September 2016

The Good and Bad of Smartphones

Author: Kent Thune

Can you remember what life was like before cell phones? If you were born in the twentieth century, you might recall long curly cords, pay phones, and monthly phone bills lower than $50.
Now think of how far telephonic technology has advanced in just one generation: The oldest predecessor to today’s cell phone was born April 3, 1973, when Martin Cooper, a Motorola researcher and executive, made the first mobile telephone call to Dr. Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs. The prototype handheld phone used by Dr. Cooper weighed more than two pounds and was nearly 10 inches long. And (gasp) it could only be used as a phone—no texting, no apps, no games, and no selfies! You actually had to wear a watch, or be within view of a clock, to know the time of day! How primitive!

But it wasn’t until the 1990s that cell phones were affordable enough, and small enough, to be accessible to the mainstream consumer. The first so-called “smartphone,” the BlackBerry, hit the market in the late ’90s. How many people remember BlackBerrys? And it wasn’t until June 29, 2007—just a little less than nine years ago—that the first iPhone was released to the public by Steve Jobs and Apple, Inc.

Fast forward to today, and 65% of Americans own a smartphone of some kind, according to a 2015 Pew Research study. Some quick math will translate that percentage to a number of roughly 200 million users in the U.S. alone. That’s not just a technology shift; it’s a cultural revolution!
Before we digress too far into statistics and the history of telephone communication, let’s get to the point. Has this tremendous advancement in technology advanced us as a society? And more specifically, has your cell phone advanced you as an individual? Has your smartphone made you smarter?

To help you answer this question, and to delve into a bit of self-reflection, let’s cover the basic potentialities of smartphones—first, the three fundamental qualities that can make them good for you and then the three that can make them bad for you.

The pros:
Connectivity. Thanks to the smartphone, the world is more connected than ever. When the majority of human beings in the civilized world have a communication device in their hands, in their pockets, in their purses, or sitting next to them on a desk or night stand, almost anyone can be reached, wherever they may be, within a matter of seconds. But it’s not just voice or text that connects us. We can send and receive images, music, and video to communicate with our friends, family, or co-workers (or strangers, but that’s a different and often a more tragic story).

Mobility. This extends upon and overlaps with connectivity. When our phones are mobile, so are we. It wasn’t more than a decade ago that long-distance communication was made possible, that is, unless you were sitting near your home phone or near some other phone connected by landline. For small business and commerce at large, mobility is a giant leap in flexibility. For example, if a client or prospective client needs to reach you, and you’re sitting in a coffee shop down the street or lying on a lounge chair at the beach, you won’t miss that important call or potential sale.

Productivity. With your powerful smartphone, you also have the 1990s equivalent to a phone, a watch, a camera, a calendar, an entire collection of music, and the data storage of at least two computers, all in the palm of your hand. And we haven’t even covered the countless apps that can replace and often improve upon, maps, the yellow pages (who remembers this?), encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, and the capacity for greater productivity beyond comprehension.

As you were reading those three fundamental potentialities of smartphones that can change your life for the good, you may have been thinking that the same potentialities have, at times, made your life, well…not-so-good, to say the least. Let’s revisit those good qualities and see how they can have a negative impact on your life.

The cons:
Connectivity. One could make a sound argument that the cell phone has not connected us to the world but rather disconnected us from it. According to digitaltrends.com, people in the U.S. spend an average of 4.7 hours per day on their smartphones, most of which is spent checking their Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts, which totals a staggering 17 times per day. They may be connecting, in the digital sense of the term, but they are not making a physical connection; they are disconnecting from reality; they are ironically eroding at their social skills while connecting to social media.

Mobility. While you can reach almost anyone, anytime, anywhere on the planet, they can also reach you almost anytime, anywhere on the planet! Mobility is a word that is connotative of freedom. How can we be free if we remain a prisoner to a cell phone? It’s common to hear stories of people being challenged to take a break from their cell phones for more than just 24 hours.

Productivity. By now you’ve learned where this story is headed. All of the great potentialities of cell phones can be either good or bad and the productivity aspect may have the greatest range. As a tool, smartphones can help us remain connected and engaged with friends, family, co-workers, clients, and prospective clients. As we’ve already covered here, there are apps (or applications for the unlearned cell phone user) that can make your life easier. We can be far more productive than we may have imaged just one decade ago. But the attractions and distractions of meaningless activities on the smartphone may have made us less smart; there is now greater potential for us to be less productive than any time before cell phones existed.

And so we have a paradox and a lesson: The strength of cell phones is their weakness. We can be more connected, mobile, and productive today than at any time in human history. Whether or not we accomplish this great potentiality as a society, and as a world, is a choice that can only be made by us as individuals. 

Kent Thune is a money manager and the owner of a Hilton Head Island investment advisory firm, Atlantic Capital Investments. He is also a freelance writer and is currently working on a book to be published in 2016. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com or on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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