Georgetown professor Cal Newport, author of the new book "Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World," stirred up strong emotions in Apple fans by asserting that Steve Jobs never meant for us to use our iPhones the way we do today.

According to the New York Times piece Newport wrote, Jobs would have rejected the "endless diversions, like the warm ping of social approval delivered in the forms of likes and retweets, and the algorithmically amplified outrage of the latest "breaking" news or controversy."

The way Steve Jobs wanted us to use the iPhone

The vision for the original iPhone (and any smartphone device thereafter, for that matter) wasn't intended to be our constant companion commanding our attention, from the time we wake up to the time we lay our heads to sleep. 

When Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he meant for the device to be used as a revolutionary tool --  'an iPod that made phone calls,' writes Newport.

Newport notes that Jobs doesn't make a mention of the phone's internet connectivity features until more than 30 minutes into his famous presentation, and Jobs never trusted third-party developers to build apps for our convenience and consumption.

"[Jobs] was convinced that the phone's carefully designed native features were enough," writes Newport.

Newport calls us to return to simpler days when we used our iPhones to listen to music, get directions, and call our moms. He suggests that we would "be better off returning to [Jobs'] original minimalist vision for our phones."

"Mr. Jobs didn't seek to radically change the rhythm of users' daily lives. He simply wanted to take experiences we already found important and make them better," writes Newport.

That means removing all your apps, even disconnecting your built-in email client from your office servers, and using your device for the few features it was originally intended. Anything outside of these activities, writes Newport, put it away.

"This approach dethrones this gadget from a position of constant companion down to a luxury object, like a fancy bike or a high-end blender, that gives you great pleasure when you use it but doesn't dominate your entire day," writes Newport.

It's crazy to even fathom this as a possibility twelve years later, but does Newport have a point? Should we strip away the digital chatter clamoring for our attention and return to something closer to what Jobs conceived?

What our devices are doing to us

In Dan Schawbel's new bestseller, Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation, he argues that contrary to the illusion that today's workers are "highly connected" to one another, most people actually feel isolated from their colleagues, and the main cause of social isolation is technology itself.

Schawbel interviewed 100 top young leaders and most agreed that their devices is a "double-edged sword," in that it helps their teams become super-connected, but at the cost of the human touch. 

In most cases, technology can actually make the workplace more dysfunctional. It keeps employees constantly working, even after they leave the office, leading to burnout and health problems.

But still, if you're like me, most of us can't live without our smartphones for work. As new features are developed to cater to our everyday personal and professional needs and help us to become more productive, efficient, and informed, we have to consider whether Jobs would see things differently.

Would Jobs be pleased with the ways smartphones have been integrated into our work lives? My guess is that he would.

Conversely, we also have to wonder: would he have welcomed the use of social media apps, which has caused so many psychological disorders, including addiction? I would venture to guess no.

Perhaps we can have it both ways and use it responsibly. As one commenter in Newport's Times piece articulated, "I use my Android phone to read the New York Times, to take photos, to look up information that I need or want, to get to where I'm going, and to communicate with others via phone or email. Other than that, it sits quietly. It's no threat at all. Remember, it's just a tool."

What do you think?

Published on: Mar 18, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.