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What’s So Smart About Smartphones?

With the iPhone 4S’s and the iPhone 5’s Siri, it’s quite possible that the smartphone will soon usurp man’s long-standing best friend, the dog. A pooch jumps to life the moment you return home, barks at threatening strangers, and fetches your morning paper. But given that a smartphone can always be there to offer a reprieve in a variety of awkward moments, browse news from any spread from anywhere around the world, and even have an app that simulates having a dog, what else can you ask for?

Many techno savvies would probably rather have a smartphone in their gut than an appendix. After all, it’s more useful. But the near omnipresence of the smartphone due to its nearly limitless utility takes a certain toll on human (and not just canine) relationships. For example, I can clearly tell my best friend is bored with me if he whips out Old Reliable. Given that my folks even have smartphones now, I won’t be surprised when I curse their gadgets for wresting their parental affections away from me.

Emotional collateral damage aside, what exactly is at the heart of this craze? Of course, behind the new adage that “there’s an app for that” is that their usefulness accounts for the “smart” in “smartphone.” It’s no surprise then that there have been studies lately that allege that smartphones are actually detrimental to the intellect. It doesn’t exactly train people to be resourceful when it is the only resource. Why look up train schedules, ask locals, or learn a language, when a phone could do all of that for you? The underlying implication of that question, of course, is the smartphone would be doing all the thinking for you—almost as if its smarts come at the price of yours. Not to be an alarmist, but it’s easy to imagine, for example, a generation largely unable to navigate by themselves without the Maps app. It’s almost as if smartphones debilitate rather than enable.

The smartphone phenomenon could quite possibly be another symptom of the twenty-first century malady of remote control mentality. A generation weaned on technology wants everything in an instant and with the least amount of effort required. It’s easy to draw parallels between the smartphone’s advantage of offering quick information for a high school student passively borrowing his/her research from Wikipedia while he/she’s chatting with his/her friends on Facebook.

An underlying implication between those two is how people are becoming increasingly unaware of where their resources come from, be they statements marked with “[Citations needed]” or the very phones they hold in their hands. For example, two of the radio program This American Life’s most popular podcasts from last year investigate the unfair manufacturing conditions behind the widely accessible and increasingly affordable qualities of the world’s most popular Apple products. At the worst, unfair working conditions have driven some laborers to the point of committing suicide at the plants. Other violations of worker’s rights include forcing thousands to work overtime and live in rather squalid living quarters. The smartphone, which perhaps used to only fall into the hands of the privileged techie, has now landed in the hands of many at the price, to say the least, of cheap labor which uproots nearly thousands from their hometowns and throws them into harsh urban areas. But chances are, they’re more aware of how to clear level so-and-so of Angry Birds than the implications of cheap, outsourced labor.

It’s entirely possible to see the smartphone as the skeleton key opening up nearly infinite doors in the Information Age. But behind this seemingly promising moniker for the era are questions often left unasked. Do these seemingly marvelous technological wonders distract owners from knowing the very peers they’re sitting next to? Are apps more likely to be windows for enlightenment or a mere Gameboy without buttons? Does the seeming practicality of the smartphone come at the cost of practical knowledge? And if the smartphone truly is a gateway to knowledge, do people grasp that opportunity to know the very conditions that have made these marvels possible? Whether Siri will ever utter the answers is a question more disturbing than it is promising.

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