It’s a busy Friday night in October 2000. A time before budget airlines, mobile apps, smartphones and the Gautrain. I’m rushing to Johannesburg International Airport (JIA) for a flight to Cape Town. With no GPS or real-time traffic information to rely on, and a chunky Nokia 5520 as my only travel companion, I’m cutting it fine – and I still have to check in.
After 15 minutes of dodging construction hazards in my innocuous white Ford Escort, I finally find an open parking bay and race to the counter with minutes to spare. Upon returning to Johannesburg two days later, I realised I had no idea where I had parked my car and was forced to commit the next hour to finding it.
When travelling again a month later, I add a calendar entry on my Nokia reminding future me of the floor and pillar closest to my car. Suddenly my mobile companion was adding value beyond merely being a phone. Years later, having upgraded to a Sony Ericsson with a full colour camera, I simply snapped a photo of the parking bay number stencilled on the ground behind my car – progress!
Fast forward to today when technology has continued to reduce the pain points associated with travelling. Thanks to the Gautrain and services like Über, I no longer have to drive to the airport, but if I do, GPS and real-time traffic information will work out the fastest route, and will even tell me when to leave the house without me ever adding a calendar invite. Best of all, I can drop a GPS pin at my parking location so I never lose my car again.
We’ve come a long way. My mobile companion went from just being a phone, to also being a calendar, camera and photo journal, and then a navigation device, and now a fully integrated mobile assistant. It’s gone from being able to use a few simple functions to do what I tell it to do, to proactively anticipating my needs and using a vast range of information to find better ways for me to achieve my goals.
I see two diverging paths, separated by how comfortable we are giving the external world access to who we are and what we do, and the potential benefit is directly proportional to that level of access.
The first path, the high-tech road, is an increasingly digitised, predictive and integrated one. Down this path, my mobile companion will be more knowledgeable about the world than I am – it may even know more about me than I do. Through the wonder of the connected world and data analytics, it is going to understand my goals and needs, and help make me a better version of myself. This could mean on-selling / cross-selling promotions based on what I’ve just done, or even what I’m thinking of doing, collaborating with as many as 28 billion other devices in the world by 2020, including my fridge, car and online retailers, to ensure that I never run out of milk or miss a car service.
There are a few risks associated with this path: the physical ‘text neck’, which is what two to four hours a day of hunching over a phone will do to you, and the mental risk of abdicating accountability to the device. As we become more reliant on our devices, we’ll begin regressing as our brains become lazier. A recent study shows more than 50% of Europeans can’t recall their children’s phone numbers without the help of their mobile phones. Ironically, many of us have resorted to using those same mobile devices to do brain training, using apps that probably don’t work.
There is also a risk to our relationships, with 61% of people admitting they regularly sleep with their smartphone turned on under their pillow or next to their bed, with more than 50% feeling uncomfortable when they don’t have access to their phones. The fact that there’s an app designed to switch off notifications to allow two adults to engage with one another without being disturbed is disturbing in itself!
The second path, the low-trust road, is one where we rely more on ourselves to be successful, without assistance from the digital world. It’s a path that values privacy over prediction and control over coercion. While it’s certainly more old-fashioned, it’s one where people may manage to be engaged for more than six minutes at a time, or spend more time sleeping than online each day. That said, it’s only a matter of time before the march of progress makes it impossible to live off the digital grid and the laggards on the low-trust road will have to embrace the digital world or become social hermits.
I have high hopes for a world where the mobile device goes from being a second brain to being a second conscience, where your mobile device is the angel on your shoulder, urging you to do what’s best. Helping you to save instead of incurring more debt, or obey traffic laws instead of taking reckless short-cuts. If this can be realised, our mobile devices can help to make us better people, in a better world.