Hope and Fear in the Smartphone Era: “What technologies are doing for us and to us”

From a review by Christine Rosen in the Wall Street Journal of the book “Always On: Hope and Fear in the Social Smartphone Era” by Rory Cellan-Jones:

In a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, it’s difficult to recall the excitement that greeted the announcement by Steve Jobs of the first iPhone in 2007. In “Always On: Hope and Fear in the Social Smartphone Era,” BBC technology journalist Rory Cellan-Jones takes us back to a time of naive enthusiasm about the possibilities of smartphones and social media. “This, then, was the golden age of optimism about the impact of these mighty new tools of the digital era,” he writes. “It was as if we had happened on a new land of promise, a place where the old rules and hierarchies did not apply.”

Mr. Cellan-Jones, who covered the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s in the U.K., takes a refreshingly skeptical outsider’s view of Silicon Valley and its titans. Unlike many American reporters at that time, he wrote openly about Jobs’s bumptiousness. He was horrified when an American journalist hugged Jobs’s successor, Tim Cook, during a television interview. Recalling an interview with a Facebook executive, Mr. Cellan-Jones observes that “the company and its founder were not arrogant, but it seemed to me they had an almost unshakable belief that they were smarter than the rest of us and could ignore external advice.”

Mr. Cellan-Jones spurns tech-industry boosterism but grants that “the predictions that fuelled the first boom—that the internet would transform every aspect of our economy and society—have proved correct.” Today, he notes, “the promise is that not just people but every object imaginable—cars, lamp posts, dustbins, every item in a grocery or clothes shop—will be hooked up to the network.”

Mr. Cellan-Jones is an amiable narrator and, although the book is ostensibly focused on smartphones and social-media platforms, he ranges wider, covering subjects such as cryptocurrency, autonomous cars, space exploration, 5G and artificial intelligence….

The most engaging sections in “Always On” recall the author’s interviews with tech visionaries and internet celebrities, now with the benefit of hindsight. “There was a time when Twitter and its much bigger and more powerful Californian neighbour Facebook were credited with delivering a voice to the powerless, even enabling the Arab Spring, and allowing superstars and their fans or politicians and citizens to talk to one another directly rather than via an old media intermediary,” Mr. Cellan-Jones writes. “But very quickly the well was poisoned. Trolls and bullies, fraudsters and bigots took to these new platforms with gusto.”

His interview subjects are inclined to agree:…Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web and one of its foremost crusaders, now grapples with the negative effects of the web, particularly for privacy and the democratic process….

Mr. Cellan-Jones wants to remain optimistic about technology, although this optimism sometimes feels strained. At one point he pleads with readers to try “not to get too depressed about what these wonderful new tools have done to our brains, our relationships and our society.” This aversion to gloomy prognoses is perhaps what leads him to play down the adverse effects of excessive smartphone use, particularly among children.

Mr. Cellan-Jones wants to believe we’ve become better informed and skilled users of the internet and social media. That might be wishful thinking. As with everything created by humans, our modern communications technologies have brought about countless moral and ethical problems that don’t lend themselves to easy choices between light and darkness. Rather they force us to live in uncomfortable gray areas—with regard to privacy, empathy, connection and the democratic process itself. Strained optimism aside, Mr. Cellan-Jones encourages us to reflect on what our technologies are doing for us and what they’re doing to us.

Ms. Rosen is senior writer at Commentary magazine and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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