Films by Isabella Rossellini — a fascinating, humorous, kooky and illuminating book-and-DVD based on the project, in which Rossellini, clad in various bodysuits, offers a wildly entertaining and scientifically accurate reenactment the sex lives of animals as biologically far from us as possible — bugs, slugs, marine life and other peculiar creatures.

Each film is about two minutes long and an absolute gem of edutainment. From anchovy orgies to the squid’s ten-arm embrace to the makeup-sex routine of whales, the endearingly odd short films and accompanying visuals reveal a lively and wonderful world in the depths of the ocean.

I always wanted to make films about animals – there’s not an enormous audience. But there’s an enormous audience for sex.” ~ Isabella Rossellini

Revisiting Green Porno is particularly timely after last week’s World Oceans Day and the release of the 2011 State of the Oceans report, which revealed the devastating impact of human activity — an impact in large part due to mankind’s inability to see marine life as anything more than a source of food and commerce. Rossellini’s films

What’s perhaps most fantastic about the series is the deep thought with which Rossellini approaches it, looking beyond the immediate message of science literacy to think about the broader issues of where culture and human communication are going, and how the web lends itself to new models of storytelling.

The Internet is the future. And it was fun to make these videos. Just as my father, who remembered the times of silent cinema, I feel like I am assisting to a revolution” ~ Isabella Rossellini

Charming, funny and surprisingly articluate, Green Porno is the kind of cross-pollinator between pop culture and serious science that opens new doors for the understanding of our world and, in the process, fosters a deep appreciation for the precious and intricate ecosystems we’ve done such a disgraceful job of protecting and preserving. Because underpinning Rossellini’s goofiness is nothing less than an impassioned invitation to treat our fellow creatures with a little bit more understanding, empathy and respect.

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Obsessive Consumption: Life in a Material World, Illustrated

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How a visual record of consumerism is paving the way for mindful consumption.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Kate Bingaman-Burt‘s Obsessive Consumption project — a wonderfully illustrated visual record of personal consumption running since February 5, 2006. So I was delighted when last year Princeton Architectural Press (of The Map as Art fame) added the project to this running list of blog-turned-book success stories and published Obsessive Consumption: What Did You Buy Today? — a charming illustrated chronicle of Bingham-Burt’s adventures in a material world, spanning 200 pages and three years’ worth of selected ink drawings from the project.

The project is particularly interesting examined in parallel and contrast to Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, which also uses black-and-white line illustration but explores the flipside of personal consumption by exposing the dark underbelly of the seemingly innocuous products we buy.

Images courtesy of Kate Bingham-Burt

And while Obsessive Consumption may at first seem in stark contrast with my advocacy of collaborative consumption and having more by owning less, its underlying message is one of introspection and insight, of paying closer attention to how we make sense of the world and our place in it through “stuff” and, in the process, becoming more mindful consumers.

You can snag an original drawing by Kate over on Etsy.

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