Smartphones are ideal examples of cutting edge consumer electronics technology. For many they are essential communications tools, information repositories, and all-around personal assistants and serve countless recreational entertainment urges.
They can also bring any number of problems. There are the problems that we have with them, the problems that they cause us personally, and the problems that they create in the larger social and economic structure. Many of these problems are so new that we have no way of recognizing them, let alone addressing them. That’s what it means to be cutting-edge, after all.
Problems that we have while using smartphones
Smartphones have gone from being geeky gadgets or status symbols to being ubiquitous and mainstream. And the more people who use smartphones, the more complex and sometimes fragile the experience can be.
Between saturated bandwidth and rushed infrastructures, technical problems seem to have increased along with the high-tech factor. According to a recent Pew study, people are experiencing more frequent data slowdowns and dropped calls. Even basic voice calls have suffered due to widely varying technical standards and infrastructure equipment. At any time, your calls might reach the promised apex of digital clarity, or you might get the kind of muffled, echoing, distorted connection that would embarrass a 1930s switchboard operator.
The smartphone is also somewhat a victim of its own success. Because of more and better data connections, the Internet as a whole has less of a tendency to make mobile sites, apps, and other resources streamlined and less data-intensive. The carriers may love it because of the increased download times and overall data consumption, but nobody enjoys the often incompatible design, coding, and OS conflicts that a fragmented and data-rich web has to offer. In desktop PC terms, it’s like being back in the late 1990s.
Problems that smartphone carriers cause
Speaking of what carriers enjoy, there are a few too many unnecessary problems that the telecommunications companies add to the wireless experience.
Everyone knows that monopolies are bad for competition, innovation, and ultimately the consumer experience. Although you have a choice in wireless carriers, there is some validity to the theory that the wireless industry is a corporate oligarchy, with enough mutual collusion (not derived from the needs of consumers) to result in many of the drawbacks of a monopoly.
In just the past year, we’ve seen outcries over discontinued unlimited data plans, and the resulting implementation of data caps, throttling, and ludicrous overage charges. We’ve seen attempts to consolidate the industry even further with multi-billion dollar mergers, and campaigns to starve or assimilate prepay and pay-as-you-go carriers. We’ve seen rates creep up (due to “bandwidth scarcity” and “infrastructure improvements”) despite losing far more service than we’re gaining.
Apple is powerful enough to dictate terms to carriers (which is why only AT&T had the iPhone for so long), but Google’s OS is much more subject to carriers covering Android with their own “skins” and pre-installed apps. Amazon’s Kindle Fire is a major (if not representative) example, but all of the major wireless carriers add their own complications. Because of branding and differentiation, carriers demand that smartphone manufacturers create variations on the same device with different model names, features, and capabilities; which tend to confuse consumers and hurt compatibility, as well as giving Google a bad name for issues that aren’t Android’s fault.
Problems that other industries have with smartphone use
On the other hand, in defense of another segment of corporations, smartphones have created all new sets of issues for media, advertising, and other industries; you can call it “challenges” if the glass is half full, or “threats” if it’s half empty.
The average smartphone of 2012 is more powerful than the average PC of 2007. Books, newspapers, radio, and television have been losing consumers for years, but digital adaptation and innovative approaches had started to turn things around for some of the media companies. That is until smartphones offered a level of personal customization, portability, and convenience that desktop PCs could never match. As we’ve already seen, this pressure often convinces media companies to turn to the Dark Side; with onerous pay walls, copy-protection schemes, and their relationships with the aforementioned wireless carriers.
Problems from using smartphones
This includes everything from attention deficit to memory issues to bad posture to social alienation to that old unsubstantiated claim of brain cancer.
Physical maladies are definitely becoming an issue. The neck, upper back, and shoulders all take an unnatural strain from the posture that we adopt, the ways in which we hold and view smartphones and tablets. Our eyes also take punishment from concentrating on the smaller screens, and from switching frequently between them and the surrounding environment; especially between a small screen and a monitor or big screen TV.
As any parent knows all too well, there is an increasing potential for smartphone users to develop certain emotional and social issues. The distraction and alienation of attention can isolate and fragment our engagement with other human beings. Consequences can range from merely missing out on the beauty of the surroundings to a sharp increase in risk for serious pedestrian or vehicular accidents.
And what about the brain cancer thing? There are just as many studies that show a potential link in cell usage and brain cancer as there are that show no statistical correlation. But on the worrying side, many of the latter studies are partially funded by telecommunications companies, who are also rather reluctant to release pertinent usage statistics. And there does seem to be some evidence that brain cancer has risen over the past 10 years.
Okay, so many of these things are minor, and many are simply the inevitable march of progress. The many benefits provided to us by high-tech mobile devices really do make some of these issues well worth bearing. The means to solve a number of them is well within reach. But, as with any new and novel technology that changes the way we live and work, a little extra vigilance and foresight can only help in heading off problems before they’ve gone too far.