The New iPhone: Worth the Hype?

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Steve Jobs wants you to buy his new iPhone!

The new Apple iPhone went on sale this morning, and customers camped out to be the first in line to buy one.
I do not understand this. Someone please help me to understand. Why is this such a big deal? I cannot see it.
As I can discern it, the iPhone is a combination iPod, cell phone, with moderate email and Web browsing capacity. For about $1,000 and locking oneself into a year cell phone agreement, one can have all this in one portable device.
I already have a cell phone, video iPod player, and Internet capable computer(s). My cell phone I rarely use and pretty much loathe, neglecting it except for family emergencies and the like. Yet once a month or so I absolutely need it, almost always to contact my wife on the road or for some crisis or other. In these moments, my cell phone justifies its expense. Yet more often my cell phone lies neglected. Last month I checked my cell phone voice mail and found messages two months old – this is not atypical. But I am listed in the phone book. I am not hard to find.
I also have an iPod which serves as background music for my baby and when cooking with my wife. I have only used the ear buds twice on plane trips and almost always use my iPod when hooked up to external speakers in the house. I wish I used my iPod more often as I have my entire music collection on it, but I rarely have time to just sit and listen to music. So far it plays a minor role in my life.
I have computers I use for work and home, and I spend a large chunk of my day working on them. I really don’t need MORE access to computers or the Internet. My wife already complains I spend too much time in front of the computer.
My mother-in-law recently described to me her new laptop computer with DSL broadband, but claimed it did not mean much to her. She put it thusly: “I don’t have a connection with my computer like you do.” But I really don’t have a strong connection to my computer. I more from system to system and don’t care much about my computer at the time, as long as it is fast and stable. On the other hand, the content I create with my computer means everything to me! It has made my career and led to direct and substantial income. It has given me enormous satisfaction and sense of fulfillment. I used my personal computer, for example, to communicate these words to you, gentle reader.
Perhaps this fact explains it best: I care little when I swap out an older computer for a newer and better one, although I am pleased to have a faster, more efficient workstation. What is absolutely crucial when I upgrade is to transfer the gigabytes of proprietary content which took me decades to author and compile from the old system to the new. The computer and hardware itself means little; what I can do with the computer means everything. If my current computer system were to crash, I would be annoyed at having to reformat hard drives, install operating system and drivers, and re-load software applications. Tedious work over several hours. But if somehow all my work and personal files that cost me the larger part of my life to create – the webpages, photos, diary entries, video, work plans, email, lesson plans, student work, assignments and online projects, blogs, etc – were to be lost, it would be nothing short of disastrous! My life would suffer a grievous blow. That is no exaggeration.
Around 2001 I began to sleep poorly at night with the knowledge that years of my data were not backed up off my work computer. What if there were a fire at work? What if a burglar broke into my classroom in the middle of the night and stole my computer? I finally bought an external drive and backed up all my work files, a ritual I religiously perform twice per year. I scrupulously keep my backed files in several locations, and I sleep better this way. The chances of three or four different backups all being destroyed are very slim.
My ex-student Caroline saw her hard disk crash last year, and I was appalled to hear she had not backed her data up and lost everything she had written in high school. I have all my papers from high school through college, as well as every email I’ve ever written, to name just a portion of my digital history – and this is important to me in a way that the current brand of operating system or cpu speed is not.
My mother-in-law does not understand this, and neither does my father. It is beyond them; they are from a different generation. They think I tinker with computers for the sake of tinkering with them. That is not the case. The computer for me is but a new tool towards an old goal: knowing myself, making sense of the world, serving my students better, having my public say on events, and trying to live well and do something with my life before I die.
Over decades this has taken many of my best hours and energies each day. I have no apologies for this.
But do I want to be permanently plugged in? 24/7? No. I need some hours when I am unavailable and have only myself and my thoughts for company. There is an important space in my life where I don’t want to know the latest news or what waits in my email box. I want to remain removed from the tidal wave of information that the Internet washes over me on seemingly an hourly basis. I want quiet. I want stillness. I want to check in to the status of my life – my happiness, sadness, restlessness, anxiety – without electronic distractions. I wish the clarity only silence confers.
I have read with some interest and more curiosity about the BlackBerry personal computing devices. Supposedly, owners call them “CrackBerries” because they are so addicting. Users get BlackBerry thumb” from so much typing on its tiny keyboard. If their service goes down, users suffer “BlackBerry withdrawal.” Is it really so important that BlackBerry owners have ubiquitous and instantaneous electronic connection with the world? How many people really need to be accessible all the time? My friend’s email responses from his BlackBerry come with the following tagline: “Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless.” But he is a police lieutenant and SWAT team member for his department, and so maybe it is important that he be in contact NOW and get back to you in 45 seconds. But I suspect very few of us need this kind of connectivity all the time. How much of the BlackBerry scene is about appearing important to never be out of touch with the office? How many persons bring their BlackBerrys with them on vacation, to the theater, into the gym, to church? I have read of BlackBerry addicts who check their email on them even at the dinner table with their families. The technology drives its use, not any true human need. Disconnecting, even temporarily, becomes hard to do.
I suspect what is happening is that people want this kind of access because they can have it. It is another of the “newest and coolest thing” that one just “must have.” There are persons who feel incomplete or strange without their BlackBerry and a connection to the never-ending pulse of the wired world. Even when at home, they are never “unplugged.” They are, in essence, never “off duty.” Is this an electronic leash that allows employers to extend the workspace from the office to the home?
After a long day of teaching I answer student emails at night from home in a voluntary act of generosity, as I see it; students are often surprised to receive replies five minutes after sending a question. I can see many other teachers (especially the teacher union firebrands) shaking their head in disapprobation. “Your working day ends at 3:30 p.m.? Why are you working for free at night? It is not in our contract!” But I figure if I expect my students to work hard in the evenings on homework (which I do), I should be willing to work as hard as them. A teacher is the leader in the classroom, and leaders should lead from the front: don’t ask anyone to do what you aren’t willing to do yourself. In my opinion, any teacher who asks students to devote more hours to a class at night and on weekends than they are willing to give is a hypocrite. “Well, I have a family!” some teacher might complain to me. Well, students have families, too. One 4th grade teacher recently told my wife, “After 3:30 p.m. I am a mom, not a teacher. I don’t work evenings.” It need not be an either/or situation between family and work, but if you won’t work evenings don’t ask students to do so, either.
I do work nights. Students often email me after class hours basic questions about homework and grades. They explain special situations (personal illness, travel plans, family crises, etc.) or query me about future units or exams. I often write the same to them. I write one formal email to all my students after class lets out for the day, detailing what I would like them to do at length and explaining my thinking in the homework assignment. It helps to cover all the bases that cannot be covered in the craziness and chaos of the classroom, with so many students, only one teacher, so much to cover, and limited time. I do this and grade papers and develop new lessons in the evenings. I check my email sporadically. There is usually student email awaiting me. I answer it.
But I will not get into the IM conversations my students endlessly engage in. And I am not going to receive telephone calls at home about homework. An extended conversation such as this can wait for the next day in school, I tell students.
So there is a fine line.
I try to define the limits of my connectivity. There is my job and hobbies and intellectual pursuits, many of them involving at least peripherally technology. Then there is my time going on long bike rides and coming to understand certain truths about myself and my life through the pain of prolonged physical exertion. There is the moment of sitting down to start reading of the many books from the stack next to my bed I wish to read, many of whom I have waited months and even years to read. Then there is my beautiful wife and precious daughter (“my girls!”) and our lives together, and there is my rejuvenating personal time all alone with my thoughts. There are my good friends, so many of whom I have known since I was in middle school.
In a world where this “unplugged” time seems to be shrinking more and more, where communications technology drives our impatience, I plan to hold firm to the technology-free portion of my life. I will carefully endeavor to use technology to serve human happiness and fulfillment, and not vice versa. I control the technology. It doesn’t control me.
So will someone please tell me why I want an iPhone? Why do so many need a BlackBerry?
Am I missing something?

One of the first iPhone buyers leaves the store on Fifth Avenue in New York as Apple Store emplyees cheer on June 30, 2007.

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