Getting Smarter?

Smartphones are everywhere.

Photo: Ben Kerckx. Source: Pixabay

Whether it’s for making phone calls or getting directions or buying t-shirts or checking whether we left the stove on, smartphones have inserted themselves into more and more of our lives. They’ve been around for only a decade or so, but the computers in our pockets have become indispensable. We use them to buy and sell stuff, entertain ourselves, and to help find our friends. They’ve altered the texture of everyday life almost everywhere. They’re often the first thing we look at in the morning and the last thing we see before falling asleep.

Not since the advent of television in the ‘50s has a cultural artifact become so dominant so quickly. They’re like an invasive species, like milfoil or kudzu, except that we want our smartphones to be our boarding pass and credit card and house key. Losing a smartphone is way more disruptive than losing a pocketbook or wallet. And as computing power continues to multiply and miniaturize, a higher and higher proportion of adults on the planet will be constantly connected to our global data web.

Howdy Doody. Photo: Volkan Yuksel. Source: Wikipedia

This has enormous implications. The apps and functions we rely on for everyday life are also gathering and using data on us: where we go, who we spend time with, how we shop, almost every aspect of our behavior. Ostensibly, they do this for our own convenience. If my phone knows where I’ve parked my car, I don’t have to waste time looking like a fool in the airport parking lot. But that data can be used in other, less benign ways. If Amazon knows how I shop and what I buy, it can tell its app on my phone to highlight items that generate higher margins. It’s no wonder Apple and Samsung have become two of the largest companies on the planet, or that all of the big five tech companies are intimately engaged with mobile computing.

After World War II, Winston Churchill wanted to re-build the House of Commons in its original form. He commented that “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” As smartphone networks become increasingly important to every aspect of our lives, we will shape our networks, and our networks will shape us.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA

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