We’ve Got the Whole Wide World, in Our Phones

We’ve Got the Whole Wide World, in Our Phones

By Lloyd Marino

Like a slightly altered children’s song, we’ve got the whole world in our phones. Now though, what does the world do with it?

In America, cell phones have become ubiquitous. Nine out of 10 adult Americans (92%) have a cell phone (with two-thirds owning a smartphone that can connect to the Internet). Worldwide, about 43% own a smartphone, as do 68% in advanced economies.

Moreover, many of these phones were acquired in a short time; smartphone users went from 35% in 2011 to 68% in 2015. It took most other forms of technology far longer to reach this level of acceptance. Even in developing nations, smartphone use is skyrocketing, from a median of 21% in 2013 to 37% three years later. Experts predict this will continue, even as the market slows in developed nations.

We’ve Neglected the Implications of Smartphones

Two-thirds of Americans now routinely carry a portable device that can function as phone, camera, music player, computer, and Internet connection. This has enormous implications from the trivial – countless bar fights have be averted by someone looking up sports stats on their smartphone – to the profound – homeless people with pay-as-you-go phones can be contacted by employers. But the growth of cell phones has been so rapid that our culture has not yet adjusted to being able to reach almost everyone at any time and having a world wide web of information always instantly accessible.

Once, parents with children routinely worried that their children’s babysitter or school could not reach them in an emergency. This was especially true for people whose jobs did not keep them near a desk all day. Cell phones have solved that problem. But what will be the effect on children’s independence as they grow up with the ability to contact their parents the minute something goes wrong?

Workers formerly were able to leave their place of employment at the end of the day. Yes, many jobs required reading or completing paperwork at home, but this could be done at one’s own convenience.  Now, with smartphones, emails can be sent and responded to at all hours and a boss’ call can interrupt a night out. Even vacations are no longer work-free. Society needs to adjust its code of expectations to limit such interruptions.

Schools require the memorization of countless mathematical equations, chemical formulas, and historical names and dates. This made sense in the past as no one could fit the whole encyclopedia in a pocket. Now such cramming information into one’s brain seems a needless anachronism when Wikipedia is a mere button press away. Today’s schools need to focus more on teaching students on to make sense of information, rather than their ability to recollect what their textbook said.

Some industries are adjusting better to the smartphone era. By 2020, the U.S. Census will allow people to fill out their census forms on their smartphones.  Grocery stores have customers bring their smartphones to use online coupons and check prices; in Sweden a store even thrives with no cashiers as everything is done with a smartphone. But most businesses—and social mores—still need to change.

Future of Near Universal Smartphones

In the near future smartphones’ omnipresence will have even greater effects on society. New applications will tap into the world’s billions of smartphone users. For instance, millions of people take photos and post them on the Internet daily. Imagine an application that looks at all these photos and compares faces to a database of pictures of missing persons.  Law enforcement could use such a program to find suspects. The public could assist the police by filming crimes as they happen and emailing the files to police. More ominously, police could use cell phones’ GPS to track suspects.

Smartphones could reshape literature. There has been a recent decline in the use of dedicated ebook readers like the Kindle, and many people are reading in short bursts on their smartphones instead. As a result, publishers are considering publishing shorter fiction that can be read on a cell phone more easily than 800 page doorstopper novels. For instance, popular writer James Patterson is co-writing a series of “BookShots” under 150 pages. This may lead to an explosion of short stories and novellas not seen since the 1940s when WWII’s paper shortages killed the “pulp” fiction magazines.

In the past, children’s songs and games spread through oral culture as young children were taught songs and games by older children and teachers and camp counselors taught what they learned in their own childhoods. Today’s children and teens are growing up a wide world narrowed by near-universal cell phone ownership. Fads will sweep through these connections at speeds unimaginable to the Beatles or any 20th century trend popularizer.

As the song goes, thanks to smartphones, we now do “got” the whole wide world in our hands. Now, the next verse becomes, what happens to the world now that we’ve got it, and how can we use this rapidly growing technology to make a better one?

Image By: Matthew Kane

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