Twenty-five years ago, WIRED was founded with the mission of chronicling the ways technology was transforming society. Around the same time, a young designer named Jony Ive moved from Britain to San Francisco to take a job at Apple developing, he hoped, society-transforming products. But as Ive acknowledged Monday at the WIRED25 Summit, change is rarely foreseeable—and seldom unambiguously good. “The nature of innovation is that you cannot predict all the consequences,” said Ive, who now serves as Apple’s chief design officer. “In my experience, there have been surprising consequences. Some fabulous, and some less so.”
Ive, who was interviewed at the summit by Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast and longtime editor of Vogue, talked about everything from Apple’s penchant for secrecy to the social and civic responsibilities of tech giants, which today possess not only powerful sway over the media landscape but a strong grip on the attentions of billions of people. In fact, Wintour’s opening question directly confronted Apple’s contribution to digital dependence. “First there were iPhones, and now there’s iPhone addiction,” said Wintour. “How do you feel about that? Is the world too connected?”
Ive—who, while known for being shy, is also notoriously loquacious—responded succinctly: “I think it’s good to be connected. I think the real question is what you do with that connection.” Like many tech giants, Apple recently unveiled a suite of tools meant to help keep your obsession in check. “We’ve been doing a lot of work in terms of not only understanding how long you use a device, but how you’re using it,” Ive said.
But to hear Ive tell it, helping users manage their time is a small part of the challenge Apple and other technology companies face. “What I’m more concerned about,” said Ive, is preserving the interpersonal benefits of person-to-person interaction. “The more you remove people, the more technology can become transactional,” he said. Ive says the work Apple has been doing on emoji and messaging are meant to “restore some humanity to the way we connect.”
In his remarks, Ive turned again and again to the theme of human connection. It’s important to Ive not just professionally (it’s central, for example, to his team’s vision for the future of Apple’s retail experience), but personally. “I moved to the US in 1992 for two reasons: I loved Apple and I loved the US.” At the time, he said, “optimism was tangible and material”—particularly in Silicon Valley.
The connection appears to also be what will keep him at Apple. Asked whether he plans to continue designing for the foreseeable future, Ive answered in the affirmative by pointing to the collaborative environment at the company, which he characterized as more diverse than ever.
“We have font designers sat next to haptic experts sat next to colorists—and it goes on and on,” Ive said. “The energy, vitality, and the sense of opportunity is extraordinary.”
And yet, Ive worries about the state of affairs in the US. Wintour asked him about what he loses sleep over. “It’s a rather long list at the moment,” Ive replied. “I think divisiveness is really what I find really very sad.”
And it’s undeniable that tech has played a significant role in sowing that discord. Just today, the New York Times reported that the Myanmar military used Facebook to disseminate disinformation that led to genocide.
The past 25 years have seen the digital revolution transform society in ways both positive and perverse. Technology today is often as alienating as it is unifying, and the story of the next quarter century will hinge in large part on how optimists like Ive confront the disagreement and hostility that keep him up at night.