Does rising use of smartphones make us smartpeople?

A woman uses her smartphone - texting? surfing the Web? checking e-mail? - at the waterfront in Hong Kong Tuesday.
A woman uses her smartphone - texting? surfing the Web? checking e-mail? - at the waterfront in Hong Kong Tuesday. (KIN CHEUNG / AP)
Posted: June 14, 2013

We are getting close to the day. Not quite - but it's close.

The day, that is, when more people use smartphones (cell phones always connected to the Internet, the world of apps, e-mail, media sharing, instant messaging) than use home broadband (your laptop or tower computer).

A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that, for the first time, more than half of all adults - about 56 percent - own smartphones. That proportion has been growing rapidly: 19 percent in just the last two years.

Aaron Smith, senior researcher at Pew involved in the study, says that about 66 percent of all U.S. adults own broadband, "and that number hasn't grown much at all. So the gap is being made up quickly."

The smartphone market passed the PC market, in terms of global units sold, back in 2011. Old news. About 90 percent of everyone has a cellphone, smart or dumb, of some kind; that's already a greater proportion than use the Internet. A report by International Data Corp. shows that two-thirds of all phones bought in the United States are now smartphones.

So smartphones win. Anybody can see that, anywhere on the American street. What's it all mean?

Wireless is surpassing wired. The personal, customized Web (your apps, your contacts, your set of interests and connections) will soon outpace the Internet (all possible connections). In this "You still have a landline?" age, we like being mobile and connected. But is this really that different?

Smith says yes. Another Pew report, "The Mobile Difference," way back in the heady, misty days of 2009, tried to define the on-the-go, ever-connected smartlife. Turns out the difference is engagement.

"The ability to access the information and the people you care about, wherever you are," Smith says, "is really qualitatively different from the discrete acts of sitting down at a desktop computer and going away and doing something else and then coming back."

Bill Weaver, associate professor in the department of integrated science, business and technology at LaSalle University, says, "Instead of you going to a tethered PC to get the information, now, on the go, you bring the information to you."

Smartpeople "do more things and [are] more involved in more aspects of online life," Smith says. "They get more news, visit more sources, are in touch with more people. They are more deeply engaged in things - and they feel better about what these devices let them do."

Old social differences in smartphone use are starting to wear away. "It's steady across all income levels and ethnicities," says Smith. Even people at lower income levels, especially younger folks, find a way to have smartphones. Across the board, if you're 30 or younger, you have a smartphone. Through age 55, most of us do. It drops off only with seniors.

No one's saying it's all good. Much smartworld activity is cruddy. And surveys show what people like most about their smartphones (that they can contact anyone they want whenever they want) has a flip side that's the thing they like least (that anybody can contact them anytime they want).

And we are engaged in a grand social conversation about smartphone ethics and etiquette. An unscientific Facebook survey shows people are thinking about these issues. When shouldn't you use a cell phone? Lari Robling of Philadelphia writes, "Walking. I'm tired of being plowed into on the sidewalk. Driving. I'm tired of being run over crossing the street. Never in a restaurant. Pretty much think of it as going to the bathroom. It's something you have to do, but do it in private." Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein of Elkins Park speaks for many when she proscribes phones at the dinner table, and Perry Dane of Wynnewood says nix at religious services. Chris Reynolds of Philadelphia writes, "Never use a smartphone in a locker room, or any phone in the bathroom." Bo Child of Princeton Junction says a big nyet for movies. Mitchell Sommers of Lancaster advises against phones in court, "unless you want to see a Deputy Sheriff walk off with it." Lauren Rooney, of Harrisburg, writes, "Don't use any phone while driving or while at a store check out. If it's an intimate or personal conversation, have it in private." As for texts: proofread them, keep them short, and no sexting.

Lee Solow, a therapist in Corona del Mar, Calif., points out a larger issue: "There is a psychological desire to get the information from a smartphone as soon as it calls us." Resist! Break the tether!

"People are also debating the necessity of breaking away sometimes, of making sure work can't always get you," Smith says.

Here's what's dizzying: We just stepped into this world. The near future looks very powerful. Much is the talk about pervasive computing (computers in your toaster, your sneakers, your sweatband), ubiquitous computing (where it's everywhere, invisible) - and now, locative computing, in which, via your mobile device, Big Data (enormous databases that cross-section themselves at your behest) come to you where and when you require. "We've been talking for years about when this world would come," says Weaver, "and it's pretty much here."

Example: You're going to McDonald's. Say, you're driving there. You hit an app. Your local McD's pushes you a menu. You select and pay electronically. It's ready (with any substitutions!) when you get there. Gasoline pump, RedBox, ATM, vending machine: Your smartphone talks to them, they get you what you want, you pay, you got.

"At the far edge of this is what's known as 'Just in Time' computing," says Weaver, "where you'll be in a pressing or emergency situation and need to know or do something right now, and through your smartphone you can get a cross-section of all available, usable information right then and there."

Dizzying for us - but the 6-year-olds of the next generation will have it. "Not only that," says Weaver. "They're going to expect it."


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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