I’m a smartphone junkie; currently I have four, though I only use one on a day-to-day basis. They’re for development, for testing, for playing around with new operating systems.
Or so I tell myself.
When I’m being more honest, I can accept that I have so many because I’m fascinated by what smartphones mean, how they affect our minds and the world we perceive. More than a phone, it is an intensely personal supercomputer bound to mankinds’ greatest achievement in communication.
As I wrote in That Tangled Sense of Loss, my phone has become an extension of self, of my mind’s very ability to process and find community. My identity has been shaped by what I have access to, what I do, what information I record in my phone.
Every Bit a Part Of Me
The modern Web, for better or for worse, is driven by advertisements. The big social networks are all “free”, selling our attention to advertisers in exchange for access. The most powerful search engine is equally “free,” using our searches to power better advertising models and manipulate markets further.
This trade is asymmetric; we gain the value of our social lives being far easier to maintain and manage, paid in the result of mathematics we don’t understand to drive the advertisements.
Using Facebook, or Twitter or Google is to be bombarded with their ads; on the web, the mobile apps, inside the searches we perform. Our location is being tracked for better search results while helping our friends meet up with us.
When I visit these sites from my computer, there is a distance. I am not a part of my computer, and it is a separate thing that I will leave behind. On my phone, I’m accessing my external consensus mind through a device that I always have with me. There is no distance, and my brain treats the device as a part of itself, where the actions I take reflect not a task mediated by technology, but are treated as the actions themselves: asking a question, speaking my mind, or sharing what I see.
The presence of ads in that state of engagement is problematic, as I am not distanced the way I am with my PC. Instead of being subjected to advertisements by choice, the choices that past-Aurynn made are causing present-me to suffer advertising in a profound, internalised aspect of my identity.
Just a Luxury
I’ve been told this doesn’t matter because my smartphone is an unnecessary luxury, and that my desire to have one is the result of marketing messaging. It lacks any real benefit to the world, after all.
In 2008, I’d have agreed with this. I had just bought an iPhone, and it was amazing, albeit a bit gimmicky. As the App Store opened and the world began to write mobile software, that started to change. Instead of just a device that knew who my contacts were, I was linked more tightly to Twitter, to looking up information as I wandered around, to Facebook, to easier communication with my friends.
I remember all too well the sensation of an entire network touching my phone as I arranged an evening get-together through text and email, the power to easily be an information relay for my friends.
More and more people are experiencing similar epiphanies as time goes on; from the latest Apple Ad showing a teenager making a home movie detailing the families’ Christmas. We are shown a world where, instead requiring dedicated hardware to shoot, edit and publish, we can now do it arbitrarily and kid in an ad spot can be naturally doing it, as an extension of his very self to capture and share his perspective, where others only saw ambivalence and removal from the family group.
This is Going to Get Worse
Every day, more people are buying smartphones and joining in this revolution of capability, internalising capabilities through a tiny computer that could barely be imagined a decade ago.
To support those new people as they join the wave, we gave ourselves an app market where $5 is unreasonably outrageous and $10 is unthinkable. We spent years annihilating the idea that a developers’ time has worth as we offer complex, polished product freely. On iOS, in-app purchase is used to unlock functionality, providing a revenue stream for developers, whereas Android is a sea of advertising clients driven by piracy and a smaller global footprint for purchasing services. Paid apps see very little traction on Android, far less even than iOS.
The market is growing much faster than the willingness to pay for products, distorted as it is by amazing free services. We’ve expect amazing services for no up-front cost, and any new products must exist in this environment. When a developer can’t charge but still wants to make something amazing, we’ve left little option but to go with ads or other data mining, and when people integrate those amazing things into their lives and minds, they are integrating that advertising.
We’ve built a terrifying world; egalitarian only in we’re all being played by masters of mathematics and psychology, given trinkets for the deep keys of our very minds through jealously guarded techniques and analysis that we can only guess at.
More concerning is that this is a world where the only way to make something amazing and useful is to be a part of that disgusting and exploitative system. We can’t sell our product, all we can sell is our users to the only people willing to pay for them.
Even if the genie could be put back in the bottle, how are we doing more than damning those without Western wealth and privilege to be prey to the future?
Does a better way even exist?