A sociologist on the iPhone at 5: “There has been no other device that has changed social and technological life in such a short time”

The iPhone just turned five years old and a sociologist makes some big claims about the impact of the device:

“There has been no other device that has changed social and technological life in such a short time,” said Clifford Nass, a Stanford University sociologist and psychologist who studies how technology impacts society. “There has been nothing like it in the world.”

This is a bold claim. I assume this primarily about the time period: important technology today has the ability to make rapid changes. This is one of the defining features of today’s globalization: stuff happens and spreads quickly. The iPhone itself is influential but it quickly led to other changes and pushed Android and other phone makers as well. I can admit that the smartphone world has some advantages.

At the same time, I wonder if this claim is too much. Looking at the broad sweep of human history, how does the iPhone stack up? What about the printing press, the plow, the steam engine, and so on? These devices may not have had such a quick effect but these led or contributed to whole eras like the Renaissance, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Will we look back in fifty or one hundred years and see the iPhone as a similar singular device or is it part of the computer-age process?

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