All the things we lost because of the smartphone

In two decades, the smartphone has not only revolutionized communication but also dramatically transformed the physical world around us. Here’s how.

Looking back at pictures of the first iPhone, released nearly twenty years ago, is a bit disorienting. The device that marked the dawn of the smartphone era looks nothing like we remember. It’s a tad heart-wrenching, a hefty dose of reality check. And it’s not just the compact size, the chunky bezels, or the modest screen where you decipher the network of pixels. The shock is visual. It can be summed up in one word: skeuomorphism. Remember graphical interfaces that mimicked real-world objects? That was all the rage at Apple in those years.

Remember the calculator with its blatantly three-dimensional keys, or how notes looked like pages from a notebook? Even voice memos had a charming microphone background. Books sat neatly on wooden shelves, and each icon simulated a tactile quality that now feels quaint and awkward and, at least in Western markets, reeks of “old.” Like the vaguely unsettling sunflower on the Photo app button in its first iteration.

Skeuomorphism was unapologetically sincere: it mirrored the cannibalistic instinct of the smartphone, which over time has gradually “absorbed” physical objects that have either vanished or morphed beyond recognition in the real world. These objects weren’t merely things; they were hubs of interactions or the culmination of entire chains of interactions, modes of commerce or communication. Their replacement has irreversibly altered people and their relationships.

Some examples of these “cannibalized objects” are so obvious that they hardly warrant mention. The telephone, from which the smartphone explicitly evolved. The computer, whose myriad functions it has usurped – believe it or not, there was a time when we returned home to check our emails. And then there’s the ubiquity of smartphones, coupled with evolving technologies, paving the way for the dematerialization of data into the cloud, causing not only physical but also digital objects to vanish. Think of those MP3 collections or video files, now replaced by music and movies streamed on demand.

The quintessential “cannibalized” object is undoubtedly the camera. Not only has the smartphone effectively made it obsolete in the mass market, putting both large and small manufacturers out of business, but for years before AI became the new focus of storytelling around which smartphone manufacturers built their marketing campaigns, the “cameraphone” reigned supreme. The idea was that the smartphone was primarily a camera with a phone attached. And there was always a phone that took better photos, with more megapixels, sharper low-light shots, and finer bokeh in portrait mode. It was through cameras that we first encountered the explicit and widespread mention of optimization through machine learning and AI.

It’s not uncommon, particularly in bustling city streets, to spot someone with an SLR slung around their neck or an old analog compact camera like an Olympus MJU or a Yashica T4 resting on a cafe table nearby. For every major trend, there are pockets of resistance. And over the years, the media has often overstated the younger generation’s – Gen Z’s, Gen Alpha’s, or whatever else – fondness for retro technologies of yesteryear, from vinyl records to Walkmans, from “dumb” clamshell phones to stacks of paper manga volumes, or any other artifact that might have provided comfort to pre-digital journalists facing the inexorable dissolution of much of the material world they grew up with into trivial gadgets designed to fit in their pockets.

Opening images: Steve Jobs. Photo Justin Sullivan from GettyImages

Latest on Design

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram