Not too long ago, encyclopedias and physical copies of dictionaries were still the dominant source of information, instead of Google or dictionary.com. It was not too far back in time that instant communications were limited to fax machines and telegraphs. The invention of the internet is a relatively new breakthrough in human history, only being made available to public in 1993.
We become so dependent upon computers and phone connections that when Facebook suffered a 40-minute outage, residents in the Bay Area, in the US, considered it an emergency and requested assistance from 911. Several compared the shutdown to an apocalypse.
This is usually where demonization of smart phones begins – the cliched arguments of lack of face-to-face communication, the teenage addiction and associated health risks. Many adopted a sarcastic approach in response to the initial hysteria regarding the Facebook shutdown.
Granted, it is definitely beneficial to unplug every once in a while. But after living without a phone or any online connection for two months in a camp in upstate New York, I see the greater value of having a smart phone. Instead of feeling ‘reenergized’ or ‘refreshed’ after the two months, I felt isolated and secluded, completely disconnected from world affairs. Even though I was staying in New York I did not know about the Supreme Court ruling in favour of gay marriage. I did not know about the riots in Egypt or breaking news in Hong Kong.
I realised that smartphones, contrary to common characterisations of “barriers of real-life contact”, dominate our lives for a reason. With an internet connection, ordinary people like me own a powerful access to knowledge that surpasses the think tanks of United States presidents from twenty years ago. I own a voice on Twitter or YouTube, a voice that traditionally belonged to the rich and powerful in the past, a voice, in the words of Sheryl Sandberg, that could “reach more people than I could talk to in a day”.
The hyper-connectivity that allowed interactions to transcend borders, that lifted millions out of dire poverty and established civilisation in remote rural villages in Africa is the same force that enabled privileged folks like me to easily learn about violence in Mexico and brutal punishments in Saudi Arabia.
Smartphones are not just machines to play Candy Crush or Temple Run. They are means to gain exposure to experiences beyond our very own, and tools to speak to a larger audience.
They are forces that could generate change and disrupt hierarchies, as in the case of the Arab Spring and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. They are forces that could save one from dwelling in ignorance and complacency.
Bianca Chan won the Best Op-Ed award at the 2014 Young Post Junior Reporter Awards