Thesis #6

June 2007 was a pivotal moment in the evolution of the networked world

Why? Because it was the month when the Apple iPhone first went on sale. Ten years on, Apple has sold 1.2 billion of them, in the process pulling in $738bn in revenue, and every year earning between 70% and 90% of all profits made by all smartphone manufacturers.

The iPhone made Apple the world’s most valuable company but what’s more significant is that it sparked off the smartphone revolution that changed the way people accessed the internet. The seminal insight of Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, was that a mobile phone could be a powerful, networked handheld device which could also be used to make voice calls. Turning that insight into a marketable reality was a remarkable achievement.

And it changed the Internet forever because it led to a world in which most people carry their internet connection around in their bags and pockets. It’s a world of ubiquitous connectivity in which people are never offline and are increasingly addicted to their devices. It’s got to the point where someone has coined a new term – smombies (zombies on smartphones) – to describe pedestrians who walk into obstacles because they are looking at screens rather than at where they’re going.

The smartphone is the most vivid example available of how technology can be – simultaneously – both good and bad, enabling and disabling, inspiring and disillusioning. The technical capabilities of modern phones are formidable and the ingenuity of the apps that harness those capabilities are often impressive. But at the same time, smartphones are also surveillance devices made in hell – pocketable slot-machines using GPS chips to track one’s every move, click, swipe and shake. And some of the apps that run on them are tailor-made vehicles for stalking, bullying, harassment and theft – to the point where parents who give smartphones to young children ought to be prosecuted for neglect.

The other consequence of a world in which most people connect to the internet via a smartphone is a vast increase in corporate power. This is because the smartphone – unlike a PC – is a tethered, closed device. Nothing gets on to an iPhone that Apple hasn’t explicitly approved; and although Android phones are less tightly controlled, Google is increasingly trying to enforce the same kind of order in that software ecosystem.

Further Reading

Brian Merchant, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, Bantam Press, 2017. Amazon UK:

Alex Hern, “iPhone at 10: how it changed everything”, Guardian, 29 June, 2017.

Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet – and How to Stop It, Yale, 2008. Available free at

Yochai Benkler, “Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power”, Daedalus, 145:1, Winter 2016)

John Naughton, “2007, not 2016, is the year the world turned upside down”, Observer, 27 November, 2016.

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