Have we passed peak phone?


should start by admitting I shot this picture with my phone, on the subway last night. I should also admit that I was no less absorbed in my personal rectangle than everyone else on the subway (and I do mean everyone) was with theirs.

I don’t know what the other passengers were doing on their rectangles, though it’s not hard to guess. In my case it was spinning through emails, texting, tweeting, checking various other apps (weather, navigation, calendar) and listening to podcasts.

One sure thing is that we are all serfs in the castles of Apple and Google, our two Lords of the Rectangle. Yes, our lieges treat us well in most ways (Apple most notably with its privacy policy); but that doesn’t make the systems they trap us in any less feudal. (A metaphor we owe to Bruce Schneier.)

We shape our tools and then they shape us. That’s was and remains Marshall McLuhan‘s main point. The us is both singular and plural. We get shaped, and so do our infrastructures, societies, governments and the rest of what we do in the civilized world. (Here’s an example of all four of those happening at once: People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the ground. From Quartz.)

Two years from now, most of the phones used by people in this shot will be traded in, discarded or re-purposed as iPods, Sonos remotes or whatever. But will we remain just as tethered to Apple, Google, telcos and app providers as we are today? That’s the biggest question. Dependent or independent? Subject to sovereigns or self-sovereign on our own? Probably some combination of the both, but the need is for greater independence and agency for each of us.

For sure most phones will do less old-fashioned telephony and more audio, video, VR, AR, and other cool shit. Just as surely they’ll also give us whole new ways to shape and be shaped. Perhaps by then mass media will finish getting replaced by mess media.

But I have to wonder what comes after phone use spreads beyond ubiquity (when most of us have multiple rectangles). Because everything gets obsoleted. That doesn’t mean it goes away. It just means something else comes along that’s better for the main purpose, while the obsoleted media still hang around in a subordinated or specialized state. Radio did that to print, TV did it to radio, and the Net is doing it to damn near every other medium we can name, connected across its Giant Zero at approximately no cost.

So, while all our asses still sit on Earth in physical space, our digital selves float weightlessly in a non-space with no gravity or distance. This is new shit.

McLuhan says the effects of every new medium can be understood through four questions he calls a tetrad, illustrated this way:


Put a new medium in the middle and then sort effects into the four corners by answering a question for each:

  1. What does the medium enhance?
  2. What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

These are posed as questions because they should help us understand what’s going on. Not so we can come up with perfect or final answers. There can be many answers to each question, all arguable.

So let’s look at smartphones. I suggest they—

  • Enhance conversation
  • Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
  • Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
  • Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)

don’t think we’re all the way into any of those yet, even as every damn one of us in a subway rewires our brains in real time using rectangles that extend our presence, involvement and effects in the world. Ironies abound.

Item: New York has just begun putting up notices that claim every subway station in the city now has wi-fi and cellular service. In my own experience, this checks out. But New York is still behind London, Paris and Boston in full deployment, because there is mobile phone and data service in the tunnels under those cities and not just in the stations.

Which to me says we’re still climbing toward peak phone.

My main point, however, is that there’s still a slope down the other side. Count on it. Something will put smartphones in that lower right box.


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  1. Henry Copeland’s avatar

    I guess with Amazon, Google and Apple all investing so vociferously in voice recognition and AI, the next interface (at least for uplink to the God Cloud) may be a descendent of Apple’s AI-juiced cordless ear piece, the AirPod.

  2. Valdis Krebs’s avatar

    I am past peak p h o n e … not past peak “connected device”. I use my phone as a phone so rarely these days. Most of my voice interactions are via Zoom, Skype, WebEx, and text interactions via many apps.

    My iPad(WiFi+Cellular) has become my central and majority device… bigger surface, decent camera (like you, I have real cameras), can text, talk, twitter, even write, listen, and make music. iPad is my 80% device… laptops for data crunching(now they never leave the office).

    When current phone dies I will NOT get a replacement. Fewer devices FTW!

  3. Mihai Pintilie’s avatar

    Great article and interesting opinion! See you in two years and see how thing evolve!

  4. Bruce Krulwich’s avatar

    I guess I’m not sure why this is a shock. Devices always change. 12 years ago there were contests for who could type “triple-tap” the fastest and phone makers were competing to get small. In 2001 people were shocked I used a Nokia Communicator because noone on the cutting edge would carry around such a big phone. Now the devices are racing for the sweet spot of being as big as possible while being carryable. Next-gen devices will certainly be as different from today’s devices as today’s are from 10 years ago.

    But the device changing has nothing to do with the transformation in the past ten years society-wide, as the masses went from barely knowing how to type “www” to using connectivity 24×7. However the device will change, that transformation will be the legacy of the past 10 years. Whatever the next device is (and I agree it will be different) it will increase or expand the connectivity, or break it into new areas, but it will not roll it back.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Bruce.

    FWIW (and not much, since I’m mostly musing here), I’m not saying that anything is a shock here. I am saying that every new medium extends each of us who use it in some way, and that our brains and our societies get rewired in the process. I leverage McLuhan to help with that. As with everything McLuhan, the questions matter more than the answers.

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