Upward Mobility: 3 Unanswered Questions About Mobile Technology

Here's a couple of Big Questions that may take generations to answer

I spend a lot of time on this blog focused on the very short term issues regarding mobile. Is Apple better than Android. Will Blackberry survive? What’s the best strategy in Candy Crush? But sometimes you need to pull up to 30,000 feet and look at some of the bigger questions, such as:

What are the real long-term health effects of cell-phones? Wearable mobile technology has only been around for a few decades, and in true widespread use for less than 10. Are there health risks to having an RF transmitter that close to your head for long periods of time? More importantly, are there effects on offspring to carrying a two watt transmitter in close proximity to your reproductive organs for 18 hours a day? This is even more significant for women, where the effect would be cumulative from birth, since eggs are carried for a woman’s entire lifetime. Short term studies have shown mixed results, but lifetime exposure hazards are hard to gauge when the technology itself is so new. We really didn’t understand the cost to society of lead in our gasoline until half-a-century after its introduction. A decade of data on cell phones is unlikely to hold all the answers to the scope of the potential problems.

Are smartphones an intrinsically isolating technology? We’ve all see the bus or subway full of people, all staring into their screens like the Hypnotoad had them in his clutches. It is now possible to go all the way from your home to your place of work without ever making eye contact with another human being. The chance conversation with a stranger is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. At least when it was just personal music players, you could make eye contact with the owner. With a smartphone, the wielder’s attention is 100% subsumed by the device, to the extent that they walk into lampposts and into fountains. Technologies like Google Glass are only going to exacerbate this trend, because now people are going to truly live in different realities. While you may walk down a street where dragons soar in the sky and the pedestrians look like elves, the fellow next to you may be seeing each building color coded by its property value. Is this effect counterbalanced by the ability to stay into constant contact with communities of interest, rather than geography? What are the long term results on society when every man (and woman) can be an island?

Is immediate gratification of curiosity a good thing? On a positive note, people don’t tend to get into bar fights anymore arguing who has the most touchdown catches in NFL history. Someone just looks it up on their phone. But is there a value to having to think and discuss things, rather than merely looking up the answer. Does trying to reason something out lead to value beyond the answer? In one episode of The Prisoner, that great and confusing 1960s spy show, all the members of The Village start watching a TV show that implants history lessons into their brain subconsciously. The next day, they all have conversations that are no more than mindless parroting back of the facts they learned the previous evening. Is this the logical end result of the Wikipediafying of the world, a civilization full of facts but devoid of meaning?

Only time will tell, as they say. Of course, the timescales on which these questions will play out is generations, so we’ll be far down the river toward whatever future they portend before we ever start to get a glimpse of the answers. Lifetimes are short, and if we waited for all the answers before we adopted technologies, we’d still be sending letters via morse code. But it’s just a big mistake to fail to look at the big questions at all.

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