Recognising that there was a growing sense of unease about just how all-consuming its own smartphone had become, Apple had in 2018 introduced a feature known as “Screen Time” to its iPhone operating system, iOS, that would help users first identify whether they had a problem with excessive phone usage, and then help them set limits on that usage, to claw back time for other activities.
In the decade between 2010 and 2020, Android and iOS had swept all before them. So-called “feature phones” from the likes of Nokia and Motorola, as well as first-generation smartphones such as the BlackBerry, the Palm, and the various phones running the Windows and Symbian operating systems, had all but disappeared from the world by 2019, leaving Android and iOS with a combined global market share in excess of 98 per cent: 76 per cent for Android, and 22 per cent for iOS, according to figures from Statista.
(The analyst outfit IDC has Android and iOS even more dominant than that, with Android on 87 per cent marketshare and iOS on 13 per cent as of October 2019. By IDC’s reckoning, every competitor to Apple and Google, including the emerging KaiOS operating system,which outsells iOS in India, is a mere rounding error.)
So it’s fair to say that, by the end of the decade of the smartphone, the problem of being too captivating, of too many people spending too much time spent looking at their screen, was an acknowledged issue for almost every phone in the world.
And the captivating nature of the smartphone didn’t only create problems for individual phone users, and for anyone trying to interact with someone whose eyes were glued to the tiny screen.
The ‘techlash’ blamed the phone for everything from traffic accidents to ethnic cleansing and the re-emergence of measles.
Between 2010 and 2020, the smartphone catapulted technologies such as social media and YouTube to such a position of influence that, by the end of the decade, the smartphone and the apps that came with it were collectively being blamed for all manner of social ills, whether they were responsible for them or not.
The “techlash”, as the anti-tech backlash became known in 2018, blamed the phone, and the apps the phone made successful, for everything from traffic accidents to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and Sri Lanka and the re-emergence of measles; from a global decline in civility, literacy and numeracy to government-backed political interference that may have swayed the course of at least one presidential election and one nation’s referendum about leaving the European Union.
As Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey said, speaking of the abuse, harassment, manipulation and misinformation that Twitter has become synonymous with, “these are all dynamics which we were not expecting 13 years ago when we were starting the company, but we do now see them, at scale”.
The smartphone changed the world, in ways that were predictable and in ways that nobody saw coming.
How on earth did we get here?
A lot of things had to go exactly right (or wrong, depending on how you now feel about your smartphone) to get the world to the point where the two big smartphone software makers felt they needed to add brakes to their devices, and encourage users to pump them for the sake of their own wellbeing.
Chief among those things is what’s known as the “network effect”, where the utility of a device that can communicate with its peers increases exponentially as the number of peers increases.
Without the network effect acting like Archimedes’ lever, the smartphone could never have moved the world the way it did.
The classic example of the network effect is the fax machine. As the story goes, the first person to buy a fax machine essentially bought an overpriced paperweight, since there was no-one to send a fax to. But by the time the millionth fax machine was sold, that first machine, together with every other fax machine sold in the meantime, was invaluable.
(Of course, by the time the billionth smartphone was sold, that first fax machine, together with every other fax machine on the planet, was quickly on its way to becoming landfill. The fax machine is just one of dozens of technologies the smartphone has gobbled up and spat out this past decade. But, as we shall see, that’s part of the problem Apple and Google are now grappling with.)
It’s an axiom of the phone industry that users only care about three things when they’re choosing a new phone: the price, the camera, and the battery life. So it’s probably no co-incidence that, in the case of smartphones, two of the big factors that pushed along adoption in the early part of the decade, allowing for the network effect to kick in and exponentially increase their appeal, were price and cameras.
Smartphones had to get a lot cheaper, and their cameras had to get dramatically better, if users were going to benefit from their ubiquity.
And they did.
The story of the last 10 years is how Android phones have come down in price, and how they’ve become ubiquitous in a way we never expected.
— Hamid Fardoost
“Everyone thinks that everything changed when Apple came out with the iPhone in 2007, but that’s not been the story of the last 10 years,” says Hamid Fardoost, a former smartphone executive for both a telco (he did eight years as head of devices at Vodafone Australia) and a phone maker (he ran marketing for Samsung Australia’s smartphone business for two years).
“The iPhone was never going to touch everyone’s life,” he says. “Apple was never going to come down in price far enough.
“The story of the last 10 years is how Android phones have so amazingly come down in price, and how they’ve become ubiquitous in a way we never expected.”
Moore’s Law, which states that the density of transistors on a chip will roughly double every two years – a corollary of which is that the price of chips of a given performance level will roughly halve in that same period – has been responsible for much of that price drop, of course, meaning that the price drop of phones was mostly predictable.
Many of the parts of a smartphone, including the main processor, the graphics processor, the memory, the storage and even the screen, benefit from Moore’s Law to at least some extent.
(Conspicuously missing from that list is the battery. It’s not made of transistors, and the lack of improvement in battery life remains the one big failure of the smartphone industry.)
Nevertheless, says Fardoost, the extent of the price drop, and the way the smartphone relentlessly replaced the feature phone at ever lower price points, took the phone industry by surprise.
“Apple and Samsung delivered the experience for the top end, for people who could afford it, but the thing that we didn’t imagine back then was that within 10 years you’d be able to buy smartphones under $79.
At the same time that smartphones were dropping in price, the cost of connecting them to the network was plummeting, too. Or, rather, the cost was staying the same, but what users got for that money was an order of magnitude more data.
There was a clear moment in 2015/2016 when the data included in plans skyrocketed.
— Joe Hanlon
If there was a single inflection point in the story of the smartphone, something that guaranteed that the wellbeing of phone users was eventually going to come into question, this was it.
Cheap data flooded onto the networks.
Joe Hanlon, the publisher of the smartphone plan comparison site WhistleOut, saw it happening.
“There was a clear moment in 2015/2016 when the data included in plans skyrocketed.
“Whereas you might have expected plans to include 2GB or 3GB of data, we were suddenly seeing 50GB or 100GB for the same price,” he says.
Rather than being encouraged to pay less for the same amount of data, users were being encouraged to pay the same but use their phone more than ever, and for data intensive apps (such as video streaming) they’d never considered before due to the high per-gigabit cost of data.
Just why this happened is something of a chicken-and-egg question, the chicken being the rise and rise of new smartphone operators in the middle of the decade; and the egg being the sudden popularity of video streaming services such as Netflix.
In 2010, WhistleOut had six smartphone service providers in its plan comparison database. By 2015, when the data explosion happened, there were four times that many, says Hanlon.
“Mobile data was the key lever the telcos used to lure customers to their services,” he says.
“There really isn’t much else to differentiate the majority of the telcos. All they can do is tweak the ratio between what you pay and how much data you get.
“This wasn’t a dynamic unique to Australia,” says Hanlon. “Mobile network operators in the US countered the flood of low-cost competitors into the market with unlimited data offers that the smaller companies couldn’t afford to replicate, and it’s a similar story in European markets with a strong reseller presence, like Germany, France and Spain.”
Those three factors – price of phones, the price of data suddenly dropping by a factor of 25, and the constant improvement in digital camera technology – may well have been enough to guarantee the oversized success of the smartphone.
The rise of the app
But something else happened, too, that cemented that success, and all but cemented the smartphone to users’ palms.
Apps got better. Way better.
That’s due, at least in part, to the work of an Israeli-born American product design specialist, Nir Eyal, whose 2013 book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products became, if not the bible of software designers trying to make addictive apps, then at least one of the books of that bible.
“The problem that we had in the tech industry was that nobody was using our technology,” says Eyal. “Technology was not user friendly. It was only something that nerds and geeks could use, and there was a real Digital Divide. There was a whole segment of the population that couldn’t figure out how to use technology, how to get on the web, how to send email.”
And then, spurred on by books such as Eyal’s, software developers started using psychological tools to make their apps not just easier to use, but harder to forget.
As Eyal explains, they went from relying on “external triggers”, such as words on a screen to encourage people to use them, to relying on a user’s “internal triggers”.
Depending on how in control you feel about your phone usage, you could call those internal triggers “habits”, or you could call them “addictions”.
“As we move from desktops with big screens, to laptops that have smaller screens, to mobile devices that have even smaller screens, to wearable devices like the Apple Watch that have an even a smaller screen, the user interface shrinks and eventually disappears,” says Eyal.
“What I could see back in 2012 was that, in order to build a consumer product that matters, you have to build a consumer habit, because very quickly there wouldn’t be the real estate, the space on a screen in a consumer’s day-to-day life, to tell them what to do.
“It quickly became very important to form an association with an internal trigger so that the product would be used out of habit.”
According to some studies, the average smartphone user now unlocks his or her phone 150 times a day, mostly out of habit. “Nomophobia”, the fear of not being able to access one’s smartphone, was Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year in 2018.
And if you think your phone habits are verging on addictive, consider this: the generation of technology that’s coming after the smartphone and the smart watch – the so-called “ubiquitous computers” that we are getting a very rudimentary glimpse of through devices such as Amazon Alexa smart speakers – will have no screen real estate whatsoever to remind you to use them. They’ll be entirely habit-based.
However, there is a school of thought, which Nir Eyal happens to agree with, that says ubiquitous computing will ease the burden that many people now feel from technology.
Functions that are now on a smartphone, but which might be performed just as well or perhaps even better with some screen-free device, will eventually shift off the phone and onto those devices. Rather than digging out their phone to turn on their smart-lights, users will simply walk into a room to have the lights activate. Rather than looking at the weather on their screen, they’ll just ask out loud, and the nearest voice-activated device will respond.
“It’s almost like Darwin’s tree of finches, where every finch occupies a specific niche. I think we’ll carry around phones for what phones can do really well, and we’ll have our Amazon Alexas for what they do really well, and we’ll have a (digital) ring for what they do really well.”
Or, to put that another way, the smartphone might have fattened out into the mother of all Swiss Army knifes, but ubiquitous computing will slim it back to a regular pocket knife before too long (hopefully before it kills you).
This year, Eyal published another book, a sort of follow-up to his groundbreaking book on hooking users.
The new book is called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. It’s about how to unhook yourself from your phone.
The answer to too much tech: more tech
Hamid Fardoost, the former Vodafone and Samsung executive, has changed his mind about smartphones.
Where once he bought them by the thousands and sold them by the millions, lately he’s taken to preaching the benefits of not having a phone at all.
Or, at least, not having a phone on you at all.
With the advent of eSIM-enabled smart watches like the Apple Watch and the Samsung Galaxy Watch – watches that for roughly $5 a month can be connected to the same smartphone account as a smartphone, so they can make a receive calls on the same phone number – Fardoost has taken to leaving his phone at home when he heads out, relying instead on his watch.
“You go to the playground on the weekend, and all these parents who know better are sitting there, looking at their phones” rather than interacting with their kids or with each other, Fardoost told AFR Weekend.
“Do they not love their kids? Of course they love their kids. But they’re in the habit of looking at their phones, and the problem is, it’s a habit that’s extremely difficult to break.”
But smart watches, he says, break the habit of smartphones because they’re nowhere near as good as smartphones. The screen is so tiny, and the keyboard so much tinier still, that you tend to use them for only the necessities.
You might fire off a quick reply to a WhatsApp message from your watch, but once you’ve done that, there’s no temptation to linger, he says. You just get back to doing what you should be doing, like spending quality time with your friends and family.
“There’s nothing else you can do,” says Fardoost. “You can’t go wandering around from app to app, like you can on a phone.
“I tell my friends, I’m going to the future.”
Does it hurt?
Just how much harm the smartphone habit does is a matter of some debate.
Educators trying to understand why there’s been a global decline in literacy and numeracy amongst school children this decade – a decline that was consistent regardless of education type and strategy – concluded this year that the only explanation could be the phone.
The uptake of the phone was the only consistent factor in all the countries where the literacy and numeracy tests were being conducted, the educators found.
Kids were using phones at night when they should be sleeping, and social media apps on the phones were creating heightened anxiety. Neither of those things were conducive to learning.
“I would say the biggest single factor explaining worsening academic learning is related to the smartphone,” Pasi Sahlberg, professor of educational policy at the Gonski Institute for Education, told AFR Weekend in March.
But elsewhere, the evidence is more mixed.
Dr Tim Sharp, a clinical consulting psychologist who’s also an adjunct professor in positive psychology at the University of Technology Sydney, says although the smartphone has been blamed for all manner of ills, longitudinal scientific studies about the wellbeing effects of smartphones are now starting to produce results, and the findings have been surprising.
“The research now suggests [the phone] hasn’t had a negative impact on mental health,” he says.
“The basic consensus now is it’s neither been good nor bad. Or it’s been both. We know when it comes to teenagers, that it hasn’t had nearly as much of a negative impact as most people think.”
Social media can create anxiety, to be sure, but it also can create connectedness, a feeling of belonging to a community that’s enormously beneficial to mental wellbeing, he says.
Indeed, Sharp ranks connectedness as one of the greatest contributors to mental health, right up there with a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of being loved, and physical health. And, if the network effect means anything when it comes to the smartphone, it means that humans are exponentially more connected to each other than ever before.
“Now that doesn’t mean the phone can’t be bad for certain individuals,” he continues.
“It doesn’t mean that for certain individuals, it might not be a healthy habit or that there might not be problems attached to being addicted to being online. But as general rule across the population, it’s been both good and bad, or neither good nor bad.”
But Sharp does agree with those educators about one thing: phones have been costing us sleep, and in the constellation of things that matter most to our mental wellbeing, sleep is one of the brightest stars.
“Most people underestimate the importance of sleep,” he says. “And we certainly know that use of screens late in the evening can affect our sleep. And affecting our sleep can have very negative effects on our health and wellbeing more generally.”
In his new book about unhooking yourself from your phone, Nir Eyal makes a similar argument: phones aren’t inherently good or bad, it’s just a question of whether we’re able to make good use of them without falling into traps.
“It’s not black and white,” he says. “It’s not good guys versus bad guys. It’s how you use it, how much you are using it, and what you would be doing instead of using it.
“Two-thirds of people with a smartphone never change their notification settings. Can we really say the technology is hijacking our brains when we haven’t even taken the time to turn off the notifications?
“We don’t need all the notifications on all of the time,” he says. “And guess what? Zuckerberg can’t turn them back on. There’s nothing Google can do to turn notifications back on once you’ve decided to turn them off.
Eyal calls it “hacking back”.
“In computer parlance, hacking means to gain unauthorised access. If these companies are gaining unauthorised access to our time and our attention, that’s hacking our attention.
“But there’s no reason we can’t hack back.”
That people are unable to control themselves around phones “is not supported by scientific evidence, and in fact I think it is actually harmful to perpetuate that notion because it makes people less likely to do something about the problem. They don’t even try. They give up. It’s called learnt helplessness.”
As it happens, he says, people have no trouble learning how to control themselves around phones.
“When I used to teach at Stanford, I remember the first few years I taught there half of my class would be on their phone in the middle of class and it was just what people did.
“Today when I teach I almost never see that because the message has spread throughout the student body; they’ve learnt that this is not going to be aiding them, it’s not good for you to constantly be distracted when you’re in the middle of class.”
We clearly can moderate our use. We clearly can stop. The vast majority of us are not addicted. If anything, we are just distracted.
— Nir Eyal
Social norms are already changing. Mores are developing that help guide us when to use our phone, and when not to. Apple and Google are adding tools such as Screen Time and Post Box to their phones to help us stay connected when we need to, and disconnect when we need to. People are learning to use those tools.
“People aren’t stupid,” says Eyal. “We’re not puppets on a string.
“We can’t be so easily manipulated, and I know because I am a behavioral designer and I can tell you that while these techniques for getting people hooked on their phone are good, they’re not that good.
“We clearly can moderate our use. We clearly can stop. The vast majority of us are not addicted. If anything, we are just distracted.”