Last week, I was having dinner with some friends and one of them said that he deleted his phone. It was a simple slip of tongue, perhaps he broke it or lost it, but no one questioned him about it, because the meaning was clear: he had lost access to some photos, texts, and videos that were on his old phone.
An idea that I’ve been toying with for some time is that a phone is no longer a physical object, a collection of circuit boards, glass, and firmware. With rapid technological improvements and an increasing reliance on smartphones, a smartphone is more the data within than its shell and guts. In a newfangled ship of Theseus, is the same physical smartphone restored to factory settings the same phone as it was prior to the restoration? What about a brand-new phone with the data of the old phone? There is no doubt in my mind that any smartphone user today would pick the latter.
In a bit of futurology (Apple hire me please), imagine someone halfway through a vacation who drops their iPhone into the water. Though their phone is waterproof, their yacht is quite far from the shore, and the phone is far too deep to retrieve. On the phone are their travel itineraries, vacation photos, and virtual payment methods. All seems to be lost.
However the only thing they have to do is to walk into the nearest Apple Store and pick up a new phone, download all their data, which is continuously backed up into the iCloud, and they have their phone back. Crisis averted. They might have lost the photos of the yacht, but those can be taken before their rental runs out.
Of course, this is already a possibility. But it’s not an advertised feature. As a premium product, why is this not at the front and center of Apple’s seamless customer experience? Constant iCloud backups so that the replacement of a phone’s physical shell is as simple as strolling into an Apple store and picking it back off the rack. A phone, like a person, is more than the skin, bones, and guts. It’s everything that the phone has been made to experience, and is now stored within its memory.
Though there are physical requisites to phones such as communicative capabilities and portability, these are not what makes replacing a phone an annoyance. Just as the biological and physical aspects of a human come to mind first, or what differentiates us from other primates, such as empathy and expression, it is ultimately ideas and identity that are most valued. Does this sound like a stretch? How about books?
From their inception until the invention of the printing press, books were inseparable from the pages that contained them, and indistinguishable from the stories that they contained. The Bible was a book, not a story or an idea. Once books became mass produced, then the concept of a copy of a book came into existence, that two separate physical objects could be the same book. For the first time, things like “I have this book already” and “how much does this book cost?” could be said. “Book” came to mean both the physical object and the story that it contained.
Then, came the advent of eBooks and audiobooks, causing the word “book” to slide further towards the side of “story” and slip further away from the side of “receptacle for said story”. The word “book” still meant bound pieces paper when it came to owning a book, but no longer for buying or reading it. Reading a eBook or listening to an audiobook are currently acceptable ways of becoming acquainted with a book, and have little in common with anything that Gutenberg could have imagined.
Technology is doing to the phone what it has done to the book. I call this process “abstractification”, a word that I coined because “abstraction” was already taken. When something is abstractified, the essence of an object is distilled from the concrete and physical and given an independent meaning. Phone is abstractified into “a collection of media, settings, and other personalized data. Book is abstractified into “a story or other piece of literature that can be conveyed in text”.
Though it’s invention that drives this process, the pandemic certainly increased the speed of its uptake. Documents, pictures, and files no longer have to be physical. Money and credit cards increasingly mean access to funds as opposed to the tangible cash or plastic. To discuss or to speak no longer necessitate an in-person exchange, or even a call; discussion by email or by text is acceptable so long as there is communication and discourse.
It seems technology has allowed us to see the weakness of our flesh, but if phone, content, money, and discussions are to go the way of the book, it is not a conversion to the digital. Rather, it is an untethering of these concepts from their physical constraints, be it biomass or machine, and a distillation into essential ideas.
What use is this? Do all ideas require practical applications? This one certainly has a few. Abstractification is perhaps the most obvious way of “disrupting an industry”. Whether it’s moving from film to digital, from disk to streaming, or from hotels to Airbnbs, each time the essential qualities of something has been separated from the frills that it conventionally comes with. Thusly, being able to see something without its traditional trappings and recognizing its essence can be immensely profitable.
However, it is important to remember that technology is a mere crutch in this alchemy. Just as a discussion can occur via email as it can occur over a phone, it is simply the exchange of ideas that is at its core. It’s not about increasing the ease of an auditory correspondence; if somehow, someway, ideas can be quickly and efficiently interchanged without speaking, this would still qualify. Though it’s difficult to imagine conversations becoming simpler than a call or an email, perhaps that’s where the next billion dollars lies.
Imagine an instant message chat, but everyone simply has a chat box that all the participants can see in real time. Discussion as God intended it: spontaneous, instantaneous, and transient, where hesitations, mistakes, and reflexes are naked for all to see. Unfiltered discussion without latency. Obviously, this example also relies on technology, but I continue to postulate that technology isn’t the only harbinger of abstractification, the only prerequisite being the willingness to see things differently.
Sadly, there’s no pitch here, no overarching theme or get-rich-quick scheme. But slowly and surely, words that previously described physical objects or concrete actions have slowly taken on other definitions aligned with their purpose. What will be abstractified next?