It's not the Back to the Future we imagined
Do you remember the movie Back to the Future II and its vision of technology in 2015? Marty and Doc arrived in a world with giant shark holograms for movie adverts, flying cars, hoverboards and massive interactive screens on every surface.
The problem is, that’s not where we are going.
While the writers might have got some things right, it’s clear they went the wrong way with the prevalence of technology – they went bigger when they should have gone smaller, especially when it came to mobile phones.
Our addiction to the smartphone is getting worse with a report this week showing a 123% annual increase in the number of people who launch a mobile phone app more than 60 times a day.
Super users (who launch 16 to 60 apps a day) increased by 55% in the 12 months to March and regular users (under 16 app launches a day) up 23% with the report predicting things will only get worse with wearable mobile technology such as Samsung’s Gear.
Think you can do without your smartphone? Then take a look at this video released in August last year and now viewed more than 40 million times.
The message is clear – we are all connected, every minute of every day, and without your phone you are on the outskirts of everybody else’s new, more digital, world.
Surprisingly, this is not a new phenomenon.
Are you a nomophobe?
The term “Nomophobia” was coined in Britain back in 2008 to describe the “fear of being without a mobile phone”. Back then, a Post Office survey found that up to 52% of mobile phone users could be affected by the condition.
Things clearly haven’t changed that much as a survey by web security firm AppRiver last year found that 54% of Brits still fear being without their phone.
And really, who could blame them? Since the debut of the iPhone in 2007 and Android in 2008, smartphones have become more and more a part of our increasingly connected lives.
Web surfing, social networking, banking, dating, gaming and more can all be accessed directly from the device residing in your pocket. The mobile phone accessory supplier Mophie reported in December that 88% of travellers identify their smartphone as the most important device to take with them on holiday, and 59% of business travellers feel disorientated or lonely without their phone.
The knowledge of the world in our pockets
It’s amazing how important the device in our pocket has become, driven by advances in computing and networking.
To put this in perspective, the iPhone 5s puts more computing power in your pocket than you had on your desktop computer less than 10 years ago.
The 64GB model has more memory than the default amount put in laptops in 2005, and the solid state storage in the base model is eight times more than the iPod Nano when it launched in the same year. This gives you the ability to store and play more than 4,000 songs, look at more than 2,000 photos, or store and watch every Hollywood movie Michael J Fox has starred in back-to-back.
This is coupled with advances in networking and mobile communications. In the 33 years since mobile phones were introduced in Australia, the device has moved from a humble communication device to a digital hub, with speeds increasing from 56 kilobits per second to over 300 megabits per second.
So, if you don’t have the latest Back to the Future movie stored on your device, you can probably download it as you watch it - all while the device simultaneously checks your e-mail and deals with your calendar.
The capabilities of these devices have improved and they are doing more. Flickr reports that the iPhone 5 is the most popular camera used to upload photos, followed by the 4S, 5S and 4 Apple devices. Only one dedicated camera make the top 5 list.
Similarly, the phone is replacing the traditional GPS device with Apple announcing integration of the iPhone for GPS and music into future models from over a dozen different car manufacturers.
Smartphones are becoming the centre of our digital lives and with the increase in computing power, networking and capability, it’s not surprising. In six years, the smartphone has managed to replace the camera, GPS, MP3 player and diary. And it’s continuing to spread.
The need for a smartphone
New devices for 2014 are beginning to assume you have a smartphone, from the digital scales that send your weight directly to an app, to the new television systems that forgo the easily lost remote for your smartphone.
Forget the touchscreen-laden Internet-enabled fridge from a few years ago, with a smartphone all you need is a scanner and the yet-to-be-developed FridgeCheck app and you’ll always know what’s in the fridge for dinner.
Ten years ago, when somebody mentioned ubiquitous computing, we visualised a world with robots everywhere, screens in every device and video phones mounted on every wall.
The CEO of IBM in the 1950s, Thomas Watson, is often misquoted as saying that “there is a world market for maybe five computers”, but could anybody have seen a world where every one of us carries a computer in our pocket, a computer so important to us that, according to a survey by Time Magazine, over two-thirds of us can’t sleep without it next to our bed?
Ubiquitous computing is here, but instead of giving us computers in everything, it’s given us everything in one computer, one that can fit in your pocket and allows access to a comprehensive digital world full of friends and colleagues, and increasingly connected to the physical world through connected devices.
Forget your phone at your peril, because if you do, you will end up on the outskirts of the digital world, feeling less and less connected as time goes by.
Back to Back to the Future
So, perhaps in 10 to 20 years, when we invent our own Delorean time machine, we should go back to 1989 and speak to the writers of Back to the Future II?
Instead of a world with flying cars, Marty should arrive to a world where he wanders through a city of people, each looking down at their smartphone, engaging with their digital world, perhaps even occasionally narrowly avoiding crashing into walls, saved only by their transparent texting devices.Comment on this article
Michael Cowling does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
CQUniversity Australia provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.