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DAVE DAVIES, Host:
iPhone sales in the United States are now over 100 million and counting. If you're a shopaholic with an iPhone, you can scan barcodes of items in stores and look for cheaper deals online. You can point the iPhone's camera at a restaurant and get user reviews, and the gadget's uses are expanding exponentially as programmers develop software for the App Store where there are now over 400,000 programs available.
Our guest Brian Chen has written a book about what it means to have such a versatile tool that instantly connects us to a world of data. He explores the uses of the iPhone in education, medicine and law enforcement, and writes about the power that ubiquitous iPhone use confers on its maker, Apple. And he considers its impact on our thinking and social relations - relating the story of a romance that dissolved, part, because woman he cared for didn't care to be constantly connected.
Brian Chen works for Wired.com, where he has a regular column on Apple. His book is called "Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime- Anywhere Future."
Brian Chen, welcome to FRESH AIR. You want to give us a couple of your favorite examples of interesting or exotic applications?
BRIAN CHEN: Yeah, one of my personal favorite applications is DropBox. And DropBox works as this Web connected folder. So you can hop on any computer and you can put some files in this folder, like you could put your music, your photos, your movies. And I could hop on my iPhone and open the DropBox application there, and all my files are right there. So it's sort of having a magic pocket that you carry with you everywhere you go.
Another cool example is something called Uber. Uber is pretty significant because it hails black limos that are just driving around the city and they know where people are likely to hail in Uber, because they've used a lot of statistical math, crazy algorithms to predict where they're likely going to be hailed. This is basically a piece of computer science that is solving this decades-old problem of the lack of cab supply in every city.
DAVIES: All right. Now apart from the fun stuff like games or being able to scan a barcode in a grocery store with your iPhone, you talk about some applications which might fundamentally alter some of the important occupations, some of the ways we relate to each other. And you write about what Abilene Christian University in Texas has done with iPhones. Tell us about that.
CHEN: Right. So, Abilene Christian University has a really interesting iPhone program where for about two years, I think, they've been handing out free iPhones to every incoming freshman. And what they do is they integrate the iPhone into the classroom curriculum. And they have teachers get in front of the classroom, and instead of lecturing students and saying, hey, open your textbook and go to page 96, the teacher is acting as a guide and saying, OK, so here's the topic we're going to discuss today. Take out your iPhones and go ahead and search on the Web or search Wikipedia and let's have a conversation about where we want to take this discussion and look for good information on how you can contribute to this.
And I think that's interesting, because students aren't going home anymore and just flipping open textbooks. They're Googling everything. They're talking to each other online about their assignments. And I think the challenge going forward is not just being able to read information, because everybody already has access to information. The challenge, more, is being able to distinguish bad data from good data. And Abilene Christian is thinking forward and teaching people how to do that, which is a very important skill because there's so much bad information out there on the Web.
DAVIES: Right. I'm just going to read this little passage from your book.
DAVIES: Anything, anytime, anywhere transformed Abilene Christian University into a massive data network that is swirling with information from both old and young and old minds, connecting students and teachers in a more profound way than ever before, because they're all using the same technology and software, the digital extensions of their minds are completely linked together. To call this a think tank would be imprecise. It's essentially an enormous think engine, robustly engineered with quality data.
Boy, that's an inspiring vision.
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DAVIES: But, you know, I'm a generation older and I remember the excitement of being in a classroom where people were having a conversation and ideas are arcing across the room. That seemed to me like learning, and I always did feel like when a professor had taken a lot of material from a wide variety of sources and organized it in a coherent way, I was getting something special. I don't know, something - this to me sounds like a little gimmicky.
CHEN: I completely understand. I mean most people are still teaching classes the way that you just described. I think, you know, at Abilene this is just one program and it's just something they're still experimenting with.
DAVIES: OK. Let's talk about some other areas where you see iPhone and iPhone applications as potentially transformative. Medicine, what are we seeing there?
CHEN: Personal health monitoring I think is going to be a pretty big thing in the next few years. And something I mentioned in the book is a group of researchers who are working on a digital contact lens that communicates with a smartphone, potentially. So the contact lens takes information and transfers it, wirelessly, to the smartphone. And what the contact lens is doing is it's collecting information from the surface of your eye.
What's interesting about the eye is that the eye is like the little door into the body. And you can collect information about, say, cholesterol or glucose levels, blood pressure and transfer this information to the smartphone.
You have basically real-time health monitoring. And what they're thinking, what scientists are thinking going forward, is that once you start getting sick you're going to know that you're getting sick and you don't have to make funds necessary trips to the doctor.
DAVIES: You're talking about a contact lens that you - that has electronics in it that you insert in your eyes?
CHEN: Right. A digital contact lens with wireless transmitters that transmits information to the smartphone application. This is still in development and it's a little bit far away, I think. And they're currently testing it on rabbits.
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CHEN: But this gives a glimpse into what people are working on right now. They're working on solutions to get this data more interwoven into our actual bodies so that we could monitor our health.
DAVIES: How might law enforcement be changed by this technology?
CHEN: What some police officers are doing is they're testing this application called Morris. Morris is an application that enables police officers to scan fingerprints of suspects and also scan their eyeballs and cross-reference that information with the database that they have back at the police station.
And this is pretty remarkable when you consider that this entire process usually takes a police officer about, you know, like maybe seven hours just to book a suspect and run all the tests, you know, drive them to the station. But now that they can do this on their smartphones, it could help them make a lot more, I think, arrests that are accurate in the future. And there's only a few stations testing this application right now and it costs $30,000. So it's unlikely we're going to see it anytime soon like in every single police officer's hands, but it's something that we're working on to reduce costs and potentially streamline law enforcement a lot.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Brian Chen. He is a columnist for Wired.com and the author of the new book "Always On."
Now a lot of the book talks about some of the amazing possibilities that this technologies represent. But you also note that we're talking about technology, hardware and software that are run by huge corporations - you know, Apple, Google, you know, Verizon, AT&T. What concerns do you have that these corporations will exercise that power in a way that presents challenges or should concern us?
CHEN: The current concerns that I have is that there's so much going on under the hood of these smartphones. These smartphones are made to run so automatically so we don't need to take care of anything. We don't need to customize applications, they kind of just go.
And while that's a very good benefit for us, we also have this lack of control or this lack of knowledge or this lack of assurance that these people are using our data in a responsible way. And by people I mean third-party companies that make a lot of money off information. So besides companies like Google and AT&T and Apple, I look at companies that are third-party software companies.
Like one example I use in the book is a company called EchoMetrix. EchoMetrix is a company that sold some parental control software, so software for parents to monitor what their children were doing with their computers. And it turned out what was interesting was that not only was this parental control software, this software was basically a data mining software utility for the company to be able to spy on the children's chat conversations and instant messages to be able to determine marketing trends. They were selling this information, this children's information to marketing companies about say, you know, iPods are more trendy than BlackBerrys. Or they were also able to predict the winner of "American Idol," which is kind of challenging because the "American Idol" voting system is so crazy.
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CHEN: You can vote as many times as you want in that. And they actually predicted that the underdog would win one year, it was a man named Chris Allen in 2009.
DAVIES: And they did this because in effect embedded software was collecting information from kids that nobody knew about and then they were using this and...
CHEN: And they were selling this information.
CHEN: So, of course, it's a - these are my concerns that a company is saying they're doing something for you but they're also they're doing something that they're not telling you about. And this is definitely a concern going forward with the smartphones now that they have more powerful sensors that can detect where you are but they're constantly transmitting and collecting information. For example, the application Pandora is a music streaming application and they were collecting information about where we were and broadcasting it to a marketing company too. And they have no business doing that. They're providing me a music streaming service.
So I think going forward, you know, privacy is something that we've thrown out the window already. We've already given up on the modern textbook definition or the dictionary definition of privacy, which is an area of seclusion, and the new form of privacy is - I want to be able to know what these companies are doing with my information. I want to be able to know that they're using my data in a right way because, of course, we had to give them some information for them to give us some personalized services. I mean is the exchange a fair trade? Are they giving us the right services? Are they using the right information to give us the right services?
And what was difficult about writing a book about technology is that you got a moving target here. And a lot of predictions I made about privacy came true after I turned in the manuscript actually, like say, you know, the iPhone location tracking bug that caused a media furor just maybe two months ago. It was basically a glitch inside the iPhone. It was collecting information about where we've been for the past for the past year. It wasn't precisely where we were but information about nearby cell phone towers and Wi-Fi access points that enabled somebody, just anybody to triangulate where you've been for the past year or so.
DAVIES: Right. And this information was stored essentially indefinitely in the iPhone and didn't need to be, right?
CHEN: Yeah. Right.
MCCARTHY: Exactly. So that was an example of Apple. And I'm more concerned about third-party companies living on the smartphone platforms. Like say, you know, software maker is selling applications through the App Store. There are 400,000 apps right now and Apple is trying to enforce privacy rules and say, you know, you can't share a person's information if you're not providing a location service. But how can one company, a single point of control really regulate 400,000 different applications out there? They've already missed a few. And I think we need some new laws. We need some new privacy policies and just some way to regulate what's happening right now because the laws are completely out of date. We may need tracking computers that aren't geo-aware and so forth.
DAVIES: Do you ever unplug completely? I mean for an evening, for a weekend, for a week?
CHEN: Definitely. You know, the title of the book is "Always On" and I think some people took it a little literally. And I didn't mean that people are constantly on the Internet, because when we're asleep were obviously, you know, we're not on the Internet. But we're just plugged into a global community and we're just always going to be part of it once we plug in.
But I unplug all the time. I, you know, when I go to exercise that night I don't bring my smartphone with me to the gym even though a lot of people do, you know, they listen to music. But I try to get away from a screen. And the weekends I'll say, you know, I'll go hiking and, of course, I have no cellular access on the mountain to go to check my email, so I'm a pretty active person still even though I spend the majority of my time plugged in. So definitely it's a good idea that I get unplugged every now and then.
DAVIES: Well, Brian Chen, thanks so much.
CHEN: Hey, thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Brian Chen writes for Wired.com. His new book is called "Always On."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on a new literary thriller from a first-time novelist, Alice LaPlante.
This is FRESH AIR.
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