Friday, January 12, 2007

Virtualities

I must add my voice to the chorus of admiration that sounded all over the planet when the magician Steve Jobs unveiled his iPhone a few days ago. When Jean-Louis Gassée handed me my first Apple computer back in the early '80s, he said prophetically: "William, this little machine is going to change your life." Retrospectively, we could paraphrase his vision: "Apple's little machines are going to change the life of the planet."

There's a problem in deciding what the future iPhone is, and what it isn't. René Magritte's painting of a pipe bears an intriguing caption: This is not a pipe. Similarly, the iPhone should probably have a caption: This is not a phone. Not an ordinary cell phone, that's for sure, because conventional phoning is merely one element in a rich set of functions, one of which is familiar to people through the iPod.

Funnily enough, Steve Jobs himself preferred a different kind of negative affirmation: This is not a computer. He doesn't want to find small businessmen complaining one day, for example, that they can't use their iPhone to print out the company payroll. And Jobs's warning is understandable in that certain observers have already started to express their concern that they might not be able to run Microsoft Word on their future device. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. Who knows? Who cares? Anything seems to be possible.

A week or so ago, a futuristic electric automobile called the Chevy Volt was presented at Detroit, but the manufacturer insisted upon the fact that this vehicle was not yet a reality, nor even a short-term feasibility, but rather a pure concept.

I find it exciting that we have moved so rapidly into a virtual-reality era in which we define future objects in terms of what they are not. As I grow older, I am more and more convinced that I am not going to turn into a blasé old man. Old man, maybe, surely, but not blasé.

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