What's the Most Amazing Development of Your Lifetime? (2022)

Allan Stam wrote: "The number of industries that the iPhone has destroyed is really quite extraordinary. Pocket cameras, calculators, stand-alone GPS, and literally dozens of others. One wonders how much of this Steve Jobs anticipated or if he would be just as surprised at the scale and scope of the smartphone's success and impact."

Mike's comment: Years ago, my brother Charlie and I had a game: what's the most amazing development of your lifetime? We were talking generally about "stuff," not big political changes, ecological considerations such as the population explosion, or deep scientific advances.

He's double-boarded in internal medicine and pediatrics (pretty close to a general practitioner), and at one point he chose antidepressants. One of my earlier choices was the reliability of cars: pre-1969 cars were very unreliable compared to today's, 1969 being the cutoff given to me by the crusty old guy at my local car mechanic shop who knows more about cars than he could ever impart. I remember when I was very young, younger than 10, our father would take the car to the gas station, which also doubled as a "garage" at that time, a.k.a. a mechanic's shop, to have it "checked" prior to a driving trip from Milwaukee to Indianapolis...a trip of only 273 miles (440 km). Cars then seldom lasted past 100,000 miles, and "tuneups" for cars with carburetors had to be regular starting at, what, 5,000 miles was it? Today, a humble Toyota Corolla, which I would argue is just as high an expression of human ingenuity as the fanciest Ferrari, sells for a very reasonable price and can last 20 years and go 300,000 miles with pretty minimal maintenance.

In the '90s Charlie and I had to make an exemption for the internet—the question became "what's the most amazing development of your lifetime apart from the internet?" At some point it was the personal computer. I think Charlie picked his iMac G4—the one set on the base that was half of a sphere—a little past the turn of the millennium.

But sometime around 2010, our answers converged: the iPhone. Charlie named it first; I was a late adopter. It's so obviously the answer now that we haven't played the game recently. (Another game we play is, "who would you like to be President if you could appoint anybody you wanted?" Elizabeth Warren!*)

(iPhone 13**)

As far as we picture-people are concerned, it's just plain lucky that "the camera" (I'd say camera system) in smartphones just happens to be one of the differentiators that matters to people when they are making their choice of what phone to buy. That's the only reason why so much development is concentrated on the built-in cameras and their functions. It could just as easily not be the case.

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Of course, this—the whole fundamentally bizarre situation—is a haphazard development, in the way that most of culture is haphazard rather than rational, sensible, and planned. I mean, would anyone plan that enormous gas-guzzling pickup trucks and giant seven-passenger SUVs would become the de facto personal conveyances in non-urban America, in an era of rising gas prices and the threat of climate change? That's madness. Would we have planned that fast food, which is arguably the least healthy food ever regularly eaten by any cohort of human beings in the history of the planet, would become ubiquitous in the first era in which "what's good for you" even became a consideration in food choice? (The "health" of food didn't really start to be rationally framed as a concept, scientifically at least, until about the 1890s.)

Much of culture is actually the opposite of "rational, sensible, and planned." It comes about by chance, because of a hodgepodge of random factors that can't be predicted or managed. That certainly extends to cameras. Tell me: in 2012, at the peak of the digital camera boom, would you have agreed with the statement that the ultimate "lowest common denominator" we should all agree to be stuck with would be a tiny point-and-shoot or digicam built into another device, with fixed lenses, the advantages of which would work partly by falsifying the integrity of the lens image? I doubt it. But that's the way the various forces of culture, economics, and happenstance have dictated things would head. (No, we're not there yet. We're only heading that direction.)

Then again, I certainly wouldn't have said that cameras should be excessively expensive, hyper-complex, grossly overfeatured electronic devices built around sensors the size of a 135 negative, either! Or that most "good" lenses should be greatly oversized, greatly overpriced, and greatly overweight compared to, say, the OM Zuikos of the 1980s or the Leica M lenses of the 1960s.

But really, most "deep enthusiasts" of photography have always gone their own way, and have always existed on the fringes of the popular market. We adapt because we have to, but we force the existing choices to adapt to our needs, too. Because it's the work that's important. And if you can do your work better with an iPhone, then power to you, my brother, my sister. It's all good.

+ = + = + = + = +

I've just posted all the Featured Comments to the past five posts, so go back and catch up with those if you want. And I'll try hard to keep up with comments better this weekend. The question before the Commentariat is: what's the most amazing development of your lifetime? You can relate it to photography if you would like to, but you don't have to. For extra credit, don't answer the question about who should be president. (Unless it's the correct answer, Elizabeth Warren.)

Have a nice weekend! I'll be posting on Sunday this week, and not on Saturday or Monday. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: I'm told my latest article for newyorker.com will be published next Thursday! Very exciting. It's a more major article than the last one. I'll post a link, if and when.


ADDENDUM: I meant to mention, seconding what Allan wrote, that after I got my first iPhone—first smartphone—the Apple iPhone 4s, which I think I bought in 2012 when the blog really took off—I had the idea of making a photograph of all the things that it replaced. I pictured a little heap of objects that would fit on the kitchen table—an old Ma Bell phone, a camera, a flashlight, a calculator, a Rolodex, a stack of LPs, a GPS navigation device, paper books, board games, a light meter, a calendar, maps, a clock, a timer, a stopwatch, a dictionary, a compass, a radio, a news magazine, etc. Of course, you know the problem...actually the heap would be so big you wouldn't even be able to see everything in it, and even then it wouldn't include everything the smartphone can reasonably be said to substitute for. I'm not an "app chaser," and I have relatively few of them on my phone, but one of them is an altimeter—I got it to measure the height of the hill I live beneath—and one I use all the time can scan plants and instantly identify them. Another can listen to music and identify the song and artist (although my friends Kim and Bob stymie it sometimes). The list goes on, as you know.

*That's my answer, not Charlie's. Well, it's very far from his answer. Come to think, I don't actually know what his answer would be today—it's a game we play prior to elections. I'll have to remember to ask him. Maybe I'll just pretend his answer is Elizabeth Warren—he doesn't read the blog regularly, so he'll never know. Heh heh. But I suppose if he comments I'll have to feature it. Although if he says Ted Cruz I'll have to delete it on the grounds that he's insane. Sorry, just amusing meself here.

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**I cannot tell a lie, this was Potatochopped. I moved in the clump of grass at the bottom from another exposure. Dutiful disclosure.

Book o' the Week

The Mindful Photographer by Sophie Howarth. I only know of Sophie Howarth from her time as a curator at the Tate Modern in London, but my impression then was positive. Her brand new book (it only came out a few days ago) is about slowing down as a means of enjoying photographing more. It's said to contain a curated collection of photographs along with anecdotes and explanation.

The book link is your portal to Amazon from TOP, should you wish to support this site.

Our link to B&H Photo

Original contents copyright 2020 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:

mike r in colorado: "I see a few comments have already been posted. Skipping them to not be influenced. The whole computer hardware industry is my number one pick. And if that's too easy, the integrated circuit is probably specific enough. I work in computer software, so maybe I'm more jaded to the amazing-ness of software, but I consider it a much less 'under control' part of the industry. I can think of several other amazing things during my lifetime—global communication, medical imaging—but many of them circle right back to being based on computer hardware."

Dillan: "I'd agree that it has to be the iPhone, or more generally the smartphone. I'm not picking it for the camera in my pocket, though, for I don't use the camera for anything other than visual note taking. No, for me it's the internet in my pocket. I have access to the world's information anywhere. It is a dream come true for an inquisitive person like myself."

Nikhil Ramkarran: "Like most other people, for me, it would definitely be modern mobile phones. But a decade or so ago, after dark one evening, I opened the door to our darkened living room and saw my two-year-old daughter sitting on the couch with her mom's iPad lighting up her little face, and her four-year-old brother leaning from the side so he could see the screen also (yes, I got the picture). It struck me right then (and I've never forgotten) that this slim, portable screen, with all of its entertainment, information and power, was just a mundane, routine thing to these children. What would be their most amazing lifetime development?"

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Malcolm Meyers: "I'll forego all the 'obvious' answers and throw a vote in for podcasting. It is a relatively simple technology yet it allows pretty much anyone to start broadcasting their thoughts and ideas to the whole world via their own, personalised 'radio station.' I have to say that I enjoy a lot of film photography podcasts and I've listened to people who, ten years ago, I would never have had a chance to listen to."

Phil: "My Dad, born in 1923, once told me that he had always thought the most amazing invention during his lifetime was inter-continental air travel. He first flew from Vancouver to England in 1972 and it took less than 12 hours, including a fuel stop. He couldn't get over that for a long time, but then when I and his various grandkids started showing him what we could do with our smartphones, he changed his mind. He was quite computer-savvy, so the internet itself was something he had already absorbed, but I remember him describing how a visiting grandkid declined a ride home because he knew exactly when the bus was coming. When he showed the transit app that had real-time tracking for the bus stop down the street, Dad was just amazed.

"As for me, I'm just a bit younger than you, and I distinctly remember during a trip to Paris in 2012. We decided to go for a quick walk in the evening to shake off jet lag, and, it being a 'quick walk,' I didn't bring my camera; but then I saw an entrancing scene along the river with great light so I pulled my Nexus S out of my pocket and took a decent souvenir shot and it just struck me what an amazing thing it was because, at the same time, I was also using maps I had downloaded to the 'phone' to navigate us to and from the hotel!

"I still walk around with an actual camera most of the time but I often feel sheepish that I'm just being 'old' and if I only spent a bit of time to learn how to get the best results from the camera in my phone (a Pixel 3), I would be better off. As long as I bring my reading glasses, that is!"

Rich Beaubien: "In the 1960s as a teenager I got interested in Amateur Radio (ham radio). For the most part the radios were made using vacuum tubes as a principle ingredient. The big thing though was to learn about and use FETs (Field Effect Transistors). I just remember being fascinated by FETs when they first appeared in QST (QST was the magazine for amateur radio users. QST in the lingo means 'calling all stations.')

"The idea of a field-effect transistor came in 1926 from an Austro-Hungarian physicist, Julius Edgar Lilienfeld. The first working FET was invented in 1947 by William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain at Bell Labs. They shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics.

"The FET was first constructed of Germanium which is chemically similar to its Periodic Table neighbors silicon and tin, called a metalloid. Metalloids are a type of chemical element that has properties both of metals and nonmetals. When transistor R&D was opened into the public domain, business discovered that silicon had improved electronic properties, was cheaper, and worked just as as well. The first commercial product was the Sonotone hearing aids (1952). Followed by the first transistor radio (1954), and, in the early 1960s, portable TVs.

"Without the invention of the transistor none of today's electronics (those faxes, radios, CD players, phones, computers, digital cameras, etc.) would exist. It is the most important invention of the last 100 years."

Omer: "Passenger jet aircraft travel. Before COVID, more than two million people traveled by plane every day in the USA alone. It astonishes me that I can physically travel from Tucson, Arizona to Dhaka, Bangladesh in roughly 35 hours. Try that on the internet."

Philip Byford: "For me it is chemotherapy. So far I've enjoyed an extra 17 years of this wonderful life (I'm now 72) since a wonder drug destroyed my leukemia back in 2005. Cheers!"

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Mike replies: Hard to argue with that!

Gaspar Heurtley: "My grandfather was born in 1901 and died in 1986. The Wright brothers' first flight was in 1903, so he was born in a world where planes didn’t exist yet, and in 1969, when he was about your age, he got to see the man walking on the Moon. How crazy is that? It always impressed me as a kid thinking how all that could happen in just one lifetime."

Mike replies: I've written before that, to me, the most amazing single thing in human history is that there were only 66 years between Kitty Hawk and the Moon landing. Even after long familiarity it still astonishes me. Of course, that happened in our grandfathers' lifetimes rather than ours.

Jon Erickson: "My sentimental favorite amazing development is the computer mouse, thanks to Douglas Englebart and the Stanford Research Institute, first commercialized by Apple in the Macintosh. The technology is foundational to how most of us interact with our various computing devices, including smartphones."

Paul: "Solar cells. These brilliant thingies are going to save us all, if we actually choose to employ them properly. Wind turbines are also high up in the list."

Ian Parr: "'Most amazing development of a lifetime' is apt to change at the drop of a hat with the pace of technology being what it is. For today, ignoring fundamental science as per Mike's rules (so ruling out the semiconductor transistor and DNA sequencing), I'd have to say the James Webb Telescope is probably the most amazing thing of my lifetime. It's due to start publishing images and science data in a couple of days, on July 12th. I suspect that even the wildest dreamers of the Apollo era would have struggled to foresee such a device being launched into space, let alone what it's going to study (imaging the origins of the universe, dark energy, exoplanets, etc.). Amazing by any criteria, and, for a bonus point, heavily linked to cameras and imaging."

Bryan Geyer: "The 'Most Amazing Development' in my lifetime initially sparked on December 23, 1947, when the first transistor was successfully demonstrated at Bell Laboratories, in Murray Hill, NJ. It was a crude point-contact germanium device, and its lengthy evolutionary course has now absorbed some seven-plus decades, but that event marked the birth of a technology that now allows us cram some 40,000+ equivalent transistor-type devices (as integrated silicon MOS-FET digital switches) into a modern smart ’phone. It's the 'Amazing Development' of this semiconductor brain that makes all of those iPhone applications feasible. P.S.: I personally entered the semiconductor trade in March of 1957, as a sales-engineer trainee. I was employed by the fledgling Semiconductor Division of Tung-Sol Electric Co., a company then notable as a producer of vacuum tubes."

Ernest Zarate: "After reading through the comments here and giving some thought to it, I’m hard pressed to come up with anything more amazing than the smartphones of today. Not only their capabilities but also the ubiquitousness of them in our society. Yes, the Internet preceded smartphones, and without the Internet, smartphones would be a lot less 'smart.' But, the smartphone took the Internet to entirely new levels it would not have reached without smartphones.

"As an aside, my two sons (ages 12 and 14) seem nonchalant towards their phones. They use them, but infrequently. The 12-year-old has to be reminded to charge his, and it is rarely on his person, typically languishing on its own on some shelf or other. The 14-year-old uses his a bit more, but even then, mostly as a phone (!!) to communicate with his friends. Their mom and I don’t say anything one way or the other (unless they’re heading out the door over to a friend's home or to the movies). I know it’s a small sample size, but I wonder if there is a trend by the youngest to not get hooked into constant attention to those small screens. Curious…."

Jim: "Fiber optics. Without fiber optics, you would not have the Internet, wireless phones (especially smartphones and 5G), CATV/streaming and just about every other technology that depends on communications. Fiber optics made communications incredibly cheaper and better enabling of all sorts of other technological advances. Every future advance that needs communications will depend on our worldwide network of fiber. When I first learned about fiber optics at Bell Labs in the late '70s, I realized it was going to be big. I became an entrepreneur in the field and let's just say it has made my life comfortable."

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Mike replies: There's a great display and docent presentation about fiber optics at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. When I was there, the docent giving the talk and media presentation recounted how he looked up one day to see one of the three inventors of fiber optics sitting in his small audience. He got excited just telling the story. Apparently all three patent holders (Robert Maurer, Donald Keck, and Peter Schultz) still live in the hills surrounding the town of Corning—or did at that time anyway. That was maybe 2014 or '15.

The comments to this entry are closed.


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