There’s this recent joke that goes like this: Two guys are sitting at a bar. One asks the other, “If a person from the middle ages was suddenly transported to our current time, what’s one thing you would tell him to help him understand our society?”
The second guys answers, “I would tell him that humanity has access to the entirety of knowledge known to mankind and the ability to communicate near instantaneously across the globe, all from a five inch long device that we keep in our pockets. When his eyes get wide, I would then tell him that we mostly use these infinite libraries to watch cat videos.
All kidding aside, there’s no denying that smartphones have completely revolutionized the world–everything from how our brains think to redefining our relationships and identity. It’s no wonder that the editors of Popular Mechanics listed the smartphone as the number one invention that changed the world–topping other mega technological boons like the television, the personal computer, and even the lightbulb. And that list was made all the way back in 2012. Just think of how much smartphones have advanced since then.
The first thing that probably comes to mind when you think about how smartphones have changed the world is the social aspect.
The Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2014 that looked at the impact of social media and smartphone use on relationships. They found that 25 percent of couples think it’s distracting when their partner is on their phone. About half of “younger participants” (age 18-29) stated that they felt ignored when their partner was on their phone.
We’ve all been in those situations where we’re sitting in a group and every person has their eyes fixed on their screens with no regard for the people around them. Back in 2014–when the Pew study was conducted–this would have obviously been considered rude or impolite, but it has increasingly become the norm to allow smartphone distractions to trump real human interaction at a cafe or restaurant. It appears that people’s need to be connected has won out against the feeling of impoliteness in many circumstances.
The constant connection isn’t all bad, though. Think about the positive new ways people can connect with like minded individuals. Constant and consistent access to the rest of the world through the smartphone has opened up otherwise lonely and isolated societies. The smarphone has opened up new networking opportunities, communities over shared interests, even romance through matchmaking apps.
Before smartphones, if you had an odd hobby or niche interest, you might not be able to find anyone in your town to share that interest with–especially if your lived in a small or rural area. Now, you can find an online community and network for just about anything. Are you die hard DC comics fan in a small town with no comic book store? The internet has you covered. Are you looking for creative advice on how to maintain the bonsai garden you care for but there’s no experts around? There’s a subreddit for just that–probably.
This connectivity can even bring about revolutionary change. Take a look at how twitter and other social media platforms enabled the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and you’ll see how consistent, reliable, global connection can impact a society.
So, the social impact that smartphones have had on society isn’t all bad. In fact, in a global 2012 survey done by Time Magazine and Qualcomm, most people surveyed stated that smartphones actually made them feel closer to their friends and family by helping them to be better informed when too far away for more traditional contact. In fact, 75 percent of the 5,000 surveyed said that the constant smartphone connection had a mostly positive impact on their lives.
Memory and Learning Impact
You’ve probably heard a friend or family member joke, “Why did I bother learning all that math? My teacher used to tell me I won’t always have a calculator in my pocket everywhere I go. Well, look at us now!” It’s true. Constant access to a computer and vast knowledge databases have somewhat changed what’s actually important for us to keep in our brains. Why do you have to remember specific facts and dates when you can look them up online? Why do you need to memorize the periodic table of elements, country capitals, or who was the 23rd president when you have an entire library at your disposal 24/7? Don’t even get me started on having to remember your friend’s home addresses and phone numbers.
In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr goes deep into how smartphones and the internet are changing the way our brains work. According to him, our brains are physically changing the way our neurons map in order to process a larger amount of surface level information instead of diving deeper into any one subject. And, according to him, smartphones are killing our memory–but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In today’s world, society is finding that it’s more important to be able to synthesize information instead of remember facts. The internet serves as a sort of external memory storage for everything we as a society know, so our brains spend more their processing power researching and making coherent sense out of piecemeal data rather than remembering things. When all of mankind’s knowledge is at your fingertips, intelligence relies on being able to process those vast amounts of data and make sense of it all to find the truth. Maybe one day the education systems of the world will catch up and the children of tomorrow will learn how to think instead of what to think.
Change is the Only Constant
For better or worse, our society is constantly changing. Technology is always evolving and altering the way we live our lives but, at the end of the day, technology is just a tool. It’s up to us humans to decide how we use it–whether to the benefit of mankind or not. Smartphones are just over a decade old and we are already on the precipice of major improvements–from 5G technology to the Internet of Things to foldable smartphones that may truly replace tablets and laptops one day. There’s no going back to the days before global connectedness, so let’s make the best of it.