The British public has voted the Apple iPhone as more important than the flushing toilet and space travel, a recent survey has shown.
The poll, involving 4000 consumers, placed the wheel as the most important invention in history, with the aeroplane landing in second place. Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web came in fourth and the computer was placed fifth. The light bulb completed the top 5 coming in at number three.
Not sure whether to label this news as a sad indictment of our times (the steam engine lagged 8 places behind the iPhone being voted in at 16th) or doff my metaphorical cap to the popular Smartphone as recognition of the pinnacle of haute-electronics, I decided to open up the debate to a few friends over dinner.
The first stumbling block we encountered when trying to assemble our own top 10 was how do we define, or what do we recognise as, ‘important’?
‘An invention which brought with it fundamental changes to our day to day lives’ was the clumsy classification of ‘important’ that we were all – after some light disagreements – settled on.
‘Okay right, we need to throw this list out. Where is the gun?’ a friend asked the group accusingly.
‘Fundamental changes’ was the phrase we settled on, this was, however, conveniently free of any moral charges, the water could not be muddied by ethics and/or humanitarian slants, which essentially opened up the top 10 to things that kill people. The ambiguity of weaponry in a list such as this can – as I found to my cost – cause a dinner party to drag.
Guns kill people, and they’re very efficient at it – precision engineering to perform a task. The entire top 10 is compiled from devices which fit this design specification, but there seems to be a heavy swing toward inventions which don’t ‘harm’, at least not explicitly.
In the Zeus of all understatements, a particularly well-oiled guest who had clearly supped a Shiraz too many decided to go with the line ‘The gun hasn’t been that important, if you think about it; bow and arrows were aright weren’t they? Did the job. We’d still be killing each other; the gun just upped the figures’
Whilst we couldn’t really argue with the thought processes occurring behind my colleague’s wine-addled façade, it was the casualness of the quote that jarred. ‘Upped the figures’ - there was something about this phrase that didn’t really do justice to the guns potency; it would be like labelling Hitler as nothing more than a spoil sport.
Obviously guns can also have a positive use, keeping clay pigeons and megalomaniacs in check could not be achieved without the use of firearms, for example. As far as I could see, there were no other inventions in the top 10 that could have brought about the demise of the Third Reich, certainly not without the help of a gun, at any rate.
So with the ethical pond sufficiently sullied, and our moral compass spinning wildly we attempted to tackle the Apple iPhone. Does this technological triumph warrant a spot in a list of the greatest inventions ever? Almost certainly. But is there enough room for it in the upper echelons of this illustrious countdown?
We were all in agreement that ‘a mobile phone’ was owed a position on the list, it was simply too difficult to argue against its inclusion. But why the iPhone? What makes it so special, so exclusive, and so craved?
Ever since the iPhone range was launched back in 2007, has there been anything that has come close to matching its global reach and worldwide success? Smallpox maybe? (A brag which I’m fairly certain Apple’s marketing team will be hoping to avoid) In terms of sheer numbers, the iPhone has been a revelation – a phenomenon. But surely ‘units shifted’ cannot be a determiner for such a list? Nokia, for example, have been selling mobile phones at a healthier rate than Apple worldwide for years and indeed it could be argued that an early Nokia model - one of those indestructible models with only a handful of working parts, the communications equivalent of a Kalashnikov rifle; like the mass-produced 3310 - would not look out of place on such a list.
Perhaps this is why Apple’s iPhone deserves its place on this list, simply because it is so difficult to dish up any one particular reason why it should be on such a poll. It is the only item in the top 10 which isn’t exclusively functional. It could be argued that with the invention of the iPhone we have reached a technological tipping point where it is no longer acceptable to offer a product that does not appeal primarily to our senses before fulfilling its functional purpose (almost begrudgingly it seems in the case of the iPhone, think of the dropped calls debacle), The iPhone’s image is what bumps it up the list, it isn’t so much what it does as to what it represents. People want to use it because of how it looks, not how it works, which makes the Apple iPhone a unique product.
Has the iPhone fundamentally changed our society? Well, possibly. Has Apple and its range of smartphones symbolized the fundamental changes to our society? Definitely.
Whack it on the list.