Could the surge in mobile destroy what’s best about the Internet?

Back in 2004 I heard a presentation by an eminent media analyst at a conference of broadcasters in New York. He talked about “the capacity explosion”—the wild proliferation of broadband channels into and out of homes—and then offered remarkable observations about storage capabilities: The capacity to keep movies, video, and data of all kinds at home was rising 72 percent per year: What it cost to store 57 movies then would cover more than 2,000 in five years.

That sounded like fun, but my interest was in the political implications of his analysis, which were vast: A degree of communication independence for ordinary people that would have been historically unprecedented.

With immense in-house storage capabilities and blazing upload speeds, the distinction between media consumer and producer would vanish. Each of us would possess our own hope chests of content and become autonomous centers of intelligence and initiative, drawing freely from resources that lay entirely within our control, captains of our destiny, free to convene our own networks of communicants.

Too bad this forecast was almost entirely wrong. It didn’t foresee the advent of the Cloud. Now we have apps based God-knows-where that own our family photo albums and music play lists, and induce businesses to entrust even back-office operations that were always handled in-house to invisible helpmates deriving heaven-knows what shadowy benefits from the assistance they proffer.

The upshot is that we are infinitely less, not more, independent of our informational masters than we were a decade ago.

Now, a penetrating research paper presented this month at an academic gathering in Montreal suggests that perhaps the most powerful force in what can only be called the subordination of the vast majority of Internet users—their continuing downward transformation into mere consumers with only meager access to the creative potential of the digital network—is the rampant growth of mobile technology.

The paper, titled “The Emerging Mobile Internet Underclass,” by Philip Napoli of Rutgers and Jonathan Obar of the University of Ontario, opens with a surprising observation from Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

In a 2013 TED talk, Brin said he found his smartphone “emasculating.”

The argument is that though limber and endlessly convenient, mobile technology offers dramatically inferior Internet access to that available through PCs: slower speeds, reduced functionality, far less content availability (as of 2012 only an estimated 10 percent of the Web was mobile-ready.)

Mobile-only users, research cited by the authors found, are severely constrained in their Internet searches. Users of tablets—whose habits are much like PC-users’—access 70 percent more pages than do smartphone users, who tend overwhelmingly to rely on the first few search returns when looking for information.

Depth of engagement differs sharply too: One study contrasting PC-based Internet usage with mobile usage concluded they were as different from each other as scuba-diving is from snorkeling. Another called the PC users “immersive” and the smartphone users as “extractive”—their encounters shorter in duration and seeking answers to narrow questions. People who access the Internet via tablets scan 70 percent more pages than smartphone-only users do.

Typing speeds and volumes differ too. That may account for the decline of blogs as the signature discursive form of today’s Internet use; for all the criticism bloggers took a few years, they seem positively reflective in hindsight. It’s hard to imagine maintaining a blog with a tiny smartphone keyboard. (Tweets are the new blogs: Twitter’s 140-character limit is perfectly suited to mobile.)

All in all, Napoli and Obar wrote, “Such differences ultimately cast the mobile device as more of an information retrieval device and less of an information creation and dissemination device than the PC.”

Nor is there reason to think the drawbacks are passing problems. Indeed, with huge numbers of Internet users mobile natives—who first experienced the Internet through their smartphones and have no experience with the richer and more reflective encounters that PCs enable—it’s not clear they even know what they’re missing.

Mobile-only Internet users now constitute the most dynamic component of the Web-user population. Internet subscriptions via mobile devices worldwide have exceeded those via PCs and tablets since 2010, and the number of mobile-only users is forecast to rise from 14 million in 2011 to 788 million in 2016.

The consequence, Napoli and Obar suggest, is a second iteration of the “digital divide,” which referred to the gap between those had Internet access and those who didn’t. Now, the more telling divide refers to the “mobile underclass,” with weaker skills, thinner available resources and less capacity to seek out information and create content on their own.

What’s more, they argue, these “second-class citizens” will grow to be the predominant Internet population, and the likelihood is that Internet functionality will be downgraded—“’dumbed-down’ even?”—to cater to the inherent limitations of mobile-only access.

The prospect is that what they refer to as the gains of the Web 2.0 era—lower search costs, more user-generated content, improved productivity—may be reversed.

It’s a somber prospect, and it’s a reminder that what we call technological progress—and smartphones certainly qualify—means not just embracing certain possibilities but ignoring, or suppressing, others. What’s unnerving about the critique of the “mobile underclass” is just how invisible this massively consequential transformation has been.

If the authors are right, the Internet as we’ve experienced it will be something we’ll be left to describe to our disbelieving grandchildren.

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3 Responses

  1. Smartphones are different tools, and cannot replace laptops and tablets, but they do allow people to grab info and to communicate one to one or one to many, and that is powerful. Dictation apps make it even easier. Listening to books on tape or podcasts helps disseminate education. So they still seem on balance to be liberating. All that storage in the cloud is another matter.

  2. I think we can be too hopeful about the intellectual curiosity and political engagement of the vast majority of the public. An easy shorthand is to look at the dumbing down of cable and Internet news as developers increasingly make decisions based on real-time audience counts. It would be wonderful if providers sought to make democracy-affirming information more available and palatable to more people, but I see no economic incentive for them to do so.

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