The iPhone Era: Technological Adaptation and the Future of Human Evolution

When the original iPhone was released a year ago, I wanted one. The promise of being constantly connected to all the various sockets of the Internet into which I have plugged myself (news, e-mail, chat, social networks, information gathering, etc…) was seductive. Being able to work while not standing by a computer, or to keep tabs, in an up-to-the-second fashion, on my virtual communication stream – how exciting!

I didn’t get an iPhone then because of my imminent move to Kenya (where it would have been a bad idea to flash one of those around, even if it functioned), but with the recent emergence of the iPhone 3G, I decided to take the plunge, and see if this device was as life-changing as it was cracked up to be. Turns out, it is! But I’m beginning to wonder at what cost.

It’s no secret that technology changes us. A few years ago I reflected on the iPod’s effects on culture, and earlier this month, Melissa raised similar questions, with respect to Google. I had an interesting experience today, however, which proved that these changes can insinuate themselves into deep parts of our cognition.

I was walking down the street with some friends, looking for Los Hermanos, a great burrito place. I was in the general vicinity of it, I thought, but wasn’t quite sure of the cross street, and I was confused that I hadn’t seen the restaurant thus far on my walk. Well, I said to myself – that’s what I have an iPhone for! So I fired it up, Googled the restaurant, and had a street address in under a minute. 2026 Chestnut. “OK, what’s the address of this store here? 2016… OK, that means that Los Hermanos should be…” At which point, I looked up from my phone and noticed the large, brightly-colored sign hanging above the business not more than 15 feet from where I was standing. Yep, it was Los Hermanos.

It was very interesting to me that my first instinct, upon finding myself in a place where I expected to see one thing and saw another, thereby needing more locational information, was to use the Internet rather than my eyes. My eyes, having evolved to perform precisely the task I needed done (namely the gaining of local spatial knowledge) were passed over in favor of technology. Which meant, of course, that the more dangerous trade – my memory for Google – was implicit.

But why not trust to the skills that were bestowed upon us via our natural adaptations? Have we truly passed into an age where our environments are changing far more rapidly than our bodies can adapt? It certainly seems like it. But perhaps the more interesting question is, what will that do to our bodies? When we learned how to cook food our jaws decreased in size. When we learned how to wear clothes, we lost our hair (depending on your view of this adaptation). When we learned how to live in cities, we lost our natural keen sensitivities to natural phenomena. When we learned how to use dead plant matter to propel ourselves in metal canisters across the earth, many of us lost the proper functioning of our legs and other muscles. When we taught ourselves that interesting content can be delivered in the time span of a short video clip or a 3-minute radio single, we infected ourselves with A.D.D. while simultaneously dulling our senses to anything not flashing or brightly-colored.

… And I could go on.

So, what will happen when we learn how to never need to remember anything again? What will that do to our brains? What will it do to our ability to survive without our newfangled devices? (Imagine trying to survive these days without clothes, fire or tools!) What species will we become, with essential parts of our existence scattered around the world in metal boxes on fragile hard drives? No longer homo sapiens, the thinking human, but homo technologicus, the equipped human. And so we have to ask ourselves, do we want to evolve in this way? The benefits of ubiquitous and distributed memory are immense, but what are the costs? What will happen to our ability to spend time in Nature qua natural beings, qua creatures?

Maybe that’s what we should be thinking about when buying our new iPhones (and yes, mine is very shiny) – but either way, it’s certainly not what is being advertised.

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Engineering at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in San Francisco, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit jonathanlipps.com for more.

4 thoughts on “The iPhone Era: Technological Adaptation and the Future of Human Evolution”

  1. I tend to think that what you refer to as our natural adaptations (the peculiar ways humans have making sure that we eat and fuck, i.e., survive) are a set of skills and behaviors that have developed over very long periods of time (deep into human prehistory) and that they are also much, much more durable cognitive structures than we often realize. In other words, I don’t think we’re going to learn how to forget to remember (so to speak) anytime soon.

    A couple years ago I housesat for a couple that had 3 dogs, one of which had, shall we say, some behavioral issues. He was the alpha and wanted to make sure everyone knew it. Next door was this house were there were also a bunch of fenced-in dogs (one of which was another alpha) that always barked like hell when we went for walks–in particular there was this one Rottweiler that was like a machine, just jumping back-and-forth, barking like mad, slamming against the driveway gate that stood between him and us. Of course one day, as we’re walking towards said gate, this frigtard who lived in said house drive right by us and up to the gate. And then proceeded to casually get out of his car and open the gate so he could drive in… Next second all hell breaks loose and the Rottweiler’s charging straight at us with a handful of equally maniacal terriers and midget dogs in tow. And then something happened–I seriously just flipped the fuck out. I screamed at the guy to restrain his dogs, gripped the leashes tight on my own, and then just kind of hunched over and wanted nothing more than to rip the throats out of every one of those dogs running down the hill. Some caveman part of my brain took over and everything–I mean everything–else just fell out of consciousness, even visual perception and my sense of time, all I wanted to do was tear their guts out. Anyway, I was able to break up the tussle, I suspect largely because my freak-out actually scared all the dogs. Bloodbath averted. Just in time for the frigtard to arrive and offer to help pick up all the mail I had let drop all over the road…

    Anyway, my point being… I’m skeptical of just how quickly or deeply technological innovation is going to change those caveman parts of our brains, all those natural adaptations. It’s more like they just sit there without doing anything. Maybe they’ll go away, but on a very long-term evolutionary timescale, not a human one. We don’t really suppress them, we just…don’t need them. Who knows whether the iPhone really kept you from looking around for Los Hermanos. Maybe you wanted to play with your new gadget, and this offered itself up as a good opportunity. But take away the iPhone, the computer, the buildings and buses and cars. Drop yourself and maybe a couple other people in the middle of a forest or jungle or any environment where there’s at least a little something to eat, and I bet it would be like freeze-dried food: all those natural adaptations the developed over aeons will kick right back in. You’ll discover some switches flipping that you never thought you had.

  2. You probably know this already (you seem like the spelunking type) but I learned earlier this year while spelunking that it takes only two weeks of being in complete pitch black darkness for our pupils to become permanently locked in dilation. Any sunlight after this two week period will pass through the pupil and burn your retina, thus rendering you completely blind.

    We’re more fragile than we think.

    Our guide told us that the only way to prevent this–should we ever randomly find ourselves trapped underground for any significant period of time–is to expose our eyes a few minutes per day to the light of an Indiglo watch. Even 3 or 4 minutes a day (can’t remember the exact amount of time) is enough to work our pupils so they won’t become locked.

    I sort of feel like our relationship to iPhones/Internet/Google is similar. We can continue to blindly embrace/consume the next cutting edge technological product, or we can be aware of the effects and train ourselves to not be owned by them. Like I said, I’m not going to completely abandon the benefits of technology and move into the wilderness, but as long as we are aware of the potential harm and intentionally live counter-culturally (instead of just mindlessly consuming product and technology), I think we are on the right trajectory.

  3. I share Bill’s and Melissa’s reservations about the dangers/risks you mention. I’m old enough to remember all the dire predictions of what Television would do to us and our society; and can recall my mother’s mentioning all the dire predictions of what radio would do. Granted, there is always the danger of becoming so infatuated with toys/technology we lose our ability–or at least much of it–to relate to people, human-to-human. I’ll bet, using purely human ‘tools’ I could have found Los Hermanos–quite without an iPhone! 🙂

    Melissa’s report of the danger of permanently locked irises made me think of Gollum who did lose his personality for love of a toy–a ring.

  4. Well thanks to all of you for casting doubt on my alarmist (and very possibly unscientific) thesis!

    Bill, your detraction probably wins just on the basis of how entertaining your anecdote was versus mine, and your point about the relative permanence of adaptations is well taken. I guess my worry was not so much that my children would count as a different species physiologically, but rather that, given that we have observed some physiological changes already in the last 10,000 years, what might we see (or be worried about) as a result of current environmental situations? It’s nice to know, whatever the answer, that a caveman still lies within, at least for now.

    Melissa, I hadn’t known that about eyesight! It seems like there are things to be worried about on a much briefer (hardly evolutionary) timescale as well–perhaps general concerns about the atrophy of various organs when not used! “Training ourselves not to be owned” by technology has got to factor in somehow, as you say.

    And Grandpa, I’m surprised you don’t think TV and the radio did ruin us! 🙂

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