Companies & Industries

Ethics and the iPhone


Does the "i" in iPhone stand for iSolation? It doesn't bode well for society when everyone is plugged in and tuned out

Ten years ago, Apple (AAPL) began using the phrase "Think different" in its advertising campaign, and the phrase quickly became as iconic as "Where's the beef?" and "Got milk?" On June 29, the company releases its newest invention, the iPhone, and Wall Street analysts predict that Apple will sell 3 million units in the first weeks of the phone's release, according to The New York Times. This combination cell phone-iPod-camera-Web browser promises to be the sleekest, hippest consumer-electronic device in years, and since its launch date was announced six months ago, the phone has gotten nearly as much press as the Iraq war, Spider-Man 3 and Paris Hilton.

Surely everyone who hopes to be cool will want an iPhone, and what could be wrong with owning what is already the most talked-about accessory since, well, the iPod?

A lot, as it turns out.

Social Fabric in Tatters

Our society has devolved into a mass of turned-on, tuned-out, and plugged-in technophiles. Whatever distinction used to exist between public and private life is all but gone, as one can witness on any city street, bus, plane, or shopping mall. Waiting in line at the grocery store or post office used to mean striking up a conversation with the person in front of you. It now involves blurting the intimate details of one's love life into a cell phone for all to hear or scrolling through a playlist for just the right song, or surfing the Web for something we want but don't really need.

I will call this new form of behavior "iSolation," and there are three major costs associated with it.

The first is an opportunity cost. Our social fabric is in danger of being ripped to shreds as we swap electronic connection for personal relationships. The very nature of community depends upon us being connected to one another. Being civil means, or at least used to mean, valuing our relationships beyond our immediate circle of family and friends. If upon leaving home we immerse ourselves in idle chatter on the phone, listen to music nonstop at volume levels that preclude hearing the world around us, read every piece of e-mail sent since the last time we checked, or hunt for bargains on the Internet, we miss the chance on the way to work to make new friendships, renew old ones, or simply say hello to a stranger. A community is not merely a collection of individuals. It is a web—the kind with a small "w"—of interconnectedness, and this web cannot exist for long if each of its constituents is concerned primarily or exclusively with itself.

The second cost of iSolation is to our psychological health. I don't know about you, but my best ideas come when I'm either doing something mundane like brushing my teeth, or simply daydreaming. That's right, daydreaming. A waste of time, you say? Not at all. To be creative is to have the freedom to dream, to let thoughts appear and evaporate, and to—dare I use such a word in a business column—play. "But I'm too busy to play," you reply. Nonsense. Some of the time spent fidgeting with a cell phone or MP3 player is time we could put to better use, such as doing nothing at all. When our brains are constantly stimulated by electronic data, they are, of necessity, precluded from taking anything else in, such as the random thoughts that can be the genesis of great ideas. The nonstop avalanche of images and sounds from electronic media (among other distractions) is a barrier, not a portal, to creativity.

Increased Morbidity Risk

The third cost of our absorption in technology is the most serious of all: the possibility of an increased risk of morbidity and mortality. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that drivers who use a cell phone are four times more likely to be involved in an accident than are drivers who do not. The American Automobile Assn. has challenged that study, but it doesn't really matter who is right. Imagine that your son or daughter has just gotten a driver's license and is taking your car out for a spin. Would it matter to you if other drivers are yakking away on a cell phone while cruising next to, or heading toward, your child? Of course it would, and it should. Driving is challenging enough without having to worry about people around you being literally driven to distraction. We are, to borrow a phrase from the late author Neil Postman, "amusing ourselves to death."

In response to two MP3-player-related pedestrian deaths in his district earlier this year, New York State Senator Carl Kruger proposed a bill that would ban people from using cell phones, personal data assistants, and other electronic devices while crossing the street in New York City and Buffalo. Many were outraged by the proposal, but it makes a lot of sense. When you're arguing with your colleague or spouse on the phone, or reading the latest memo from the boss, you simply cannot be on guard against traffic. There is a limit to how much even the most skilled multitasker can accomplish.

No Indictment of Capitalism

None of what I am saying is a call to return to the days when people got their entertainment by huddling together in front of a radio (though that sounds pretty good, if you ask me). Nor is it an indictment of capitalism and the push to sell bigger, better, newer, and faster gizmos. There's nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. After all, technology is morally neutral. It can be put to useful or harmful purposes.

So if the introduction into our culture of several million iPhones results in more self-absorption, less time to daydream, and more pedestrian and driver accidents, it won't be the fault of Apple, or the IT industry as a whole, or Madison Avenue, or the news media, or the automobile industry, or anyone else we care to blame.

It will be our own fault.

But it's not too late to think different.

Weinstein is the corporate consultant, author, and public speaker known as The Ethics Guy. He has appeared on numerous national TV shows and is the author of several books on ethics. His Ask the Ethics Guy! column appears every other week on BusinessWeek.com's Managing channel.

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