Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

15 JUNE, 2011

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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07 JUNE, 2011

The Sorcerers & Their Apprentices: The Untold Story of MIT Media Lab

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What jazz-playing robots have to do with intelligent cars, the future of reading and augmented intuition.

Since its inception by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985, the MIT Media Lab has become a potent petri dish of innovation, churning out some of the smartest, most exciting, most optimistic technology-driven promises for a better tomorrow. From humanoid robots to e-ink to smart city cars, the lab continually pushes the bleeding-edge of what MoMA’s Paola Antonelli calls “humanized technology” — objects, devices and systems that enrich and empower our lives. Now, the fascinating story of the MIT Media Lab is finally told in full in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives — a fantastic new book by Frank Moss, who spearheaded the lab’s vision and operations between 2006 and April of this year, when he was replaced by Joi Ito.

Moss, whose formal background is in aerospace engineering and who became an early tech entrepreneur before taking over the lab, pulls the curtain on what Google’s Eric Schmidt calls “the creative chaos” behind the remarkable inner workings of this hub of human genius.

The book really is about people and their passion, how they go about inventing. So often today people write books and talk about innovation as if it were a business process. True creativity and invention, which are the seed of innovation, come from people and they come from the stories of people. They come from their backgrounds, their passions, what moves them, the things that worry them, the things that are their dreams.” ~ Frank Moss

For a taste of the kind of astonishing, jaw-dropping, all-inspiring brilliance that emanates from the lab and its projects, look no further than the incredible Sixth Sense wearable gestural interface project by Patti Maes and Pranav Mistry, demoed at TED in 2009:

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent review and Amazon has a fascinating (but ironically un-embeddable) video tour of the lab as Moss talks about the book.

More than anything, The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices is a fresh breath of optimism amidst a culture of techno-dystopia 30 years in the making, offering a surprisingly believable blueprint for the kind of innovation that maybe, just maybe, can abate our worst nightmares and materialize our greatest dreams for the future.

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26 MAY, 2011

Follow For Now: A Time-Capsule of Contemporary Thought

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What the changing guard of design has to do with evolutionary theories of network dynamics.

Much of today’s fixation on retrofuturism and the paleofuture meme has to do with the pleasure we take in fact-checking the visions and predictions of the past against the commonly agreed upon reality of the present. And while there’s an undeniable luster to the shiny jetpack visions of yesteryear’s gadget-dreaming, what I find even more fascinating are the cultural and intellectual movements that powered these visions. In Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes, Roy Christopher collects over seven years’ worth of conversations with contemporary cultural luminaries, including TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, street artist and remix culture frontman Shepard Fairey, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, Brain Pickings favorite DJ Spooky and 39 more.

The book was originally published in 2007, which makes it a rare, paradoxical and infinitely fertile cross between sort-of-contemporary cultural critique of the present and near-prophetic time-capsule of the recent past, swiftly fluttering across disciplines and ideologies to deliver a powerful cross-pollinator of modern intellectual and creative curiosity.

I love Steven Johnson, so it’s no surprise his interview is one of my favorites. Here, he captures precisely where I stand on the debate on what the internet is doing to our brains and the future of information:

Popular culture, on average, has been growing more cognitively challenging over the past thirty years, not less. Despite everything you hear about declining standards and dumbing-down, you have to do more intellectual work to make sense of today’s television or games — much less the internet — than you did a few decades ago.” ~ Steven Johnson, No Bitmaps for These Territories

The time elapsed since the book’s publication makes it particularly fascinating to reverse-engineer how the ideas in recent popular books by these thinkers originally germinated. For instance, Albert-László Barabási‘s interview presages his excellent 2010 book, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do:

For many decades we believed that networks are random. Whenever we had to face a very complex system, such as people are connected by social links (society), chemicals in the cell connected by chemical reactions, webpages connected by URLs, we assumed that the links are thrown randomly around. In the last few years, we learned that this is not the case. Instead, networks hide wonderful order and are described by rather rigid evolutionary laws. These laws lead to the emergence of hubs, nodes with an extraordinary large number of links, that partly dominate real networks but they also keep them together.” ~ Albert-László Barabási, Think Networks

And as a longtime fan of Shepard Fairey‘s (whose portrait of Blondie’s Debbie Harry is my favorite piece of art that I own), I enjoyed this 2002 peek inside his creative reservoir, pre-Obama notoriety.

I like people who blur the line between fine art and graphic design. There are a lot of people who have grown up with a lot of advertising and sensory over-stimulation from video games and MTV, who are making very smart and engaging art and graphics. I don’t know what to call this movement [but] I really think the changing of the guard in the art and design world is beginning.” ~ Shepard Fairey, Giant Steps

Relentlessly stimulating and insight-packed, Follow for Now is the kind of book I’d like to see published every decade, and devoured every subsequent decade, from now until the end of humanity.

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