On May 16th, 1936, writer E.B. White trumpeted his love for the Ford Model T. Writing in the pages of The New Yorker magazine, White lavished the car with praise describing it as “the miracle God had wrought” and “mechanically uncanny… like nothing that had ever come to the world before.” To White, the Model T was remarkable for far more than its practical use. In White’s eyes, Henry Ford’s iconic car had moral significance-- it was “hard-working, commonplace, and heroic” and “seemed to transmit those qualities to the persons who rode in it.” 

White went even further, arguing the car was not just a staple of American culture, but that “the old Ford practically was the American scene.” Today, there are few singular items that universally inspire Americans to the devotion they once gave the Model T. Except one: the iPhone. If the Model T was “hard-working, commonplace, and heroic,” then the iPhone is ruthlessly efficient, ubiquitous and triumphant in its conquest of our culture. Like the Model T before it, the iPhone’s significance does not only rest on its usefulness, but also in how it reflects modern values. On a moral level, the iPhone represents our boundless enthusiasm for and optimism in technological progress. 

But what if we’re wrong? What if the iPhone is, in and of itself, an incredible invention, but not the bridge to a technological kingdom come? What if our belief that smartphones are a vehicle for future progress is actively retarding our ability to achieve real progress? Although up to this point the comparison between our attitude towards cars and smartphones has been largely positive, there are also significant downsides to our narrow focus on their virtues. If you examine the past, our obsession with the automobile certainly had downsides. 

Certainly, Henry Ford’s invention and distribution of the Model T number among the most significant and positive developments in recent history. In the wake of his actions, Americans enjoyed affordable transportation that made them freer and more prosperous. In gratitude and admiration, we Americans acknowledged that fact, heaped praise and attention on the car, and made it a cornerstone of future social organization. And to be clear, our rapt attention to the car did foster massive improvements to the car itself. Whereas Americans once marveled at the simple fact of the Model T’s existence and its ability to move without animals, today’s cars are so relatively advanced that the original Ford has no value other than as a historical curiosity. Contemporary vehicles are faster, more reliable, and, in the case of the Subaru Ascent, can fit up to 19 large sodas in its cupholders. How far we have come! But there is a difference between whether our fixation with the car improved broader technological progress for all of society or simply development in how we produce cars. To what degree did our preoccupation with the automobile serve the larger interest of the human species in furthering technological progress? Did the car turn out to be the engine of society’s development? I don’t think so. 

If you examine a list of the most important inventions of the twentieth century, most were discovered in fields completely unrelated to cars. While this simple fact may seem unremarkable, it is actually enormously consequential. Our past fixation with the car was actually a damaging distraction. It diminished our desire to innovate in other fields, imposed an opportunity cost on new and experimental research areas, and  materially damaged the lives of countless people who needed progress earlier than it came. The human ability to prioritize and distribute resources is limited and its possible that our obsession with the car prevented us from realizing and acknowledging the direction of broader technological development. 

The phrase “history repeats itself” is a tired and misleading saying, but in the case of our obsession with the iPhone, it bears note. We presently seem liable to repeat the same avoidable and costly mistake that we made with the car. Although I am a strong believer in the free market, I have to note that this type of mistake is encouraged by capitalism. As the makers of the Subaru Ascent know, while extra cupholders may not contribute to the collective uplift of humanity, they are an extra argument for why you should leave the lot in a certified, pre-owned, Subaru! In short, not all that is profitable is productive. Nonetheless, the first step in organizing priorities is self awareness. Before we continue with our present obsession, we ought to question our assumptions. 

Of the nation’s brightest young minds, a large percentage devote their time and energy to the pursuit of “the next big tech startup.” The implication is that the best use of an aspiring coder or entrepreneur's time is to create a new phone app that, like the car in its heyday or Facebook right now, will redefine the way society is organized (and make the founder rich in the process, of course). This is all well and good. The issue is that most of the potential world changing phone applications likely already exist or are under development. The FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) have probably already created the apps that will change the world or, if they haven't, then their research departments backed by endless capital and the most brilliant people in the world are surely on the case. A frequent complaint amongst “techies” is a sense of disappointment that Apple and other tech companies are not making as many drastic improvements to their devices and services as they once did. Potentially, that is because we are approaching the point of diminishing returns of how much convenience and utility we can realistically cram into a device the size of a paperweight. From the release of the original iPhone in 2007 to the iPhone 5S’ release in 2013, the phone’s maximum memory capacity improved by 400 percent, its processing power by about 300 percent, and its camera resolution also by 400 percent. For a lackluster comparison, from the release of the iPhone 6 in 2014 to the iPhone X’s release in 2017, the phone’s maximum memory capacity improved by under 70 percent, its processing power by under 60 percent, and its camera resolution by about 65 percent. Even if you account for the longer time span between the original iPhone and iPhone 5s, it’s clear that the improvement, while substantial, is not as world changing as it once was. 

Ronald Reagan once said that “America’s best days are yet to come. Our proudest moments are yet to be. Our most glorious achievements are just ahead.” When it comes to smartphones, consider the opposite. Our best days may be behind us. Our proudest moments may have already been realized. Our next glorious achievements probably lie in other areas of technological development. 

My intention is not to discourage any young app developers who truly believe they have the next big thing. I hope you prove me wrong. It would be a very positive sign for the trajectory of human development if this time around our fixation is correctly targeted and smartphones really are the incredible path forward we believe them to be. However, if history is any guide, there is probably no clear, straightforward, or simple path to pursue. Consider the possibility that our collective attention is misplaced and that our priorities are poorly organized.