Book review: Always On by Rory Cellan-Jones

Smartphones haven’t just replaced several consumer devices in one, they’ve also had a profound effect on society, helping to prevent the spread of everything from covid to cancer. Blogger and editor of Where Are We Now? Simon Poulter reviews BBC Technology Editor Rory Cellan-Jones’ new book, Always On: Hope and Fear in the Social Smartphone Era about the smartphone revolution.

The date when, arguably, face-to-face conversation ended was 9 January 2007. The date when the television set, as the “electronic hearth” of collective family engagement, ground to a halt. It was when the morning commute (remember that?) became a head-hunched, spinal strain-inducing exercise in what we British islanders, in particular, do better than anyone else – social avoidance. Because that was the day Steve Jobs introduced, with customary understatement, “a revolutionary and magical product” that he claimed was “literally five years ahead” of any rival: the iPhone. 

Dream-weaving Jobs

Apple’s press release on the day said that it combined three products: the aforementioned phone plus “a widescreen iPod with touch controls, and a breakthrough Internet communications device with desktop-class email, Web browsing, searching and maps.” There was also an “entirely new user interface based on a large multi-touch display and pioneering new software, letting users control [it] with just their fingers,” adding that it ushered in “an era of software power and sophistication never before seen in a mobile device, which completely redefines what users can do on their mobile phones.”

Steve Jobs announces first iPhone, January 9, 2007

This was peak dream-weaving Jobs. As Apple had done with the iMac in the previous decade and indeed the iPod in 2001, they’d taken an existing concept and made it desirable and cool. The iPhone was certainly not the first smartphone (anyone working in the corporate world would have already endured years of BlackBerry envy), nor was it the first touchscreen-enabled gadget. But, Jobs’ spin notwithstanding, for once, the tech marketing cliché “revolutionary” was broadly applicable. 

Today, nearly 90% of British adults own a smartphone, with ownership in older demographics notably increasing during 2020, most likely because of lockdown necessitating connectivity. Despite their upfront cost – a full-specced iPhone 12, bought outright, will set you back just under £1000 – they have become indispensable, but they can, too, be easily be taken for granted.

One common trope is that the smartphone in your pocket is more powerful than the technology that landed Apollo 11 on the moon. And while this is a fallacious comparison, given that NASA was working with beyond-state of the art capabilities in 1969, it’s not a bad way of looking at the sheer power today’s smartphones represent, and the – still – unprecedented functions they perform.

Model T Ford

Indeed this forms the core of Always On: Hope And Fear In The Social Smartphone Era, a new book by Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology editor, and someone who was there where it all began. Recalling that Jobs press event early in 2007, Rory went on to compare, on the BBC, the new Apple phone to the Model T Ford in terms of its potential impact.

At the time, viewers complained that he’d given a commercial launch too much prominence on the BBC’s ad-free airwaves – and even Rory himself was initially worried that he’d gone “over the top”. However, on later reflection, he felt totally vindicated, writing on the tenth anniversary of the launch that it had truly been a “moment in history”, heralding “the key transformative technology of the last decade, putting powerful computers in the hands of more than two billion people and disrupting all sorts of industries.”

Rory expounds on this shift in the book, discussing how Apple’s effective invention of the smartphone founded entire industries and economic ecosystems. It soon became apparent that it wouldn’t just eclipse the predominant handsets from Nokia, Motorola and others, but posed an existential threat to PC manufacturers and consumer electronics brands as well. Over time, the smartphone would become your TV set, your home cinema, your music system and its content library, and – crucially in its development, Rory points out – your camera.

BBC Technology editor, Rory Cellan-Jones

App invention

But, Always On also argues, the smartphone didn’t just become a replacement for a multitude of devices. It also turned “software” into “app”, the word even your granny is now familiar with. How many times a day do you interact with an app, or hear the word? Even freedom to travel might soon be facilitated by the NHS app, acting as a Covid passport. So, when you combine the hardware, the software, the functionality, the connectivity, the rise of social media and the innovation of app developers (even the term “swipe right” has entered popular convention thanks to Tinder), you can begin to appreciate the enormity of what that rectangular box in your pocket represents.

Always On delves deeply into the smartphone’s social impact, not just focusing on the consolidation of consumer electronics into a single device, but on the global impact of digital engagement facilitated by it, as our “hyperconnected” society lives and breathes on social media, elects governments, supports economies, finds people jobs (and loses them through misuse…) and more. Rory even draws on the role the smartphone plays in healthcare, given how the NHS app was placed front-and-centre in the fight against COVID-19.

Indeed my own company, Vodafone, helped develop an app called DreamLab, which enables Imperial College London to effectively crowdsource the immense computing power of dormant smartphones at night to dramatically shorten the number of thousands of hours required by human research into developing therapies for cancer and the coronavirus. 

Rory, however, has an even more personal health connection with the smartphone. A couple of years ago, while doing a live demonstration of 5G technology on BBC Breakfast News, viewers noted a tremor in his right hand. Unbeknownst to all but a few friends and colleagues, he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease some months before.

Shortly afterwards he revealed on Twitter what he’d been going through: “It was a vivid example of the positive side of what this book describes as the social smartphone era,” he writes. He says we’re now immersed in an era in which technology has become personal, in which these devices enable us to connect with “friends, strangers, celebrities and even Presidents and Prime Ministers via new networks which appeared to democratise communication.”

Dark side

There is, though, a negative side to this – an acute example being the recent football boycott of social media, the result of the repugnant racist, sexist and homophobic abuse that some players of both genders have had to endure – but Rory hopes that his book faithfully examines the positives of what smartphone technology has done for individuals and society in general, as much as its dark side.

To return, though, to my introduction to this post, there is still a residue of old farts who look upon the revolution that Jobs’ heralded as the start of a societal breakdown that will never be repaired. The response to such arguments is always ‘do you want to go back to how it was?’ (i.e. outdoor toilets, steam trains, ‘the wireless’, etc). “We have a slightly problematic nostalgia that romanticises the past,” Professor Daniel Miller, leader of a 16-month international anthropology study into smartphone use told The Times recently. “TV was way more passive,” he added. “Smartphones are far more interactive and far more social. So why is that a loss?”.

Digital connectivity

Miller and his colleagues argue that the Internet has, rather than creating digital zombies, brought society together. The problem, they say, is that digital connectivity has also brought down divisions within individual households. We’ve all done it: we’ve all sat there as families, idly thumbing through our phones while half-watching something on TV.

Rory Cellan-Jones’ original thesis that Steve Jobs produced a Model T Ford for the 21st century with the iPhone shouldn’t be in any doubt. But, says Miller, it comes at a social price. “At any point, whether over a meal, a meeting or other shared activity, a person we’re with can just disappear, having ‘gone home’ to their smartphone,” he said in The Times interview. It’s almost, he believes, as if the smartphone has become too ubiquitous. “We have become human snails carrying our home in our pockets,” Miller and his colleagues write in their study, going so far as saying that we spend more time ‘in’ our phones than in our own homes.

Moreover, they contest, the smartphone now plays such a fundamental role in how we engage with our families, friends, colleagues, celebrities, politicians and anyone else we can just ping on WhatsApp, the technology has virtually become as basic a form of human communication as talking. That, though, is nothing new. Almost every form of technology communication is accused of supplanting something else.

Smartphone revolution

This is what makes Rory’s book so engrossing. As the BBC’s primary technology correspondent since January 2007 when Jobs strode on stage in trademark polo neck, stonewashed Levi’s and New Balance trainers, he has reported on every gadget, trend, startup, collapse, innovation and outbreak of industry hyperbole since. And when you put it all into perspective, you’d struggle to disagree with the central belief that Always On entertainingly proffers, that most of those “breakthroughs” my peers in technology PR peddle don’t even come close to the smartphone. 

The telephone is generally regarded as one of humankind’s greatest creations, after the printing press, the electric light and industrial manufacturing. I’d argue that, given that it is more than just a mobile phone, the smartphone might one day find itself up there in the same pantheon of achievement.

For Simon Poulter’s full article go to Where Are We Now?

Always On: Hope And Fear In The Social Smartphone Era by Rory Cellan-Jones is now available for £18.99 RRP. It is published by Bloomsbury

Chris Price