historical stuff by Gareth Millward
29 June 2007
I find it quite hard to believe that the smart phone is less than a decade old. I remember not having a mobile phone, even when many of my friends had them. I didn’t really see the point. Now, I’m like most people in their twenties and glued to my screen.
Of course, I probably don’t use my device any where near to its fullest potential. I’m not like other people at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who use them for detecting eye diseases. But I can tweet. And check football scores. Which is basically the same thing.
While camera phones and “feature” phones had been around for a good number of years before, it wasn’t until the iPhone that we got the first real “smart phone”. A handheld computer that could connect to the internet using the mobile phone network, and could install third-party applications to perform a multitude of tasks while on the move.
So while “Personal Digital Assistants” (PDAs), camera phones, mobile e-mail devices, messengers and satellite navigation systems were already commonplace, the iPhone was the first to successfully bring these products together into one device.1
Historians may come to see the rise of the smart phone as a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, we have countless images of daily life in the Western World; and certainly more photographic evidence of life elsewhere than at any other point in history. As people post their lives onto the internet, collating and annotating as they go, we have a rich source of information that will keep cultural historians occupied for decades.
On the other, there is simply too much information. Moreover, we are seeing a world refracted through the lens of the mobile phone camera. To be sure, we have always had to deal with the distorted nature of historical evidence. But it’s becoming unclear where the borders between the “reality” of life and the smart-phone-inflected social media world can be drawn. Perhaps – indeed – that is the point of our times.
Still, they were a key part of what became known as the Arab Spring (c. 2010-13). They have helped document brutality by repressive regimes across the world. And it is not trivial to compare the coverage of beatings in Iran with the shooting of civilians by American police forces in recent years. Amateur still and video footage have become key parts of the rolling news cycle, and not simply because it provides easy and cheap content for broadcasters and newspapers. Rather, they act as fragments of evidence upon which a more rounded journalistic story can be told.2 It may turn out that this is how the history of our time is reconstructed, too.
Smart phones may reflect our place in history, but they’re also helping to create it. When information can be spread so quickly, it gives news and current events the chance to reach people like never before. This may in some way amplify scandals beyond where they may have in the past. “Wrongdoing”, if it captures the mood of the world at a particular moment, can explode into something inescapable. But then, so can acts of kindness and hope. The problem for historians is that these stories used to play out over days, months or even years. Now they can flare, disappear and resurface in a matter of hours.
In fairness, however, this may be perception. It could turn out that each of these microscandals plays into a much longer and more mature narrative than we can appreciate at this moment. Because we are caught in exactly the same hyperbolic cycle. Will these records of the past – which the iPhone has made possible – give us new perspectives? And is what we are doing really new? Or is it simply the massive scale upon which this pub gossip spreads around the planet that makes things seem so much more important than they “really” are?
The author currently owns a Samsung S5. If any manufacturer wants to offer him a new phone for free, he won’t say no.