Facebook in 2004. YouTube in 2005. Twitter in 2006. iPhone in 2007. Android in 2008. The launch of these landmark products has changed our lives dramatically over the last decade. We didn’t know it at the time, but these were milestones on the road to a new world. They were some of the key moments of the mobile revolution.
Not all changes brought by the mobile revolution have been positive. In fact, for certain groups of people from around the world, the explosion of mobile has brought misery and exploitation. We touch on this dark side of our mobile addiction here. But on a global scale, the mobile age has unlocked great benefits for all of us. In this post we’ll be looking at some of the ways smartphones have changed our world for the better.
Word spreads around the globe
One of the most significant improvements the mobile revolution has brought about is the speed at which information spreads from one part of the globe to another. It doesn’t matter if the content is to our liking or not. The visionaries who foresaw that people would like to own a small handheld device (i.e. the smartphone) that can connect them to millions of their peers over the internet were proven absolutely right!
Mass-media companies like BBC, CNN, Reuters, The Independent or The New York Times quickly recognized this potential and established official presences on Facebook or Twitter and other platforms, using them to broadcast breaking news around the clock.
It goes deeper than that. Thanks to the internet and our feature-packed smartphones, we can not only consume and interact with incoming news, we can also be the first ones to communicate things to the rest of the world if we happen to be at the right place, at the right time. And we’re doing this over devices that just two decades ago would’ve looked at home in sci-fi flicks.
Events in one country now have almost instant implications for the rest of the world. With steady improvements in network speeds and hardware, we’re more connected than ever. Remember the so-called Arab Spring (regardless of the eventual outcomes of the events): how social opposition movements spread out like wildfire; how people were inspired by citizens of other countries to demand similar liberties for themselves; and how people organized on social media to attend rallies and protests.
Although my personal experience with Periscope has been fairly disappointing (despite shooting from a phone with 4K camera and OIS over high-speed LTE), apps like it allow people to stand up as individual journalists and broadcast incidents live as they happen. We see footage shot with smartphones in mass-media almost every day now.
For marginalized groups, taking to social media has become an effective way to appeal to the general public. This can backfire, as inevitably, our online presence makes the internet a domain of interest for governments. Thus, we have a struggle between opposing forces – on one side people demanding equality, privacy and liberties; on the other, authorities who want to control and regulate. Aaron Swartz, the late internet activist, once said, “It is not, you know, only certain people have licence to speak, now everyone has a licence to speak. It’s a question of who gets heard”.
In my opinion, we are living through a transition period triggered by a dramatic change in mobile networks in the last decade and personal experience tell me that transition periods could be painful. But sooner or later things will stabilize and everyday liberties enjoyed by leading Western countries will spread out throughout the world. Surely, the mobile networks are speeding up this process.
I have been searching for an informative graph showing how the average number of countries people visited changed in the last 300 years or so. Unfortunately I didn’t come across a good figure. We can intuitively say that the number is continuously increasing as travelling is becoming safer and cheaper.
I cannot express how living in other countries, communicating with people from other cultures can broaden one’s life perspective. By 30, I have spent much more time abroad than my whole family combined, and I think that the time we spend abroad will continue to increase for future generations. The mobile revolution is one of the key reasons why this is the case.
As someone who was living in Japan with a very elementary level of Japanese speaking ability, it amazes me how people survived before Google Maps, Translate, and many others apps that make traveling so much easier today. From one perspective, the dependence on mobile technology is pathetic (I would have preferred if I had enough time to learn Japanese), but on the other hand it surely makes it easier for people to explore foreign cultures.
From my own personal observation, I wasn’t that much into mobile technology when I was living in the UK, maybe because I did not needed it as much. However, in Japan, my smartphone became one of my most prized possessions, as it connected me to the rest of the world and made it convenient for me to interact with my surroundings (even the simple task of checking the ingredients in a product, which would otherwise be impossible if Google Translate did not exist).
I believe that this convenience of travelling and staying connected to the rest of the world will bring about another positive transformation, although this may not happen during our lifetime. It is highly likely that someday, as more people interact and connect with foreign cultures, borders between countries will start to dissolve and the world will become a united planet were everyone will be able to travel and settle down wherever they like. In turn, this could promote world peace and abundant economical growth. Smartphones and mobile networks will be at the heart of this evolution, as they silently make it easier for us to travel far and wide.
Invaluable help for the most vulnerable
It’s summer in the northern hemisphere. For many of us, this is a time to think of when and where to go for a summer holiday. Unfortunately, summer has a different meaning for terrorist organisations as conditions become more favorable to escalate conflicts. Consequently, summer means something totally different to the refugees who try to flee from war.
The smartphone is, again, the key tool that allows refugees to navigate around foreign places, send distress calls, or communicate with relatives they had to leave behind in the conflict regions. We should agree that things could have been much worse if mobile networks did not exist.
But how do refugees gain access to internet?
My investigations focusing on the conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, did not reveal strong evidence of widespread wireless connection availability in refugee camps. Facebook is working towards providing free internet for UN refugee camps, according to the BBC. However, this hasn’t been accomplished yet.
Some people have to pay exorbitant fees for internet access, for example by getting it directly from human traffickers or by means of undocumented work. In this respect, as in many others, refugee populations remain highly vulnerable to exploitation.
Difficult as securing access may be, owning a smartphone gives refugees the chance to communicate, collect information, and navigate in unknown territories. This holds true even for those who make it to Europe. In interviews, many of them said that the smartphone and the external battery packs are among the most important items they carry with them.
It has become an instinctual gesture to turn to our smartphones when we are exposed to an unknown environment. Writing about this reminds me of my first year in Japan (2014) when I was using an LG Nexus 5. Even in such a safe country, I would avoid going to places that I was not familiar with late at night, if I wasn’t sure my battery would hold up (and the Nexus 5’s battery was nothing special). It’s no wonder that there’s a big market for those budget Chinese phones with huge batteries or for insane battery packs! Just imagine
For the rest of us who should not have a refugee experience, the smartphone allows us to find information beyond what may be delivered to us by the mass media. Unfortunately, the refugee crisis feels like it is becoming an insolvable problem, and I am sure that almost each of us have an opinion on what the best solution may be. If we agree that it’s not possible to have a meaningful opinion without acquiring knowledge, I think mobile networks dramatically increased the breadth of knowledge on our fingertips.
Solving big science problems together
Speaking of seemingly insolvable problems, this year we’ve seen Google’s DeepMind AI conclusively mastering the game of Go (an ancient Chinese board game). DeepMind crushed a human Go champion by selecting the best decision out of an intractable number of potential choices. This showed that with out-of-the-box thinking, machine learning can help us overcome problems which may seem beyond our reach today.
Recent research published in the highly respected scientific journal Nature has shown that humans still have an ace up their sleeves when it comes to solving complex problems better than machines. In order to find better solutions to quantum computing problems, researches took them to the general public by making a game representing these quantum computing problems: Quantum Moves.
By studying people’s intuitive solutions (remember these people are just playing a game and have no knowledge of quantum physics) to the problems presented in the game, the scientists were able to identify much quicker solutions to their rocket-science problems. This shows the potential benefit of taking things to the general public, again made possible by mobile networks and smartphones.
Maybe someday we will come to a stage where more apparently insolvable problems will be taken to the public and with joint collaborative efforts we will overcome them together to make the world a better place to live. Again, I think the smartphone will be at the heart of this change and it will strengthen its status as an indispensable item in the 21st century.
Please comment down below and let us know what you think on how the world is changing positively because of smartphones!