Who Are You Watching and Who’s Watching You?

On the Rising Popularity of Mobile Devices

[posted by Alice]

During the three years that I’ve been following electronic publishing trends and the effects of new media on readers and writers, nothing has surprised me more than the spectacular increase in adoption of mobile devices. Smartphones and tablet computers are soon likely to outsell both laptops and e-readers. (See “Tablets set to outsell laptops by 2014”  and “The E-Reader Revolution: Over Just as It Has Begun?” )

Such a rapid change has forced online publishers to take notice because people use mobile devices differently than laptops. (See “Study: Mobile news ‘snacking’ is up sharply, but tablets are the killer news devices” and “Mobile Mindset”) And these new habits, combined with the physical reality of smaller screens and higher resolutions, are reshaping the internet, forcing sites to become responsive to the needs of tablet and smartphone users. Remarkably, 21% of all adult cell owners now do most of their online browsing using their mobile phone. (See “Pew Internet report: Cell Internet Use 2013.“)

Personal observation bears out the statistical claims in these reports and studies. Here in the United States the people I know who have mobile devices refer to them almost constantly. Last summer I traveled to Prague for the first time since 2011, and I noticed a tremendous increase in the numbers of tourists checking email on their phones in Starbucks and taking selfies on Charles Bridge with their iPads. And as I watched tourists from all over the world turn away from the city and their companions to focus on small screens, I wanted to ask two questions: Who are you watching and who’s watching you? Here are a couple of answers:

In a September 9 article in Der Spiegel called “How the NSA Accesses Smartphone Data,” a team of writers (Marcel Rosenbach, Laura Poitras and Holger Stark) reported on leaked NSA documents, including an internal presentation called “Does your target have a smartphone?”  According to this article, “For an agency like the NSA, the data storage units [i.e., smartphones] are a goldmine, combining in a single device almost all the information that would interest an intelligence agency: social contacts, details about the user’s behavior and location, interests (through search terms, for example), photos and sometimes credit card numbers and passwords.” So the NSA set up task forces to figure out how to spy on various phone systems, which they now know how to do. And to add insult to injury for iPhone users, it turns out that the NSA sees Steve Jobs as the Big Brother who leads them zombielike to a data-sharing dystopia. (Watch “The Dark Side of the iPhone Lines.”)

In the September 12 New York Times, you can find an article called “No Child Left Untableted,” about 18 middle schools in South Carolina in which every teacher and student has received a tablet computer and will be expected to use it as a “transformative educational tool.” The upshot of this development is that kids and teachers will be looking at screens instead of at each other. Author Carlo Rotello tries to be even-handed in his presentation but ultimately says little to dissuade us from the ominous implications of this sentence: “The tablets, paid for in part by a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, were created and sold by a company called Amplify, a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and they struck me as exemplifying several dubious American habits now ascendant: the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people; the displacement of face-to-face interaction by virtual connection; the recasting of citizenship and inner life as a commodified data profile; the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems.” (Watch Louis C.K.’s Explanation of Why He Hates Smartphones Is Sad, Brilliant.)