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The Two Cultures of the Smartphone Age

  • We used to worry that people who don't own a smartphone (in the developing world and in poor neighborhoods), i.e. a cheap device to access the Internet, would be left behind, unable to capitalize on the vast body of knowledge available online. The smartphone would have been yet another rich/poor divide.
  • Smartphones have become cheap enough that most of the world now has one. The effect of smartphones has been different: it is creating two cultures, but not based on connectivity to the Internet (which is now virtually universal), rather based on the preferred device for accessing the Internet.
  • People who tend to use a computer of some sort with a decent screen, a decent keyboard and office tools like a word processor, are more likely to read long articles and even books, browse extensively, write and read long emails, engage in lengthy discussions with near and remote parties. In other words, they tend to be "literate".
  • People who tend to use a phone to access the Internet (small screen, slow speed), don't read long articles, don't browse beyond the first search result, mainly click that they like someone's picture or post, mostly communicate via short text messages, don't engage in lengthy discussions. In other words, they tend to be "illiterate".
  • (If i texted this discussion to one such person, s/he would simply reply "agreed! how r u? - Sent from my smartphone": they don't even know that one may be discussing their habits, because that's too long of a discussion to enter on the small screen and the small keyboard of a device whose batteries die quickly)
  • The propensity to read/write deeper thoughts does not precede but follows the choice of device. If you are exposed to poets every day, you'll tend to read and write poetry. If you are exposed to newspapers every day, you'll tend to read the stories. If you are exposed to smartphones every day, you'll tend to text. If you tend to text and skim the surface of the Internet, you indirectly shape your mind to only deal with superficial matters.
  • Whether a cause or an effect, heavy smartphone users also tend to belong to the category of people who don't read books, and don't subscribe to magazines/newspapers (regardless of income, race, nationality and age group). Therefore there is no major ulterior source of information on world affairs. Documentaries might be their main source of information on world affairs because smartphones still have not replaced the movie-on-demand services that require a tv set (a large screen) to watch the movie. Specialized blogs might be the second most important source of information.
  • Members of the smartphone subculture (regardless of whether they come from affluent families or not and regardless of their education) have no time for politics, poetry, philosophy, etc .
  • For example, social media used to be platforms to have (heated) discussions about all sorts of topics, but now the postings and the comments to those posts tend to be cryptic (and misspelled) one-line sentences
  • In terms of interpersonal communications the smartphone also ends up causing a regression to the pre-email age: if you want to have a lengthy discussion with someone, you'd better do it over the phone. Texting won't do it: too difficult to exchange lengthy thoughts. De facto this marks a return to the age of the phone conversation, before email took off in the 1990s.
  • The smartphone user tends to conceive the Internet as a tool to find restaurants and gas stations, not as a post-telephone communication tool. This marks a return to the Internet of the 1970s that was used (outside of work/research) to find very basic information.
  • Not coincidentally, the smartphone is often used to play music in a mode that is lo-fi compared with the hi-fi equipment that has been available since the 1980s. This too marks a return to the quality of the old transistor radios and early cassette players.
  • Typing skills that had become essential in the 1990s are rapidly being lost in favor of "thumbing" on the tiny keyboards of the smartphone
  • Virtually none of the users of smartphones and various kinds of computers now knows how a computer works, what a transistor is and why it has to be made of silicon, facts that had become mandatory knowledge two generations earlier
  • Literacy used to be roughly determined by proximity to wealth and education, now it is determined by penetration of one specific technology, which might actually be higher in (wealthy and highly-educated) high-tech centers like Silicon Valley than in provincial towns.