What 1 billion iPhones mean for the world



You can read this article in German here.

Not being able to see the forest for the trees – this well-known saying applies quite well to the perception of today’s state of the world. Most observant people feel that some major shifts are happening. That the order and structure that they are used to are being shaken up. Not only a few would probably connect events, trends and developments that cause them to feel these shifts in some way or another to the rise of the Internet, at least partially.

But to pinpoint what really is going on appears to be much much harder. Simply referring to the Internet and digital technology as root for the events that dominate today’s news and shape current conflicts seems vague and somewhat like a cliché. It’ll only convince those who already are convinced of the Internet’s far-reaching impact on humanity.

9 years that transformed the world

Thanks to Apple, a much better explanation exists. To be more specific, thanks to the iPhone, which just reached the magical milestone of 1 billion units sold since its launch in 2007. As pointed out by Horace Dediu, Apple’s smartphone has become the best selling product of all times. Even if there would be a product with significance which sold more often, none flew off the shelves within a ridiculously short time of 9 years. 9 years only. That short time span alone is mind-boggling and a clear indicator of how different the 21st century is compared to any time in the past.

But the really big deal is the type of product that we are looking at: The iPhone is not just a random gadget which people use for isolated pleasure in selected scenarios. It’s an extremely powerful, multi-functional mini-computer in everyone’s pocket which comes into use all the time. A mini-computer that constantly is connected to the Internet and thereby to every other person on Earth who carries a similar mini-computer in his/her pocket.

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To be clear: More Android phones have been sold than iPhones. Everything I am describing in this text applies equally to smartphones that run on other operating system. The iPhone is just a very illustrative case, since it invented the product category of serious smartphones, and since it comprises only one product line by one manufacturer. The actually story is about the smartphone, but the unique success of the iPhone gets the point across especially well.

The networked citizen

The iPhone and every other smartphone currently in use turn their owners into networked citizens. There are more than 2 billion networked citizens already. In 2020, that number is predicted to reach 6 billion. The smartphone literally connects people’s brain to all other brains on this planet, 24 hours (excluding sleep and a few offline-periods). Before the smartphone, people who were away from their PCs had very limited possibilities of interacting with people outside of their immediate physical proximity. Since the 90s, they could call and send SMS from their cell phone – costly one-to-one communication. Furthermore, they had limited access to information, especially real-time information.

The Internet-connected smartphone changed everything. It allowed everyone to indulge in one-to-many communication (almost) anywhere, anytime. It enabled people to exchange information of all types (text, visual, audio), to interact with each other independently from their physical location, to discuss, to create and to follow movements, to build and promote ideologies, to organize, to meet. It removed the power of the old media gatekeepers. People suddenly were able to connect directly with each other at eventful, critical or newsworthy moments. They didn’t have to rely on the old media protagonists anymore and they neither had to wait to share their experiences until being back behind their PC.

Certainly, the gatekeeper as a concept has not disappeared. But now everyone could act as a gatekeeper. Either by providing a technical platform or solution for networking, or by becoming an influencer, opinion leader, initiator of a movement/ideology, social media star etc. Previous gatekeepers have lost parts of their influence, new gatekeepers evolved and gained influence, often on micro-levels.

The smartphone merged online & offline

Of course, to some extend, all of this has been possible since the rise of the commercial Internet in the 90s. But seen globally, there are many people for whom the smartphone is the first connected device they have possessed. Also, the fixed Internet-connection limited the use cases. It prevented people from living their life in the ideal way, requiring them to sit somewhere at home or in the office if they wanted to “surf”. Last but not least, many of the most impactful activities of the smartphone age were impossible with desktop PC or notebooks. Recording, sharing or live streaming of photos or videos, location-based services, on the go access to all information (and disinformation) of the world are completely different things than sitting in a room in front of a screen, performing the daily email check or reading the sport news.

One could say that while the desktop Internet introduced the distinction of online and offline, the smartphone merged both. Now there is only one thing: Billions of people whose brains, cognitive abilities, thoughts, impulses, emotions and experiences are always connected to everybody else’s thanks to the smartphone.

This, I suspect, is one of the main reason for why the world looks and behaves the way it does in 2016: With the introduction of the smartphone, humans have upgraded themselves to an unprecedented state of connected existence, collective consciousness and interaction. And now, everyone is figuring out what to make of it. Obviously, that process won’t happen without friction and a certain level of chaos.

So, if you think about the forest and the trees, then all the various major global events and developments that currently captivate people’s attention and that appear to be related to each other somehow, at least indirectly, are the trees. The Internet-enabled smartphones that connect everyone to everyone on Earth are the forest.

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Photo credit: Stiller Beobachter/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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