About Smartphones

This is a mini-essay

in blog series

on cyber-digi-post-modern-science-techno-psycho-bio-socio-punk.

Drafted in October 2013
Published 9am on 4th April 2014

Keywords: smartphones, persuasive technology, behaviour change, social marketing

Worldwide, mobile broadband users (who typically use smartphones) numbered approximately 370 million in 2009, 720 million in 2011 and will increase to 1.8 billion in 2014 (Portio Research, 2011). By 2025, a majority of the projected 8 billion people in the world will carry a smartphone. However, calling this device in your pocket a 'smartphone' is slightly misleading. It could more properly be described as a digital camera, a photo book, a video recorder, a music player, a radio, a voice recorder, a GPS navigator, a hand-held games console, a digital television, an internet browser, an e-mail manager, a weather forecaster, a watch, an alarm clock, a calendar, a calculator and so much more. This ingenious device continuously records numerous variables every few seconds; from location and levels of movement to the number of calls we make, the number of letters we type when sending text messages, or the proximity to other similar devices that we pass on our way to work.

From a marketing perspective, each smartphone is the holy grail of customer profiling. Attached to us during the day, charging on our bedside tables at night, smartphones potentially hold the key to decoding the complex patterns of our everyday lives. Indeed, we already know that those tiny digital traces of continuous mobile activity can reveal our identity (De Montjoye et al., 2013) and consumer preferences (Kohne et al., 2005). We can make inferences about user contexts (Lathia et al., 2013), physical activities (Lane et al., 2011), emotions (Rachuri et al., 2010) and stress (Lu et al., 2012) using data from smartphone sensors. Moreover, we can make highly accurate predictions about the personality traits of users by analysing the linguistic content of text messages (Holtgraves, 2011) or by examining the average time users spend on phone calls or messaging (Ehrenberg et al., 2008).

In the context of these findings, it is easy to consider the dark side of mobile technology: our lives submerged in the dystopian network of continuous profiling, subliminal and personalized advertising, and direct marketing with the use of context aware media. To some extent, it becomes unavoidable as more and more people are connected to smarter and more sophisticated devices. The most important question is: can we harness this smartphone potential to improve people’s lives instead of selling them products?

The answer is: not yet, but we are a good way along the path to meeting this goal. We need to increase our endeavours and focus on collaborative research efforts and merge disciplines of behaviour change, behaviour economics, social marketing, user interface design and computer science. Privacy issues need to be clearly addressed by giving users better control of how the digital traces of their activity are distributed and managed. We also need to retain a healthy scepticism of the large data sets generated by mobile users’ activities. We should not believe that such data is pure and without bias. Even in the small field experiments that we conducted at the UWE, we found big discrepancies between various devices used for the tracking of physical activity, although in principle they all work using exactly the same technology.

Data mined from smartphone sensors could be integrated and analysed to provide valuable information to support health-related behaviour change interventions, from exercise and healthy eating to anxiety management. Efficient and intelligent tracking could help users save money by enabling them to make better shopping choices, energy savings and to recycle in a smarter way.

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