Friday, August 05, 2011

Non-Fiction: Always On by Brian X. Chen

It seems hyperbolic to say that the iPhone has changed everything and yet, in a very real way, how can you not? We, all of us, remember a time when a phone was just a phone. It rings. You answer. Say hello. But in a world of smartphones, talking on it the is the very least of what we do. In Always On (Da Capo) his very smart and eloquent book, former Macworld associate editor and current contributor Brian X. Chen is succinct, lucid and often fun. “In many ways the iPhone is the first gadget to come close to fulfilling our dreams of the perfect device,” Chen writes and -- dag nabit, he’s right! And even when he compares the iPhone to “Dick Tracy’s radio communication wristwatch or James Bond’s lock picking, fingerprint-scanning cell phone” he doesn’t lose our interest, nor is he far from wrong.

With all of the information in the world available 24-hours a day and with apps able to perform more than 400,000 functions available for the device, how could the iPhone do anything but change the way we live? Nor is Always On (Da Capo) another love letter to Apple. While certainly not a luddite and demonstrably in the know about both technology and Apple, Chen manages to step back far enough to think about some of the potential downsides of smartphone technology and their impact on our lives. After all, as Chen points out, quoting neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell, “The idea that new technology is ‘over-loading us’ in some way is as old as technology.”
Back in 1565 Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner authored a book criticizing the printed book, stating that information over would overrun modern society. Then hundreds of years later … naysayers blasted education for being a risk to mental health. An 1883 article … claimed that schools ‘exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.’”
If you love your iPhone and think it’s the greatest invention since sliced cheese, Always On is for you. If you loathe the very idea of the iPhone and think it’s going to ruin the world, Always On is for you, too. Chen’s book is simply that marvelous: even-handed, engaging and informative, it looks at all sides of a tricky but interesting questions and makes a few assumptions that will surprise you. I suspect Always On is a much more important book than Chen’s friend-in-the-bar tone might suggest.



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