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.