Phones are only as smart as the people who use them

Mobile technology has vast potential, but playing inane games won't unleash it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 2:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 2:55am

If you want to know how smartphones have made people less and less smart, just look around when you travel on the MTR. You will see passengers' faces set in fierce concentration as they work on an urgent task: swiping at their phones and tablets to place colourful candy icons in rows.

They are playing Candy Crush Saga, an insanely mindless game that has been downloaded more than half a billion times by smartphone users all over the world. It can be played for free, but many people find the game so much fun and the urge to master it so irresistible that they are willing to pay for extra lives and various performance-boosting tools. Thanks to these people, the game's maker, an Irish company that goes by the name of King Digital Entertainment, made close to two US$2 billion in sales last year, US$567 million of which was pure profit. The company is now valued at US$5 billion.

The dumbing down of culture and intellect is, of course, nothing new; it accelerated after the rise of commercial television and tabloid journalism. Yet there is no denying that mobile technology has set a new standard for preventing people from exercising their minds and coaxing them into addictive, self-indulgent and dependent behaviour.

There was a time when the personal computer was celebrated as the ultimate tool of emancipation that would undermine the clout of large corporations and make it easy for citizens to educate themselves, share information and monitor their government.

Combining the features of a mobile phone with those of a touch-screen computer and other popular consumer devices, the smartphone promised to do even more for the self-reliance and empowerment of the consumer. If the personal computer could be, as Steve Jobs said, "a bicycle for our minds", the smartphone should be a portable gym for our minds.

For many people, alas, it turns out to be quite the opposite. There is a reason why the adoption of smartphones has become such a global phenomenon. In a so-called attention economy, whichever products get our attention win - and no other product grabs our attention the way the smartphone does. The great love affair of our age is about how we just can't take our eyes off our smartphones. What smartphones do with our attention, therefore, deserves close examination - our collective intelligence is at stake.

Instead of exercising them, smartphones numb our minds and turn them towards the absolutely trivial, vulgar and, yes, mindless. Just think about how many episodes of Korean television dramas you have watched and mobile games you've played since you bought your smartphone.

Smartphones have managed to get more technology into more people's hands than any other single product in history. Yet its potential to empower remains largely untapped.

It is a tragedy of missed opportunity and unfulfilled promise. However, mobile technology and smartphones are not the enemy of personal freedom and collective intelligence; our failure to use them smartly is.

Perry Lam is a local cultural critic