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There Can Only be One: A Biography of Everyone’s Favorite Device

“Today we’re introducing THREE revolutionary products… The first is a wide-screen iPod with touch control. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough internet communications device.”

It’s 2007, only ten years ago. On stage, Steve Jobs continues: “Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device.” And so the smartphone revolution started.

The “one device” wasn’t brand new. It borrowed many technologies and ideas that already existed, but it also introduced new ones, and combined everything with patented Apple smoothness.

Watching Jobs unveil the iPhone is fun, mostly because it already seems so quaint– (his talk is on YouTube). The user interface, Multi-Touch, was perhaps the most miraculous tech that the iPhone gave us, and when Jobs nonchalantly scrolled through his phone’s music library with a swipe of his finger in front of that crowd ten years ago, it drew the biggest gasp of the evening.

Jobs’ first public iPhone call was to audience member Jony Ive, who answered on a flip phone. Bantering with his boss, the Apple designer now known as Sir Jony says, “It’s not too shabby, is it?”

Today, even as I finish up this review, Tim Cook is about to wow us with yet another iPhone with not too shabby features. As if to prove their importance,

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there have been fifteen different iPhones already, their bastard progeny is global and seemingly without number, and here comes the new generation.

These days, the iPhone routinely accompanies astronauts in space, but it wasn’t that long ago that a library staffer wowed us by showing off an early iPhone at a staff day “technology petting zoo.” I was curious about how many of my coworkers use which phones, so I conducted an informal survey. The iPhone (in at least seven permutations) won handily. Samsung came in a very distant second, and there were some others, including four flip-phones.

Brian Merchant has written a “secret history” of the one that started it all, entitled The One Device. What’s notable, and to me most interesting, is that it’s not just another book on Steve Jobs or Silicon Valley. In fact, it takes an ecological (iCological?) perspective of Apple’s most important product. Early reviews didn’t seem to get it, or if they did, they saw it as a distraction, but this approach sets the book apart in important ways.

And here I have to take what I’ll call the Talese defense. Students of the non-fiction essay are familiar with a 1966 Esquire magazine piece written by Gay Talese, called “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” One of the most famous essays ever, it manages to convey the essence of Ol’ Blue Eyes despite the author’s inability to land an interview with the subject.

Call me Talese. I’ve failed to read The One Device. Note to self: don’t count on library books being returned on time.

I have, however, read excerpts of The One Device published on the “Motherboard” and “The Verge” websites, as well as lots of background material (Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs and Elizabeth Woyke’s The Smartphone, for example). I’ve also followed the social ecology of phones since Mark Klein discovered AT&T’s room 641A in 2003, but while relevant to those of us who voluntarily broadcast our location (and much more) at all times, that’s for another blog post.

Why is Merchant’s book important? Because something that has changed the world as profoundly as the iPhone demands a social and ecological perspective. By using different facets of the phone as windows to different components of its ecosystem, Merchant unearths the world in your pocket – for better or worse.

You’ve heard the suicide stories of the Chinese iPhone manufacturer, Foxconn. Have you also heard of the hellish mines of the Congo, where the ghost of Joseph Conrad may still be writing? What about the Bolivian tin mines? And what happens to those billions of old phones when new versions are announced?

Read The One Device.  You can do so on your phone, of course.

…One more thing: What the heck is the Native American person in the bottom center of this 1937 painting doing?

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library. 

Image: Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield by Umberto Romano; Image by David Stansbury. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service

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