Are smartphones making us smarter or more stupid?

Underwhelmed seems to be the most appropriate adjective for describing the response to the usually much-hyped Mobile World Congress which ended last week.

As a dedicated sceptic of all things joining the words smart and phone I cannot pretend to be experiencing much else besides schadenfreude. The pleasure intensified on learning that one of the stars of this lacklustre show was the Nokia 8110 Matrix phone, which is really little more than a revival of the old banana phones much derided by those who are infinitely more technology-savvy than myself.

Those on higher pay grades tell me that a budget phone offering a relatively small range of functions and little in the way of whizz bang is nothing to get excited about but I beg to differ and, yet again, wonder whether my lonely resistance to smartphones and all their works is in the process of being vindicated.

The Nokia 8110 remains a bit sophisticated for my humble telecommunications needs but I fully understand why many people at this event got the point of a cheap but useful device. It apparently now embraces something called 4G, which almost by definition is supposed to be better than 3G and other than that it seems to work pretty well handling phone calls (unlike the latest Apple iPhone), using apps (whatever they are) and getting online (I know what this is, in case you wondered).

But all this begs some bigger questions for the telecoms industry which, like all industries with a cutting edge self-image, seems to believe that greater sophistication and complexity is a good thing and indeed the next big thing.

However, the worm is turning and, thank goodness, people are beginning to ask whether they really need a more sophisticated smartphone and are looking more carefully at the consequences of these devices.

Is the ready accessibility of information on demand through a smartphone making people smarter or more stupid?

When you see someone glued to a smartphone screen wandering into the middle of a busy road, the inherent dangers are unmistakable. And when you go to a restaurant and look at a large table filled with people glued to their smartphones and making no attempt to relate to those around them, the social consequences of this phenomenon are equally evident.

But what about in the workplace, where smartphones are supposed to be essential? Are they aiding productivity or hindering it? Moreover, is the ready accessibility of information on demand through a smartphone making people smarter or more stupid?

When smartphone frenzy was at its most intense, questions like these didn’t get much airtime because it was assumed that these so-called smart devices were all about progress, and progress is supposed to be a very good thing, is it not?

Evidently not, because it now appears that even companies considered to be in the hi-tech world are asking their staff to take a break from their phones – indeed they are being ordered to put them away. A case in point is an American outfit called Hello Alfred, which provides concierge services via one of those apps. It is now having some success with weekly ‘tech-light’ days when employees are confined to minimal use of their devices allowing them to think a bit more and to learn not to be constantly distracted by the ever pressing demands of whatever has popped up on their phones.

The London and New York-based Virgin Group, an investment company, has simply ordered all phones to be switched off for an hour every Wednesday to encourage employees to properly share ideas rather than spew out endless online chatter which indiscriminately mixes the useful with the useless.

When you see someone glued to a smartphone screen wandering into the middle of a busy road, the inherent dangers are unmistakable

Then there’s the question of what people use their phones for. High moral purpose and the search for work-related information could probably be ruled out as prime motivators for the majority of people.

If you look at figures for dating apps, they give a pretty good idea of how users are spending time with their phones. Online shopping is also a rather busy place and then there’s pornography, but even outside the murkier realms there is, perhaps surprisingly, an amazing appetite for politics on social media. US-based BetterWorks Systems last year interviewed 500 full-time American employees and found that 87 per cent of them were reading political posts on their phones during the workday. Many then get to talk about this to their colleagues; this can often be divisive and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a third of them admitted that all this was making them more unproductive.

It is hardly rocket science to work out that constant distraction is not productive. But it is more complicated to work out a real cost/benefit equation for whether mobile telephony is all it’s cracked up to be.

There is a self-denying solution here but, dear reader, I doubt whether you would like it.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster

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