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Opinion

John Bird: What’s so smart about smartphones?

“Apple and its imitators have snuck up and stolen much of our children’s energy, enthusiasm and creativity”

Nearly 60 years ago a gyrating long-haired boy from Tennessee broke into the public consciousness both sides of the Atlantic and it looked as though the world was coming to an end. The death of mankind could be seen in Elvis’ suggestive pelvic strokes.

He was going to lay low western civilisation more effectively than any Soviet missile or H Bomb. Elvis would ensure that young girls only thought of sex rather than their lessons, and young men would give up hauling freight, pumping gas or pulling soda streams. Rebellious and orgasmic joy had become marketable.

You had to wait eight years, to 1964, to see Armageddon raise its ugly face again, after Elvis and other rockers had been absorbed into the status quo. The Beatles, with their mops of hair and their encouraging of extreme behaviour among young friends by simply being present, looked like the newest final nail in the coffin. Civilisation was once more on the rapid decline.

The young would once again give up their studies, ignore their foremen’s request to get back to work and generally show that their entertainment was more important than their livelihood and their future well-being.

With a new hedonism came drugs and drink. Wacky backy, amphetamines and whisky would do the final job of destroying any sense of there being a future worth having. Only the present moment meant anything – and all else was a grey, unlivable adult world.

So about 60 years ago and 50 years ago we had two of the worst outbursts of outrage and doom-laden prophecy imaginable; mirroring the wild desire to get out of their heads by the young. And if you lose the young then you lose the future.

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I remember both – too young to participate in one and bang on time to marinate myself in the later indulgences. But we, the young, pulled through, bought cardigans and settled down. Or some of us did. The world survived. And the world of big business changed inexorably as it realised that the real big money could be got with keeping the people happy with their entertainment products.

Since the 1980s onward, how you kept people entertained, distracted, occupied was an increasing preoccupation of capitalism

Probably since the 1980s onward, how you kept people entertained, distracted, occupied was an increasing preoccupation of capitalism. From the 1990s and then into our own century many of the biggest companies in America were not oil and energy companies or shipping, building or even armament businesses. They were entertainment businesses. Businesses that kept people busy while alive; not necessarily taking them anywhere new.

Not filling their hours with renaissance-style learning. But simple straight up and down distractions, in the same way you might pass a comic to a child to get them off your back. It didn’t bring you anywhere nearer to improving your humanity or knowledge of the world. It just kept us joyously watching, listening, communicating.

Steve Jobs, though, became the father of a new world in a way that no one before – not Disney, not Bill Gates, not Sony, not any one of the big big ones before – could be. Jobs revolutionised the ear, the eye, the mind by creating the smartest smart phone ever. His company also created the iPad, the tablet, and with it a hundred imitators flooded into this new world.

Where Elvis, John, Paul, George and Ringo, along with Adolf Hitler (if you so wished) could be crammed into a piece of shit called software and available for you to download; into your ear, into your eye, into your mind.

Finally, the master, The Late Great Steve Jobs, may have at last proved that Elvis and the four mop-heads were simply the foothills of the Himalaya, as capital finds consumer goods that can truly rot you from the outside inside.

I watched the other night a young boy put up with a whole mountain range of ‘Nos’, and anger, to get his hands on his grandfather’s phone so he could play games while he ate.

The smartphone may well be the final nail in the coffin of civilisation as it destroys all before it. As the world’s children – and not so young – fall before it.

I am reminded of earlier times. Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments and encountered his people worshipping the golden calf they had made while he was about the business of law-making. He dashed the stones on which were written the laws by which his tribe were supposed to govern themselves. Fortunately he had read them first.

Come forward perhaps 4,000 years and our worshipfulness has been replaced by a gadget made by inexpensively remunerated workers. And with it a new compulsiveness and hunger has fallen on us to keep the thing to our ear or eye. And remember this is only the beginning. The smartphone of 2015 will be antediluvian compared to next year’s, the year after and the years after.

Entertainment, distraction, conversation, all the little things that were once forced into your busy life schedule have taken over in the lives of many. And turned many of us into undead zombies. And Apple and all of its imitators have snuck up and stolen much of our children’s energy, enthusiasm and creativity.

To think that one Californian hippy could do what Hitler, Stalin and countless other enemies of civilisation could never do – and he only did it so he could make some little old money for his little old, former family garage-based business.

I hope history proves me wrong.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

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