As I See It: Game Changer
September 10, 2012 Victor Rozek
Let’s say you’re young and idealistic and still naive enough to believe what politicians tell you. And after watching one of our three-day infomercials, otherwise known as conventions, you’re feeling inspired to register voters for your favorite candidate. But you have no registration forms (which often vary from precinct to precinct), and even if you did, who knows where one precinct ends and another begins? Plus, you don’t really know what you should say, or which doors are likely to remain open once you reveal your party affiliation. But you do have something in your pocket that can solve all these problems.
“Tap one button,” says Michael Scherer writing for Time, “and there are forms to register voters, automatically tailored to the precinct that the phone and its user are in. Tap another, and there is a way for donors to give money using the device. Tap a third and there are locally tailored factoids.” Tap a fourth and a Google map of the neighborhood appears, with the homes of sympathetic voters marked, along with their names and a sample script for approaching them.
As Arthur C. Clarke said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
From love to learning, healthcare to economic development, privacy to politics, mobile technology is redefining how life is lived in the 21st century. And doing it with a magician’s implausible ease. Generations hence, when historians chronicle humanity’s game changers, the list of inventions that altered the trajectory of human life will undoubtedly include the wheel, the printing press, and the ubiquitous smartphone. Like the great inventions that preceded it, mobile technology is creating change across a broad landscape. But unlike innovations whose influence grew over time, the use of mobile technology is spreading with unprecedented speed and obsessive attachment.
There is evidence that not having immediate access to one’s preferred wireless device creates separation anxiety. According to an eight-nation survey conducted by Time and Qualcomm, one in four people check their messages every 30 minutes; one in five every 10 minutes. Two-thirds would rather take their phone to work than their lunch, and 68 percent check messages first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and sleep with their phones on the night stand. And three-quarters of 25- to 29-year-olds actually sleep with their phones.
Call me old fashioned, but personally I prefer a woman. But that’s one of the unintended consequences of this technology: it amplifies our neediness. And while we can extend some understanding to angst-ridden teenagers desperately waiting to be tweeted, a 29-year-old nuzzling a Droid approaches pathetic on the desperation meter. But I digress.
Neediness notwithstanding, texting has become the preferred communication method for everyone from athletes to activists. The use of wireless communication in fermenting the Arab Spring has been well documented. But the possibilities inherent in mobile technology became quickly apparent to the wider activist community. “Consider three facts about text messaging,” writes Kate Pickert, as part of Time‘s Wireless Issue. “It is almost completely spam-free, it’s personal, and nearly every message gets read.” Neither traditional mail, nor websites, nor electronic mail, can boast that trifecta.
With 74 percent of Americans sending and receiving text messages, it is by far the most-used smartphone function and that makes it the perfect vehicle for mobile activism. Whether dispensing information, raising money, advocating for political and social change, orchestrating a flash mob or even a revolution, mobile technology is becoming the preferred instrument of change.
And while affluent countries enjoy myriad ways of communicating, for developing nations, “the simple text message represents a quantum leap in connectivity.” Belinda Luscombe recounts the challenges of drug distribution in Uganda, where preventable diseases like malaria kill thousands of children. Medicine is often available, but allocation is erratic, and well-stocked clinics may be some distance from the site of an outbreak. Residents have no way to know where to go for help and often travel long distances only to find that medicine is unavailable. But while doctors and hospitals are scarce, “a third of Ugandans have mobile phones which are widely shared,” says Luscombe. Health workers are using cell phones “to text details of drug supplies and disease outbreaks,” identifying locations where help is available.
Closer to home, medical lab coats have been redesigned with larger pockets to accommodate tablets. iPads are becoming as common as stethoscopes. Using mobile technology, doctors can instantly order tests and treatments, pull up X-rays, and show patients the exact nature of their condition comparing, for example, a healthy organ with a diseased one. Meanwhile, smartphones are extending the range of physicians with esoteric specialties. A toxicologist specializing in mushroom poisoning, for example, can remotely identify a fungus by looking at pictures on his phone, and recommend a treatment plan without ever seeing the patient.
The upside to mobile technology (still in its infancy) is almost limitless. But as with all pervasive technologies, there are unplanned costs: the loss of privacy, for one. “If someone wanted to create a global system for tracking human beings and collecting information about them, it would look a lot like the digital mobile device network,” writes Massimo Calabresi.
The transgressions of social networking sites and corporations trolling for personal information are well known. Less publicized is the fact that last year, federal, state, and local law enforcement officials made “1.3 million requests for cell phone tracking data” to major cell carriers. Happily, notes Calabresi, police snooping is very effective. “The average time it takes the U.S. Marshals Service to find a fugitive has dropped from 42 days to two.” But certainly not all 1.3 million people were guilty of a crime, and the potential for government overreach, domestic spying, and political mischief is undeniably tempting. Think Richard Nixon’s enemies list on steroids.
Equally troubling is the movement away from anonymous paper money to paying by cell phone. Applications like Google Wallet use a special chip that allows consumers to pay by tapping their phone on a specially-equipped credit card reader. Square doesn’t even require you to take the phone out of your pocket. The app identifies you to the merchant by name and photo; the transaction occurs automatically. This is convenience tethered to electronic tracking and the relinquishment of control over personal wealth. One of the last ways to ensure privacy and to maintain confidentiality and freedom of movement is to use untraceable cash. But once paper currency is retired, money will effectively be controlled by wireless service providers. One request from a government official to deactivate your phone, and you no longer have access to your cash. And you can’t go to the bank to withdraw it, because it will no longer exist in tangible form. It’s a totalitarian wet dream.
One of the issues not covered by Time is the expectation of immediacy that pervades the use of wireless devices. So accustomed have we become to instant answers and on-demand information, that there is a growing impatience with process and complexity. Shrill voices, once limited by reach, now spread toxic certainty at the cost of debate, reason, and nuance. The desire for instant, simplistic solutions delivered in sound-bites punishes the visionary thinker and paralyzes our ability to address long-range issues. If problems are not quickly solvable, we simply lose interest.
Finally, mobile technology distracts us from living in the moment and being fully present. Whether it’s a student in class texting a message, or an employee on the job surfing the web, or a couple seated at the dinner table each gazing at his/her cell phone, we have become accustomed to being digitally absent. Phone calls and text messages interrupt conversations. Attention is divided, focus wanders. Life passes as we pursue an alternate existence only available between battery charges. The consequences are subtle and unknowable, but no less vast for that.
To convince John Sculley to leave Pepsi, Steve Jobs reportedly asked him “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?” Looking at all of the wonders and uncertainties of the wireless world, it’s doubtful that even the visionary Jobs could have predicted the magnitude of the coming changes.