How smart phones are changing the world
How smart phones are changing the world
We all know how convenient smart phones areâ??how they ensure that we are never out of touch with our friends, never lost, seldom unable to answer a question. We know that they are uniting the remotest parts of Africa and Asia with the rest of the world. Yet, they bring a much less obvious benefit, one I have never seen discussed.
Consider how we learn confidence, the belief in our ability to succeed. Psychologists call it self-efficacy. We learn it through experience (doing something), modeling (seeing someone else do it), and social persuasion (responding to encouragement and approval or congratulations.) Success improves our self-efficacy, while failures undermine it.
Smart phones give us inexhaustible opportunities to make low-cost, low-risk, but gratifying choices. They give us a chance to succeed dozens of times a day. The result is a broad but subtle growth of self-efficacy and, perhaps, individuality.
Let us count the waysâ??a few of them, at least.
Smart phones are an important activist tool. For mobilizing public opinion, nothing is more effective than capturing photos, sound, and video and uploading scenes of violence. We have seen this frequently in the US of late in the growth of attention to misdeeds by police officers. The photographers can feel, and grow from, their own success in changing the public discourse. Others can see it and be inspired.
In the broader world, smart phones have democratized journalism by enabling individuals to report on events as they happen. Witness accounts of the downing of MH17 and violence in the Middle East. In the process, smart phones have disrupted traditional models of journalism as established news organizations struggle to keep up. Again, success and inspiration nurture self-efficacy.
Smart phones also are entertainment devices. From Angry Birds to iTunes to Netflix, playing, listening, and viewing have never been so readily accessible to so many people in so many places. In the affluent lands, satisfying decisions about these pastimes are easily affordable and accessible with a few taps. In places like Qatar, where a laborer's monthly salary might be US$200 and a US$10 iTunes movie is an exorbitant luxury, piracy still brings these choices within reach. This cheaper option may frustrate content producers and distributors, but it brings a chance to build self-efficacy within reach of consumers who otherwise would have to live without.
Constant telepresence makes it easier than ever to be nomadic. The home or office phone numberâ??if people still have oneâ??is far less important than the mobile number. Increasingly, smart phone users have the choice of where to live, even if their work takes place half a world away, via the Internet. Self-efficacy and individuality have never been demonstrated more clearly or inspiringly than by the growing number of digital nomads.
Smart-phone users select mobile applications to satisfy their interests, publicize events that those in power would prefer to hide, even earn their living online. All it takes is a touch of the screen. The cost of a bad choice is as little as a series of taps to uninstall or delete a file. As smart phones become ubiquitous, we increasingly take this power for granted.
For many people, this is a revolution. They belong to a race, religion, gender, class, or tribe against which the larger society discriminates. For them, making choices has significant cost and risk. By the same token, they are less likely to see their peers succeed or receive encouragement. This makes it difficult to develop self-efficacy.
By being so easy to use, smart phones give them frequent opportunities to exercise individual choice. In doing so, they improve self-efficacy. This is upending traditional social, economic, and political models, which assume that users are powerless on their own, connected only intermittently and despite obstacles of cost and complexity.
This is a completely new phenomenon. People have never before had the opportunity to own such intimately personal technology, so user-customizable and with such utility. The growing ubiquity of smart phones makes it possible for smart-phone users to exercise choice safely, even in societies where their exercise of choice is dangerous. For people facing the burden of discrimination, smart phones offer an opportunity to nurture self-confidence and hope, to build self-efficacy. Smart phones' cognitive impact on the global social fabric is likely to be at least as disruptive as their impact on the global economy.
How people use smart phones is a function of their design. The power of the Internet is not just about the Internet; it is also about the devices people use to access it. Policymakers would be well-advised to remember this.
A version of this post first appeared on the World Bank's People, Spaces, Deliberation Blog.
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