No device has affected our lives in the past few years more than the smartphone. Smartphones must be counted as the most successful products of all time. The iPhone alone (excluding other Apple products) sells more than either McDonald's or Coca-Cola. With this milestone in mind, it's time to review the impacts, both positive and negative, these devices have on us and our world. Interestingly, many of the positive and the negatives can be coupled. Let's take a closer look.
1. Pro: Major Economic Boost. Con: Oppressed Workers.
Pro: The link in the opening paragraph proves the major economic impact of smartphone sales. The market remains unaffected by economic slowdowns and is one of the strongest sectors of the technology economy. Throw in the newly created $25 billion app market (2013 projection), the manufacturing, the retail/repair outlets, and the improved business communications — you have one heck of an economy-boosting product.
Con: Smartphone production relies on extremely unsavory twin pillars — minerals that fuel the ongoing Congolese Civil War, and exploitation of foreign workers. Tantalm, tungsten, tin, and gold are among the minerals necessary for smartphone production that make it from militias to multinationals. The industry is so dependent on these blood soaked minerals that the National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable sued the American government to stop it from tracking the sources of conflict minerals.
Just as the infamous Foxconn scandal was dying down, more of Apple's cell phone manufacturing dirty linen was put out to air. At a plant outside of Shanghai, making the new iPhone 5C, "Workers are asked to stand for 12-hour shifts with just two 30-minute breaks, six days a week...allegedly working without adequate protective equipment, at risk from chemicals, noise and lasers, for an average of 69 hours a week."
2. Pro: Greater Communication. Con: Longer (Unpaid) Working Hours.
Pro: It is rather obvious to state that greater communication is a "pro" of smartphones — that is more or less the reason they exist. We all marvel at the Jetson-like qualities of video-calling friends on the other side of the world, something I did not expect to see in my lifetime as a child. The ability to stay in touch with friends and family many miles away (through phone, email, Skype, social media, video games, etc.) is among the main benefits of smartphone use.
This improved communication goes beyond maintaining personal relationships, however. Smartphones can help improve the social and communication skills of severely autistic students. They also improve communication in clinical health care settings. This study found that doctor response times fell dramatically from 27.6 to 11 minutes (among other communication improvements) with the introduction of smartphones.
Con: Anyone can contact you, including your boss outside of working hours. Any time you are doing work outside of the office, without getting paid, you are getting exploited by your company. Smartphones effectively force us to do volunteer labor for our employers. In Australia, "Sixty percent of people with smartphones connect to work for 13½ hours a day." Five and a half hours of your time and labor just donated to your boss, every day — we must either turn off the phone at the end of the day or demand overtime pay.
3. Pro: Empower Individuals. Con: De-Humanizing Individuals.
Pro: One name, Mohamed Bouazizi, unequivocally proves the sheer power smartphones give individuals. Mr. Bouazizi's self-immolation, filmed on a smartphone, was the final straw that unleashed a wave of revolution throughout the world (the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Los Indignados, etc). His frustrations, mirrored by other young people's across the planet, would not have been shown to the rest of us without smartphone technology. Abdesslem Trimech also self-immolated in the same city as Mr. Bouazizi several months prior, but crucially his immolation was not filmed — and did not spark imaginations in the same way.
In the United States, individuals have been greatly empowered by their ability to film the police. Exposing police brutality and corruption are important and worthy uses of smartphones. There are apps that help keep track of negative interactions with the authorities as well, like the ACLU's Stop and Frisk, and FlyRights, which allows users "to report complaints of air travel discrimination in real time, right after the incident occurs." After all, the authorities have nothing to hide, right?
Con: This last con is perhaps the most difficult to communicate because it is a qualitative value rather than a quantitative one. Smartphones de-humanize our interactions with the surrounding world and our fellow humans. We are tethered to our devices and use them as almost an intermediary in our interactions with the world. In order to be sure of directions, we must check the phone. To eat out, we must read reviews on the phone. To see what's up with our friends, we must check social media on the phone.
Two recent viral videos capture this feeling — one of Louis CK on Conan, and one titled "I Forgot My Phone." According to Louis, smartphones are taking away our very ability to enjoy being itself: "You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person." Louis CK is hardly a Luddite. He has other acts where he expresses amazement at smartphone technology. "I Forgot My Phone" gives us a more chilling vision of smartphone use that all of us have experienced...just watch it, you'll know what I mean.