When was the last time you went about your entire day without engaging with your mobile device? I remember being in my teens when I got my first mobile phone, a Nokia 8250. Since then, I’ve never gone a day without using a mobile phone.
When I made a solo 55-hour round trip to Shunen, Yamaguchi, Japan in November 2019 to see my favourite J-Rock band perform live, it got me thinking about the level of engagement we have with our mobile devices and how dependent we have become on them. Within the first 18 hours of my trip, I engaged with at least 15 different apps to accomplish various tasks. From basic needs such as purchasing food and wayfinding, to emotional needs such as communicating with family and friends, to catching up on the band’s tour news through social media of course!
After my trip, I reflected on the apps I used and on the type of need each app fulfilled. I mapped where I thought each app fit on Maslow’s hierarchy of helping me achieve my needs. From a traveller’s perspective, basic needs (physiological and safety) meant food, accommodation, transportation and travel insurance. After basic needs are met, one moves on to fulfill psychological needs which encompass love,belonging, and esteem. As a solo traveller, my phone was also my communication lifeline. In an age where your social media reputation is everything, I even live tweeted my trip! At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. This is where aspirations, self-betterment, and pursuing goals come into play. People realise their full potential in different ways; as for myself, I strive to create art and hone my design and consulting skills. Reading is one of the primary ways I go about doing so and I need music to set the right mood.
My personal reflection made me realise how mobile phones evolved from being a supplementary device to something that we have become dependent on. I remember my Nokia only allowed me to make calls, send text messages, and play Snake. It was a communication device. Nowadays, a smartphone is so powerful there is hardly anything you cannot accomplish on it or access with it. It is your communicator, camera, wallet, music player, library, work station, entertainment centre, national identification card...
...could I live without it?
Granted, digitization long preceded the smartphone. Digital point-and-shoot cameras were replacing film cameras. MP3 players succeeded the Walkman that ousted the cassette player. The Palm Pilot enabled people to work on-the-go. eBook readers were taking flight. I used to own most of these devices at some point, and carried multiple devices around. That was until Apple released the iPhone in 2007 and everything changed.
What the smartphone did was enable mobility and instant gratification. It revolutionised the way in which people lived and worked. All those device-centric tasks now live as apps or services on a smartphone. Apps are constantly being churned out, touting to make people’s lives easier, simpler, and more enjoyable. They are also becoming smarter, designed to take the cognitive load off of people.
Take navigation apps for example. I have a terrible sense of direction and reading a paper map is effortful. I have such a poor grasp on this essential survival skill I’d likely perish trying to find my way out of a jungle. Enter navigation apps. Lost in a foreign country with a language barrier when asking for directions? No problem! The entire world is mapped, complete with turn-by-turn navigation at your fingertips. You no longer need to learn how to read maps in order to navigate around a city or struggle with asking for directions from a stranger who might not speak a common language. In fact, a good number of you might use it to get around an unfamiliar part of the city or area you live in. But have we come reliant on it? Have you ever sat in the back of a car watching your driver get lost because the GPS system is constantly rerouting?
Fulfilling our human needs has seemingly become synonymous with our engagement with one singular device. But is it all bad?
There’s a little more to my trip that wouldn’t have been possible if not for technology. A few weeks before my trip, I made an acquaintance on social media. She was a Japanese fan looking to make more friends and she left me a comment one day. I was excited at the prospect of meeting someone I knew at the concert; I usually go alone. With the help of translation tools and dictionaries, I was able to communicate with my foundational Japanese. Even though our in-person meeting was brief and awkward as neither of us could speak each other’s language properly, it was a pretty neat experience!
As I unpacked my thoughts on my journey home, it became clear that mobile phones are integral to our daily lives. It’s up to us to decide how dependent you would allow yourselves to be on this tiny device.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.