The smartphone is the signature artifact of our age. Less than a decade old, this protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate.
For all its ubiquity, though, the smartphone is not a simple thing. We use it so often that we dont see it clearly; it appeared in our lives so suddenly and totally that the scale and force of the changes it has occasioned have largely receded from conscious awareness. In order to truly take the measure of these changes, we need to take a step or two back, to the very last historical moment in which we negotiated the world without smartphone in hand.
In short order, the smartphone supplanted the boombox, the Walkman and the transistor radio: all the portable means we used to access news and entertainment, and maybe claim a little bubble of space for ourselves in doing so. Except as ornamentation and status display, the conventional watch, too, is well on its way to extinction, as are clocks, calendars and datebooks. Tickets, farecards, boarding passes, and all the other tokens of access are similarly on the way out, as are the keys, badges and other physical means we use to gain entry to restricted spaces.
The things we used to fix cherished memory—the dogeared, well-worried-over Kodachromes of lovers, children, schoolmates and pets that once populated the worlds plastic wallet inserts—were for the most part digitized at some point along the way, and long ago migrated to the lockscreens of our phones.
What else disappears from the world? Address books, Rolodexes and “little black books.” The directories, maps and guidebooks of all sorts that we used to navigate the city. Loyalty and other stored-value cards. And finally money, and everything it affords its bearer in freedom of behavior and of movement. All of these have already been transfigured into a dance of ones and zeroes, or are well on their way to such a fate.
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